Combustible Celluloid
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With: Lana Turner, John Gavin, Sandra Dee, Susan Kohner, Robert Alda, Dan O'Herlihy, Juanita Moore, Karin Dicker, Terry Burnham
Written by: Eleanore Griffin, Allan Scott, based on a novel by Fannie Hurst
Directed by: Douglas Sirk
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 125
Date: 04/30/1959

Imitation of Life (1959)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Skin Deep

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Douglas Sirk's best-known movie was a huge hit in its day, but was probably not considered the masterpiece it is today. On the surface it's a very effective weepie, telling the story of two single mothers and their troubled, troublesome daughters. Lana Turner plays Lora Meredith, an actress with big dreams of Broadway stardom. She claims to have morals, but she also lies to get work. One day at the beach, she loses her daughter Susie. An unemployed black maid, Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), finds her. Annie has a light-skinned daughter, Sarah Jane, and Lora assumes that Annie is merely her nanny, rather than her mother. Annie offers her services for next to nothing, and Lora eventually agrees.

Years pass, Lora's star rises, and she and Annie become friends. (Although this is definitely one-sided. When Annie reveals some personal information about herself, Lora remarks that she didn't know about it. "You never asked," replies Annie.) Teen Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) finds she can easily pass as white, though her efforts are constantly thwarted by her well-meaning mom. Sarah Jane becomes more and more of a juvenile delinquent, attracted to seedy clubs and no-good men. Meanwhile, teen Susie (Sandra Dee), falls in love with one of her mother's discarded men, Steve (John Gavin), a humble artist who never quite fit into Lora's plans.

It's extraordinary how effective the story is. Audiences get wound up in the characters and their relationships and break out the hankies when terrible things happen. But Sirk's subtle directorial style adds so much more. Characters are very often trapped or constrained by their environments; they don't have many options, and the most obvious choices are frequently ignored. There are plenty of reflections, too, which is a terrific symbol for the theme of skin. Sarah Jane's is the most incendiary story, a heartbreaking indictment of race in the United States, but Susie is in a similar conundrum, trying to pass for older than she really is so that Steve will love her back. Annie is the only character who understands and accepts her place, and she comes across as morally and emotionally superior to the others.

Amazingly, Ms. Moore received one of the movie's two Oscar nominations, at the time it was one of maybe a half-dozen in history for an African-American actor. And Ms. Kohner received the other, for her bold, yet sympathetic portrayal of the light-skinned daughter. She beautifully embodies that rotten conundrum; should she take the easy path, which is laid out for her, or should she be herself and remain true to her heritage and roots? Sirk's version is a remake of John Stahl's earlier, 1934, film version, but they are strikingly different. This one is a landmark of Hollywood cinema, but also still incredibly powerful.

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