Years and years ago I worked in Winnipeg’s Osbourne Village at Blockbuster Video; and them were some great times. One of the highlights for me, as a film buff, was the chance to watch all kinds of films – capitalizing off our privilege of receiving 10 free movie rentals a week.
I watched all sorts of films, good and bad – but mostly I loved the collection of classic films, including 1959′s Imitation of Life, starring Lana Turner, Sandra Dee, John Gavin and a list of other greats.
Today is a lazy Saturday and after finding it on Netflix I decided to watch it again after so many years – and I really must say I love it even still.
Essentially the film is centred on widow Lora Meridith (Lana Turner), who dreams of being a famous Broadway actress. Lora has a young daughter named Susie. The film begins with a frantic Lora losing track of Susie on a crowded beach, eventually finding Susie is safe and being looked after by Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore – who plays the part brilliantly), a black, single mother with a daughter (Sarah Jane). Unlike her mother, Sarah Jane is a very fair-skinned African American and can pass for white – which her character seems to strive for enormously, even at a young age. Lora eventually takes Annie and her daughter in, at first temporarily – with Annie persuading her to let her say and take care of the family while Lora pursues her own acting career.
The film follows this groups struggles along the way, showing Lora, a very determined lady with dreams to fulfill , eventually succeed in becoming as a star of stage comedies. Susie, her adorable blonde, blue-eyed little girl struggles to adjust to life without a present mother, tho she takes great solace in her caregiver Annie – who’s work and devotion to the family and her own daughter – provides the heart of the film. Annie is not without conflict however, as her devotion goes unnoticed by her ever-troubled daughter Sarah Jane – a little girl who has difficulty in accepting her African-American heritage. And with reason – for in those times racism was rampant and Sarah Jane seemed all too aware of this even as a little girl. With that – her character strives to accept herself, going to great lengths to hide her birthright, as a matter of self preservation.
The later half of the film fast-forwards to eleven years after their initial coming-together: Lora is a highly regarded star on Broadway, Susie and Sarah Jane are both young women who find themselves in different situations, and Annie is ever loyal to all of them.
While I enjoyed Sandra Dee‘s role of Susie – a pretty and privileged blonde teen who develops an unrequited crush on her mothers boyfriend – its Susan Kohner, who plays the troubled Sarah Jane who really steals scenes. Sure, you can’t help but sympathize with Susie, who has a non-present mom and is faced with all sorts of questions about the birds and the bees that she longs for her mother to answer. Her resentment for her mom’s priority in fulfilling her dreams instead of acting like a mother, stews and grows. But Sarah Jane, with dark hair and features – and an intensity in her eyes that implies much more is happening under the surface – well, she continues to toil with her existence as she passes for a white girl, eventually getting beaten up by a white boy she dates who discovers she is black, and running away from home in effort to shun her mother. The scenes are captivating, with her character so determined to shed her African-American status that she rejects her mother in the most tragic ways – all of which begin to take a physical and mental toll on poor Annie.
Its within these mother-daughter scenes I found myself most affected – and these fine actresses did so well in bringing complexities to each of their roles. You can’t hate Sarah Jane for her ignorance – for Annie says it best when she laments to Lora; “How do you explain to your child – you were born to be hurt?” And thus is the centre of the film for me – a mother’s love for, and desire to provide and protect her child.
I won’t spoil the films end – just in case any of you are interested in seeing it – but I do highly recommend it for those who enjoy looking back on classic Hollywood cinema.
Below is a photo gallery of images I snapped of Imitation of Life. Enjoy!