Douglas Sirk, who directed films such as Magnificent Obsession (1954) and All That Heaven Allows (1954), is a master of a specific style of mid-century drama featuring strong female leads, lush Technicolor, and picturesque cinematography. Dismissed by some critics at the time as weepy “women’s pictures”, Sirk’s movies are now respected; not only for their level of craftsmanship, but for subtly subverting the bourgeois society they appear to romanticize. His world may look as aspirational as a Sears catalogue, but it’s a gilded cage world that quietly entraps and smothers its characters.
Imitation of Life (1959), which screens on April 28th at the Paradise Theatre, was his last Hollywood feature and is characteristic of his style. It also displays the limitations of his largely surface-level social critique.
Lana Turner stars as Lora Meredith, a single mother who dreams of becoming a serious stage actor. When we meet her she’s running around a crowded Coney Island beach looking for her daughter Susie. She meets aspiring photographer Steve Archer (played by the impossibly hunky John Gavin), who snaps her photo. More helpfully, Lora then connects with Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), a Black woman who found the lost Susie and has been looking after her.
With her is Sarah Jane, a girl around Susie’s age. Lora assumes Annie is the child’s nanny. Annie gently corrects Lora - Sarah Jane is her child.
“It surprises most people,” she explains. “Sarah Jane favours her father. He was practically white.” Out of gratitude along with a sense of kinship with a fellow single mother, Lora invites Annie and Sarah Jane back to her apartment which turns out to be a fateful decision.
Needing work herself, Annie offers to take care of both girls and help Lora around the house. Although she could use the support so she can focus on her career, Lora is embarrassed at first. She doesn’t want Annie presenting herself as a housekeeper to the milkman, lest people start thinking she’s wealthy or pretending to be something she’s not. This doesn’t last long. Finding the need to pose as a successful Hollywood actor to impress an influential talent agent, she telephones Annie and casts her as her maid.
Annie takes it in stride, she displays an implacable calm throughout the entire movie, at least when it comes to Lora’s White Lady behaviour, but her daughter Sarah Jane finds the situation more challenging. At her young age, she already understands the complex nuances of race in America and what it means: she can pass as white, with all its associated privileges, while her mother cannot.
Indeed, placed in a new school, Sarah Jane attempts to do this very thing, until Annie drops by her classroom one day and ruins the charade. Recognizing the responsibility falls to her to make sense of this unfair world for her daughter, Annie asks Lora, “How do you tell a child that she was born to be hurt?”
I must call out here that Sarah Jane is first played by Karin Dicker, a white child actor, and later by Susan Kohner (of Mexican, Irish and Jewish ancestry) thus in keeping with the Hollywood tradition of not casting Black actors even in movies specifically about racism.
Flash forward a decade. Having declined a marriage proposal from the hunky Steve as it came with the expectation she’d give up her career, Lora is now a successful stage actor who has traded in her cold water flat for a palatial country bungalow which she has decorated with (I kid you not) clown paintings. Annie still takes care of her, the household, and the two girls. Kohner plays the now-teenage Sarah Jane, while Susie is played by Sandra Dee (of the popular song in Grease).
Despite the passing years, none of the dynamics between the characters have changed. Lora largely sees Annie, Sarah Jane, and even her own daughter as accessories to her life. Until Annie happens to mention the Baptist church she belongs to along with various clubs of which she’s a member, Lora doesn’t even realize Annie has outside friends.
“I didn’t know,” she says, flabbergasted.
“Miss Lora,” Annie replies, with a whiff of defiance. “You never asked.”
Meanwhile, Sarah Jane finds her position increasingly untenable. As a pretty young woman who passes as white, she wants to date white boys and doesn’t want to be limited by the restrictions that stifled her mother’s life. When Susie catches her sneaking back into the house after a date, she confides in her:
“I wanna have a chance in life. I don't wanna have to come through back doors, feel lower than other people, or apologize for my mother's colour… She can't help her colour, but I can. And I will.”
The final straw comes when Lora assumes she’s dating the son of the neighbour’s chauffeur just because he’s Black. It’s one microaggression too far for Sarah Jane and she gets back at her by interrupting an important meeting with a famous Italian director who’s considering Lora for a part in his next picture. (“The best part since Scarlet O’Hara,” Lora called it earlier).
Sarah Jane enters the living room balancing a plate of hors d'oeuvres on her head while putting on a stereotypical Southern dialect in the manner of the enslaved Black characters in Gone with the Wind. It's the most electric scene in the whole picture. Lora is furious and asks what she or Susie ever did to make Sarah Jane feel different. She not only fails to see all the ways, subtle and not so subtle, that she enforced a racial hierarchy in her own home, but also fails to appreciate the crushing magnitude of racism in the outside world.
Significantly, neither Lora or Annie act as though anything can be done. All they can muster as an excuse to Sarah Jane is “be patient.” This weak tea response is especially offensive given that when Imitation of Life came out the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, and Black people were leading the charge to tear down Jim Crow. These winds of change appear nowhere in Imitation of Life, in which the Black butlers and maids are portrayed as content with the way things are.
Evidence suggests Sirk and the film’s producers thought they were making an anti-racist film, for example, by centring the Black characters in the second half. Lora and Susie have a couple of scenes fighting over the attention of Steve, but they pale in comparison to the energy of Sarah Jane's plot.
Also interesting were the significant changes they made to the source material. In the original novel by Fannie Hurst, along with the first filmed version which came out in 1934, the Lora character owes her wealth, not to acting, but instead to getting rich from a business built from her maid’s family’s waffle recipe. Offering to give her 20 per cent of the profits (how generous!) the maid declines as she receives enough fulfillment serving the family. Gross.
Returning to 1959, there’s the final problem of Sarah Jane’s positioning. Although she’s given dialogue explaining her conflicted feelings, Kohner’s performance is largely one-note and unsympathetic. Based on the way the movie frames her, a white audience member could easily come away thinking that the problem was with Sarah Jane’s own refusal to “stay in her place”, not the racist world at large.
ow much more ground-breaking this movie could have been if Lora had seen that any system that denied Sarah Jane the benefits given to her own daughter was built on lies, that activism doesn’t begin and end with being nice enough to your housekeeper, and that rather than encouraging “patience” she could use her considerable wealth and privilege to make the world a more just place.
That would have resulted in a truly subversive movie, rather than an imitation of one.