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Film / Imitation of Life (1959)

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Mother, in reflection, and daughter in foreground

Sarah Jane: Was Jesus white or black?
Lora: Well... it doesn't matter. He's the way you imagine him.
Sarah Jane: He was like me... white.

Imitation of Life is a 1959 American melodrama directed by Douglas Sirk, starring Lana Turner, Juanita Moore, John Gavin, Susan Kohner, Dan O’Herlihy, Robert Alda, and Sandra Dee.

The story opens in New York in the late 1940s. Lora Meredith (Turner) is a widow struggling to make it as an actress as well as take care of her little daughter Susie. While on an outing to Coney Island, she meets Annie Johnson (Moore) and her daughter Sarah Jane. Annie is black, but Sarah Jane's father was white, and she looks white as well. During the same outing to the beach Lora also meets Steve (Gavin), a handsome photographer who snaps her picture.

Annie and Sarah Jane are apparently freshly homeless for some reason, and in spite of being herself broke, Lora invites them to stay in her own little apartment. Lora gets a break or two and finally makes it big as an actress on the stage, but she and Steve break up, as he believes she spends too much of her time on her career. Annie settles into her life as Lora's maid and confidante, while Lora goes from success to success in show business but finds happiness elusive.

Sarah Jane, for her part, chafes at the racism of 1959 America, and how being black – even if she doesn't look black at all – subjects her to prejudice and reduced opportunity. She also grows a major rebellious streak as the years pass and she grows from a child to a young woman. Eventually Sarah Jane decides to pass as a white person—which requires forsaking her loving and selfless mother.

This was the second screen adaptation of the 1933 novel of the same name by Fannie Hurst, the first having been made in 1934 with Claudette Colbert in the lead role. It was Douglas Sirk's last film.

This film provides examples of:

  • Aborted Arc: Sarah Jane is given an Establishing Character Moment when we see her teenage self eyeing Steve, who in turn is noticing that She Is All Grown Up. This goes nowhere and it's actually Susie who develops feelings for him.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Everyone has their names changed in this adaptation.
  • Adaptational Early Appearance: Steve appears much earlier than he does in the book. Here he features in the very first scene, meeting Lora before her success.
  • Adaptational Heroism:
    • Sarah Jane realises her mistakes and shows up at Annie's funeral, while her book counterpart moved to Bolivia and never returned. The movie also puts Sarah Jane's decision to pass in a more understandable light by really showing what it means for Sarah Jane to be black in America at that time. In the end, the audience is shown that even Annie understands why Sarah Jane does what she does — after all, Annie knows better than anyone what Sarah Jane would face if she lives as a black woman. The final scene between Annie and Sarah Jane also clearly shows that severing ties with Annie is an agonizing decision for Sarah Jane as well, that she's only doing it because she feels she has to in order to have a better life, not out of spite or because she doesn't love her mother. All of this combines to make Sarah Jane a much more sympathetic character.
    • Susie's counterpart in the novel was the first person to call Peola (Sarah Jane's counterpart) black as an insult, and actually has an affair with Steve. In the film here the worst thing she does to Sarah Jane is ask if she's dating a black boy or try to give her the black dollnote . In addition, her attraction to Steve is now a Precocious Crush that goes nowhere.
    • The lack of an affair also makes Steve this (in fact he doesn't even seem to be fully aware of Susie's crush). There's also the trajectory of his relationship with Lora. Rather than meeting her after they've become rich and successful, they meet when they're both struggling artists. When Steve gets his first break, rather than resenting Lora or leaving her behind, he offers to support her. He's also incredibly patient and understanding when she repeatedly has to cancel on him because work-related things came up at the last minute.
  • And Starring:
    • Juanita Moore is billed seventh and last of the film's main players, but she is given the ostentatious credit "and presenting JUANITA MOORE as Annie Johnson".
    • Likewise, Mahalia Jackson gets extremely prominent billing for her one-scene cameo.
  • Bad "Bad Acting": David the writer/director is appalled at Lora's "goggle-eyed takes" while reading scenes from his play. As it turns out Lora doesn't like the lines; her Refuge in Audacity in telling him so gets her a bigger part.
  • Bait-and-Switch: The film was promoted as a melodrama about Lara Turner's Lora, who is a middle-class white woman who becomes a major actress while also raising her daughter as a single mother (she is present in all the posters for the film). But the true story line is about her black servant Annie and her tense relationship with her mixed-race daughter Sarah Jane, who tries to make something of her life by passing as white.
  • Bavarian Fire Drill: Lora gets past Loomis's secretary by pretending she is a well-known actress with a (fictional) West Coast agent who set her up for an appointment with Loomis. It works for the secretary, but not with Loomis, but he's interested anyway.
  • Billed Above the Title: Lana Turner and John Gavin.
  • Bikini Bar: Strangely mixed with The Chanteuse, to the extent that it's not quite clear what's supposed to be going on. Annie tracks Sarah Jane down to a rather skeevy nightclub, where Sarah Jane's onstage in a corset and stockings—but she's singing a song. Annie's horror at discovering this scene does sort of imply that Sarah Jane has become some sort of late '50s equivalent of a Bikini Bar stripper. This is likely a holdover from when the film was imagined as a musical.
  • Brief Accent Imitation: When Lora asks Sarah Jane to help her mother serve food at a social event, Sarah Jane does so by mockingly imitating a Mammy stereotype from the Deep South.
  • Busby Berkeley Number: Sarah Jane gets a job dancing in just such a number at an LA theater. Though we don't see much of it shot that way, as the focus is on Annie seeing her daughter from next to the stage.
  • Buxom Beauty Standard: Loomis establishes himself as a gross creep when he evaluates Lora: "You have a chest full of quality and quantity. I like that."
  • The Cameo: World class gospel singer Mahalia Jackson appears in one scene, singing "Troubles of the World" at Annie's funeral.
  • Career Versus Family: Present, as Lora's focus on her career has left her distant from Susie's life.
  • Casting Couch: Loomis, Lora's gross would-be agent, is not a tiny bit embarrassed to demand sex with Lora in return for getting her work. Lora refuses. Oddly, when a modeling gig gets Lora an acting offer, Loomis winds up being her agent anyway.
  • Costume Porn: Lora's wardrobe when she becomes a star is pretty lavish. She was even changed from a businesswoman to an actress because it would allow for fancier clothes.
  • Darker and Edgier: With regards to the Annie and Sarah Jane plot, the film tackles a lot more of the race issues than the 1934 film.
    • As children Susie and Sarah Jane cut their arms to compare their blood.
    • Sarah Jane has a boyfriend who doesn't know about her heritage. When he finds out, he beats her up.
    • Sarah Jane becomes an exotic dancer to make ends meet in New York and, when she's living in Los Angeles, she's implied to be a prostitute as well.
    • Lora asks Sarah Jane to help Annie serve the guests. Sarah Jane does so by cruelly imitating a Mammy stereotype - humiliating her mother in the process.
    • Annie is disrespected multiple times when she's out in public.
    • Sarah Jane is much more outwardly cruel to her mother, rebuffing her many more times. Annie is even forced to pretend she's just an old acquaintance in front of a girl Sarah Jane works with.
  • Death by Despair: After all the stress in seeing what her daughter has become, Annie dies of grief over Sarah Jane finally forsaking her as she tries to pass in a white world. (In the book, she has cancer.).
  • Deconstruction:
    • The Lora storyline deconstructs the illusions of what makes a perfect family. Lora is a highly successful and glamorous career woman - with a Big Fancy House, a posh boarding school for her daughter and an Unlimited Wardrobe. But for all this, she's been absent in her daughter's life and Susie has pretty much considered Annie her parent. This was a big criticism of 1950s values - which emphasized consumerism and the image of a nuclear, provided-for family.
    • There's also the fact that it centers around a very non-traditional family structure. In the 1950s, society's model of what a family should be was a two-parent household where the father worked and the mother did not. Instead you have two single mothers living together, one being the breadwinner despite having a child and the other taking over the bulk of the child-raising for both of them (and even then, Annie still being paid for her services, and is planning to send Sarah Jane off to college on her own money). It's quite a deviation from the 1950s ideal, but at the end of the day, they're more successful than not.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Douglas Sirk saw Annie as the real hero of the story, and actually cut down some of Lora's screen time to emphasise the plot of Annie and Sarah Jane's relationship. Marketing gave Lora, Susie and Steve Wolverine Publicity, particularly in conservative areas in the south.
  • Establishing Character Moment: When little Sarah Jane angrily rejects the black baby doll and insists that she'll only take the white baby doll, you know bad stuff is going to happen.
  • Expository Hairstyle Change: After the Time Skip Lora now has Power Hair to show that she's become a successful career woman.
  • Family of Choice: In the end, Lora and Annie and their daughters are a family, despite everything, which is made clear when Lora and Susie (and Steve) are the chief mourners at Annie's funeral.
  • "Friends" Rent Control: Lora's first home in New York is still quite nice for a struggling actress trying to support a young daughter. She even has room for a live-in housekeeper and her young daughter to move in. She does mention in a conversation with Steve that she saved up money before she moved to New York. At the time Annie moves in, she has a side job where she's been personally addressing envelopes, and gets a modelling gig shortly afternote  so she did have some money coming in.
  • Generation Xerox: Downplayed, but Annie says of Sarah Jane's father "he was practically white" - suggesting he was a fair skinned black man who may have dealt with the same issues his daughter ends up doing. Or she was speaking euphemistically and he really was white.
  • Girliness Upgrade: In the book and previous film Lora's counterpart was a businesswoman who achieved success marketing her maid's recipe. Here she instead becomes an actress and model who achieves success that way - and thus has a much fancier wardrobe.
  • Graceful Ladies Like Purple: Annie is often seen with either a purple dress or purple coat.
  • Green and Mean: The scene pictured above - Sarah Jane telling her mother to pretend not to know her - has her wearing a green dress.
  • Halfway Plot Switch: The first half mainly focuses on Lora and her struggles to become an actress as well as her romance with Steve. The second half after the Time Skip examines the relationship between Annie and Sarah Jane, and the latter's self hatred.
  • Hiding Your Heritage: The film revolves around a biracial woman passing as white.
  • Hired Help as Family: Annie is the housekeeper, and has been looking after Susie since she was a child. But she and Lora are close friends by the time Susie has made it to her teen years, and the latter even says Annie has always been more like "a real mother" than her own. The death of Annie at the end devastates Lora the most.
  • Hotter and Sexier: In the book Peola is found working at a whites only restaurant. In this film Sarah Jane is a dancer who first is seen in a Bikini Bar and later in a chorus at an LA theatre.
  • I'm Cold... So Cold...: Annie does the "I'm tired" variant during her Death by Despair.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Steve is an ass for telling Lora not to go to the audition that leads to her big break, but he does have a point that the last time she saw Loomis - he tried to solicit favors from her.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: Lora is an actress played by Lana Turner, and her own daughter calls her out on her melodramatic approach to motherhood:
    Susie: Mother...stop acting.
  • Light Feminine and Dark Feminine: Susie and Sarah Jane, quasi-stepsisters who grew up in the same household. Susie, played by blonde Sandra Dee, is painfully innocent and sweet and virginal, quizzing Annie over the mysteries of kissing, breathlessly wondering when she'll be old enough to get married. Sarah Jane, played by dark-haired Susan Kohner, sneaks out to see a boyfriend, casts lustful glances at handsome Steve, and gets jobs as a stripper and a chorus girl.
  • Lighter and Softer: The Lora/Susie stuff is considerably tamer than in the book and original film. Jessie grows into a Fille Fatale, actually has an affair with Steve and things end quite tragically (them leaving Bea heartbroken in the book, and a Maybe Ever After in the film). Susie's attraction to Steve is just a Precocious Crush, and he and Lora end the film together. Susie's character overall is much more of The Ingenue.
  • Like Goes with Like: Sarah Jane is very annoyed when both Susie and Lora assume the boys she's dating are black.
  • Love Triangle: Sort of. Susie ends up falling for Steve as he and her mother are dating. Unlike in the book, it's strictly one-sided.
  • Mammy:
    • Annie certainly seems content to be a servant to Lora, and she pretty much raises Susie as well as her own child Sarah Jane, so this trope is more or less played straight. However, it's interesting to note that in the 1934 version, the Annie character (called "Delilah") is much more servile—she actually makes the Lora character (called "Bea") rich with her own special pancake mix recipe, but doesn't even ask for a share of the royalties, continuing merely to serve Bea. Contrast this film where Annie has less of a Happiness in Slavery thing going and is merely a straight-up servant. There is also a pointed scene during the funeral where Lora is surprised to find out that Annie has dozens and dozens of friends and an active social life that includes membership in a church and several lodges. Annie has been putting money aside for years to have a traditionally Afro-American gorgeous, lavish "homegoing" funeral. While Annie has been Lora's companion and confidant for years, Lora obviously knows little about Annie's life. Other characters frequently assume Annie is the maid of whatever place she goes to. What's more is that when she's still living off Lora's charity in New York, she mentions taking other jobs on the side.
    • Toward the end of the film, Annie pretends to have been this to Sarah Jane in order to explain their relationship and her obvious affection for Sarah Jane without giving away Sarah Jane's secret. The other girl explicitly refers to Sarah Jane as having "had a Mammy" after Annie leaves.
  • Married to the Job: A rare female example of this trope, as Lora's career as an actress means she's been largely absent from Susie's life, leaving Annie to raise both Susie and Sarah Jane. When called out on this Lora replies quite reasonably that her success has allowed Susie to enjoy a cushy upper-class lifestyle.
  • Meet Cute: Two different Meet Cutes at the same time, as Lora bumps into Steve while frantically searching for her daughter, only to find Susie with Annie and Sarah Jane.
  • Never a Self-Made Woman: Lora becomes a star through collaborations with David, who writes plays for her to star in. But the movie subverts this, as Lora eventually stops starring in David's plays - and she enjoys even more success as a result.
  • Never Got to Say Goodbye: Sarah Jane cries bitterly at her mother's funeral after parting with her on bad terms, breaking down out of her guilt at not being there for Annie. Now she tells the huge crowd "let me through, it's my mother."
  • Nice to the Waiter: Lora is Annie's employer but they're more like Fire-Forged Friends.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: In a surprisingly shocking scene, Sarah Jane gets beaten to a pulp by her date when he finds out that that she's passing for white despite being mixed race. It was pretty rare and unexpected to see such domestic violence on screen, especially in a Technicolor melodrama.
  • The One Who Made It Out: Sarah Jane is mixed race but light-skinned enough (and played by white actress Susan Kohner) to pass as white, and she seeks to make something of her life by denying her origins in a segregated America (where miscegenation was still illegal in some states, and frowned upon in others). She ends up becoming a showgirl, and is strongly implied to be a prostitute, much to her mother's heartbreak and her daughter's guilt.
  • Parental Substitute: Annie essentially becomes a second mother to Susie - as Lora is too busy with her career.
  • Parents as People: Lora and Annie are shown to be flawed people who just want to raise their daughters right - in Lora's case making sure Susie wants for nothing, and in Annie's making Sarah Jane proud of her heritage. Annie in particular struggles with this because it breaks her heart to see Sarah Jane reject her heritage — not to mention that it requires her to distance herself from Annie to maintain the illusion — but she also understands that Sarah Jane wanting to pretend to be white isn't a reflection of any animosity towards Annie, but rather because being seen as white allows her to have a better life.
    "How do you explain to your child that she was born to be hurt?"
  • Pass Fail: As in the novel, Sarah Jane's desire to pass as a white person and escape racism leads only to tragedy and heartbreak. She however ends the film by going to her mother's funeral and apologizing.
  • Pink Means Feminine: Susie is a blonde Ingenue who loves riding horses and putting on pretty dresses - so of course her room is painted pink.
  • Precocious Crush: Sixteen-year-old Susan seems to have carried a torch for Steven, her mother's sometime boyfriend, for some time.
  • Pretty in Mink:
    • Lora's agent has a mink coat that he loans to women he's trying to woo.
    • Lora attends a few parties where ladies are wearing fur wraps.
    • Lora has a few fur trimmed coats as her career advances. Susie even borrows her mother's short white mink cape for a date.
  • Setting Update: The book begins in the 1910s, while the film updates it to the 1940s.
  • She Is All Grown Up: Steve has this reaction to Sarah Jane.
    Steve: The last time I saw you, you were all legs.
    Sarah Jane: Still am.
  • Stay in the Kitchen: The film is about how women in 1950s America tried to form a career of themselves, and how their difficulties break down on both class and race lines, as well as the generational gap between women raised in The Great Depression and those coming of age in The '50s.
  • Time-Passes Montage: A series of theater marquees as the years 1948-58 pass shows that Lora has done quite well on Broadway.
  • Time-Shifted Actor: Terry Burnham becomes Sandra Dee as Susie, while Karin Dicker becomes Susan Kohner as Sarah Jane.
  • Token Black Friend: A very early subversion before it even became a trope. Annie is Lora's closest friend and takes care of her daughter for her while she pursues her actress dreams. However, Annie soon develops an entire story of her own; when her fair-skinned daughter grows up trying to pass for white, and eventually runs off to live a new life. There's also a very good reason why Annie is in Lora's life to begin with - she struggles to find work because most employers "just won't take in a woman with a child", and Lora lets her and Sarah Jane live with them for free. And once Lora experiences success on Broadway, Annie stays with her partly because of how well she's paid; she at one point mentions that she's been able to put away enough money to send Sarah Jane to college. And then the entire last part of the film is all about Annie, her death and funeral.
  • Tom Hanks Syndrome: In-Universe. Lora, who's had a very successful career acting in comedies written by her long-time lover David, passes on his next comedy to take a dramatic part instead. This leads to her breaking up with David, but professionally it works, getting Lora even more acclaim and winning her a part in an Italian art film.
  • True Blue Femininity: Susie's grown up self is introduced wearing a blue evening gown.
  • Wham Line: Frankie's line "Is your mother a nigger?" comes out of nowhere, and leads directly to the horrifying scene where Frankie beats up Sarah Jane in the alley.
  • You Are Better Than You Think You Are: A sad example. Annie tells Sarah Jane that she shouldn't hide who she is from her peers at school, but the girl doesn't listen.
    Sarah Jane: They didn't ask me! Why should I tell them?
    Annie: Because that's what you are, and it's nothing to be ashamed of.