The films of Douglas Sirk appear to me as a manner to speak about the conditions of human lives within what may be a sentimental shell on the outside.All That Heaven Allows, my personal favourite from his body of work, gave a picture to the sexism towards women in society regarding how restricted their abilities are thanks to the gender politics of the time. Imitation of Life, the director’s final film, maintains his own social criticisms at some of his strongest yet and even if I may not love it nearly as much as I did All That Heaven Allows, what it still contains is indeed everything that I have grown to love Douglas Sirk for after all of these years.
In the manner that All That Heaven Allows gave a picture of the restrictions towards women within a sexist society, Imitation of Life gives another perspective but instead on a racist level is where he is more critical. The title “imitation of life” alone in itself gives off the very vibe to which Imitation of Life is attempting to convey, for it presents what indeed is contrasting the aspects that make up life, within the relationship between mother and daughter. It may appear to be just a simple melodrama, but upon further examination of how it brings light to what it’s handling, that’s where something more admirable comes along for it is indeed what has strengthened the very best work that we have come to see from Douglas Sirk.
The film indeed “imitates” life by showing how one mother with such high ambition shows no care for her own daughter, and then another one with little, is deeply affectionate. Right here is where it is clear Douglas Sirk is indeed commenting on the failures of motherhood, for later on within the film, we see that the daughters eventually turn to a form of rebellion because of how their mothers had indeed failed them. In turn, it also helps in creating an excellent sense of characterization which provides what is indeed more than just an ordinary soap opera.
One of these mothers, Annie Johnson, who is played wonderfully by Juanita Moore, is a single African-American. Her daughter, Sarah Jane, however, is much more Caucasian in terms of appearance for she has inherited her own father’s skin. Given how Douglas Sirk is approaching the racial dynamics within the society in which he is depicting in Imitation of Life, it is interesting to see where things begin to take a turn after Sarah Jane’s attempts at passing for white become more difficult. Within this racist society, we an see that Sarah Jane would much rather live a non-discriminated life as opposed to fully being herself. At the same time, we also have an image of how Lana Turner’s own Lora Meredith would much rather live within glory at the cost of her personal life with her daughter. A specific question that is being asked by this is, what happens when one chooses not to embrace themselves for what they really are? Like the title can already imply about the characters, all they live is merely, an imitation of life.
From all the fine performances (admittedly I have somewhat of an issue with the male actors for I don’t feel they offer nearly as much as the females provide) to the beautiful cinematography or the social criticism being provided, Imitation of Life is a near-perfect film. It’s a melodrama almost epic in scope, but so intelligent with its insights about how one chooses to live their lives within society if they are not merely being themselves. Douglas Sirk ended his note on such a career high, for Imitation of Life is so poetic in its delivery and so rich in detail with the ideas which are being displayed on the screen. Imitation of Life plays upon how one identifies themselves and how it is indeed so rooted, that when they try to change it, they merely are living an imitation.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Universal.
Directed by Douglas Sirk
Screenplay by Eleanore Griffin, Allan Scott, from the novel by Fannie Hurst
Produced by Ross Hunter
Starring Lana Turner, Juanita Moore, John Gavin, Sandra Dee, Susan Kohner
Release Year: 1959
Running Time: 125 minutes