Director: Douglas Sirk
Sometimes you just need a good cry. This is the movie to make you do it whether you like it or not.
Way back in the mid-90's when I was going through film school, we, of course, had screenings of films. The movies were curated and representative of a variety of eras, forms, genres, etc... all tee'd up to illustrate whatever the instructors planned to discuss that week. It's a weird way to do homework, but we saw some great stuff. Also, I got to learn to sit with films that were never going to be my cup of tea, especially at age 19 or so.
One of the films shown was Imitation of Life, a 1959 melodrama spanning decades and following a young, widowed white woman, Lora (Lana Turner), who teams up with an African-American single mother, Annie (Juanita Moore), to jointly raise daughters of a similar age.
It's actually a remake of a film I haven't seen from 1934, starring Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers. And one day I'll watch that one, too.
During the same meet-cute where Annie and Lora meet, Steve (John Gavin) appears as a photographer, indirectly getting Lora her first gig and - as this is Lana Turner - deciding to woo her. Lora welcomes Annie and her daughter into their humble apartment, and as Annie settles into triple role of housekeeper, best friend, co-mother, Lora's dreams of success on the stage suddenly take off.
At the half-way point, the movie escalates quickly. We have a time shift to the end of the girl's high school careers. Lora's daughter, Susie (Sandra Dee), is a perky, happy rich blonde girl attending a nearby boarding school. Annie's daughter, Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), has matured into a lovely but bitter girl. Early signs of her wishing to "pass" as white have grown, and now she's hiding her mother and the fact she's Black from anyone she can.
To put a point on it, the title has meaning! As Lora is focused on her career, she misses what's happening with her daughter, with Sarah Jane and - finally - Annie. She's been able to outsource her mothering role to her friend, running from job to job, and having no real interest in what's happening with Sarah Jane other than a detached view of her friend being upset. But Susie herself is living in a world of illusion - believing she's falling in love with Steve, who's essentially treating her like his daughter or pal.
Sarah Jane's story is paired with Annie - who can't do anything to help her daughter and stay in her life. The dialog may be a bit clunky by 2023 standards, but in 1959 as much as today, this is some rough stuff to watch in the best way.
Look, Annie is slowly dying over the last 45 minutes of the movie, and nobody fucking notices, even as she's lying in bed. Lora is preoccupied with Steve, her career, etc..., Sarah Jane has run off to the West Coast to live as a white woman, and Susie is convinced she's marrying Steve - and when that doesn't work out, she's going to run away to Colorado.
Annie can't save these people from themselves, and she can't be there for them anymore.
Anyway, she passes - and you think you're okay, until the funeral and there's Mahalia Jackson. And I was utterly wrecked.
Back in my college days, by the end of the film, the snobby film kids were largely locked in, myself included. I think I was more invested this time than even on a first viewing.
Melodrama gets some side-eye. We think of it as "soap opera" or low-class. There's surely some misogyny baked into this take as this film, and many others aimed at women, were busily passing the Bechdel test decades before it was dreamed up - and this doesn't deal much at all with masculine interests or pursuits. But at the end of the day, melodrama can be more universally understood than big concept pictures and the accessibility of the emotional content - when done well - can carry over complicated ideas. This is a movie about challenges the audience who showed up for a Lana Turner movie* may not have been aware they were getting.
The movie is matter-of-fact about the world to which Sarah Jane is reacting, and her desire to want something other than the race-based class system into which she was born is understandable, if utterly tragic.. But the love of a mother being so great that she has to let her daughter go is some moving stuff. You hope that audiences of 1959 (or 2023) understood their part in the tragedy. Only in death is Annie truly appreciated.
It's Sirk, so every frame is gorgeous, and I half want to re-watch immediately to determine some of what he did to drive the story with camera and lighting - with astounding use of technicolor in mostly domestic, not-exotic locations or sets. This is his final Hollywood melodrama, and I've only seen this one and All That Heaven Allows. I'm curious to check out more.
*prior to making this movie, Turner had been caught up in a sensational news story as her mobster boyfriend was killed by her own daughter who was protecting Turner from physical abuse. Prior to that, Turner was considered one of the sexiest women in film (see: The Postman Always Rings Twice), and arguably Turner was continuing her run of doing quite well in this department with this film.