Douglas Sirk's 1959 classic melodrama Imitation of Life is that rare thing - an intellectually provocative film which is also an excellent exercise for the lachrymal glands. Be prepared with at least half a dozen hankies before you watch it. It didn't make me cry (but that is only me) but left me feeling quite bitter. I still prefer his earlier film All that Heaven Allows more which not only has a satirical tone which is missing in this film but also exhibits a more self-conscious critical intelligence in its expose of the hypocrisy, shallowness, cruelty and materialism of social and family life in suburban America of the 50s. Imitation of Life is actually even more bitter and the picture it presents of American society even uglier, which is all the more powerful and effective because it is presented to us through remarkably glossy and shiny images. It is this stylistic irony that makes Sirk so beloved of critics and directors, specially those who use popular genres and employ irony as a tool of social criticism. As I have mentioned many times before on this blog, I really love the Fassbinder and Todd Haynes versions of the Heaven story.
Imitation of Life tells the story of four women who struggle to make their life more than just imitations of life. Lola is an aspiring actress who has been struggling hard and having a rough time at it after her husband's death. By chance she meets a black woman Annie Johnson, mother of a daughter herself, who is herself desperate for finding a job of a housemaid because no one wants to employ a maid with a child. Lola reluctantly agrees to take her into her household. The story then follows two different threads. First is about Lora and how she navigates the sexually opportunistic world of show-business and finds success. The second thread follows Annie's daughter Sara Jane who tries to deny her racial identity (she is light-complexioned) in order to find fulfillment in life. For her denying the racial identity is same as denying her mother which is the main source of dramatic conflict, specially when the mother is so super-humanly angelic and self-sacrificing. The scene where she goes to meet her daughter in California (where she works as a backstage extra in a sleazy variety show) for the last time must be one of the saddest in the all of classical Hollywood.
The way Sirk takes the thrust of the story away from Lana Turner (the film's obvious star attraction) and the white protagonists is another subversive element which distinguishes it from other soapy-melodramas. To give black characters autonomy and their own subjectivities must have been revolutionary at that time, when they were mostly consigned to supporting and stereotyped roles. Also the way he deals with the thorny question of racial (and in general any persecuted minority) identity is pretty sophisticated. Sara Jane can't understand why she can't live like a white person when she has a white skin. In a society which is racist and discriminatory identity is not something one can just simply choose. And in such a society repudiating who one is is an unethical and politically reactionary act, even when one doesn't identify explicitly with the group. It is Sara Jane's tragedy that she can't fathom the true ethical horror of her decision, at least not until it is too late. The actors who play Annie and Sara Jane (Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner) are also both astonishingly good. They were deservedly nominated for Oscars though they didn't win. There is also a brilliant and very moving rendition of a gospel song at the end of the film by renowned gospel singer Mahalia Jackson (billed prominently in the credits). The film was also a huge box office smash but was dismissed by critics as being too soapy and melodramatic. It was only in 70s that Sirk's films grew in reputation with european critics and directors like Fassbinder started championing him. Sirk had retired long before, in fact it was his last film in hollywood, he went back to Europe and lived a life of retirement and occasionally teaching at film school).
I need to see some of his other films too - specially The Magnificent Obsession. In any case Imitation of Life and All that Heaven Allows are two of the finest melodramas made in Hollywood. Just keep those hankies ready.