Sunday, April 7, 2013

Imitation Of life (1959)

It's 1947 and Lora Meredith is frantically looking for her missing 6 year old, Susie.
...only to discover her safe and sound with Miss Annie Johnson, another woman raising her daughter alone.
The two women get to talking and when Lora discovers Annie and Sarah Jane are essentially homeless,
she invites them to stay overnight in her cramped apartment.
Lora is an aspiring actress (although so far she's had no luck getting work in New York) and Annie is fleeing racial intolerance (her young daughter Sarah Jane, as a light-skinned black person is already feeling left out of both cultures) and little Susie just wants a best friend.
What begins as a one-night stay becomes a permanent thing (Annie babysits while Lora hunts for work and Lora provides Annie and Sarah Jane with a home) and all four grow close.
"Seems like you intend staying...?"
"Seems like maybe I do."
Meanwhile a romance develops between Lora and Steve Archer, a photographer who first met her on the beach that fateful day...
"My camera could have a love affair with you."
After lots of auditions and setbacks,
(and modeling for ads with flea powder!)
Lora finally hits the big time, scoring a big hit in a small role in a play by David Edwards.
Calling home on opening night: "Do you hear the applause!"
But Steve's no longer in the picture, after an argument with Lora over her ambition and unwillingness to settle down with him.
(Steve has actually just proposed in this scene, but she has an audition to make)
But Lora becomes the toast of Broadway and appears in a series of light comedies on stage.
And the years fly by...
(I love the "time passing" montages in old movies!)
...and suddenly it's 1958. Lora's now wealthy, famous and has a spectacular home in Connecticut, where the entire family lives. But something in Lora's life is missing...
Meanwhile, the girls are growing up and Sarah Jane's having a hard time accepting her second-class status as a black person in the 1950's (she's been "passing for white" since she was a child, only to be discovered time and again).
 And Susie misses her mother, who's on tour or onstage in New York so often that when she does spend time with Susie, it's almost like a holiday to the lonely girl.
Then Steve reenters the picture,
 and Lora, having made a success of her career and a fortune, soon seems willing to give it all up.

But then famed director Fellucci calls...
...and Lora's off to Italy, after requesting Steve look after Susie while she's gone.
And the lonely, impressionable 16 year old develops a crush on Steve (who is unaware of her feelings).
Sarah Jane runs away and becomes a singer/showgirl in cheap cabarets and nightclubs,
disavowing Annie, even though she really does love her mother.
Annie, already not in the best of health, goes to see her daughter "one last time":
She is rejected, further weakening her heart.
Things come to a head when Lora returns from Italy and becomes engaged to Steve. There's a showdown when Lora finds out Susie's in love with Steve:
"If Steve's going to come between us..."
"...I'll give him up. I'll never see him again."
"Oh momma, stop acting! Stop trying to shift people around as if they were pawns on a stage!"
Ultimately they reconcile but Susie leaves home for college, leaving Lora and Annie without the children they struggled and sacrificed themselves for,
and Annie becoming weaker by the day...
Imitation of Life is one of the saddest, most sentimental films I've ever seen; it's also one of the most over-analyzed (because the director, Douglas Sirk, was a legitimate auteur) and because IOL seems to indict 50's materialism and greed.
The opening credits alone (diamonds falling down the screen) as well as the set/art direction seems to indicate people selling out for perfection.
(how perfect is the composition of this scene?)
 But I don't really buy that interpretation, nor do I think Lora is a particularly shallow, selfish character. To me, Lora's a lot like the actress who plays her, Lana Turner.
Both were hard-working, ambitious to be a success, enjoyed being famous and both supported everybody. Lora/Lana have self-absorbed sides, but they seem pretty likeable to me.
Annoying how the director and script seem to go out of their way to point out Lora's artificiality and self-absorption, such as the constant use of mirrors throughout the film:
The one thing IOL is really unsuccessful at is it's treatment of Sarah Jane.
She's practically portrayed as a villainess for lashing out against the world, but we do get to see some of the pain of second class status. And she can't stop loving Annie, no matter how hard she tries...
Imitation of Life was an enormous success when released; in fact, it's credited with saving Universal Studios from bankruptcy (and incidentally earned Lana Turner the largest percentage in film history up to that point, making her a very rich woman).
The Eastmancolor photography is so beautiful it almost seems unreal at some points.
And it's nice to know that Lana and Juanita Moore (who plays Annie so movingly, with such dignity) stayed friends as long as Lana lived.
And now (SPOILER ALERT!!!) the end....
The day after Susie leaves, Lora and Steve are called to Annie's room, and the doctor and minister are summoned. Annie's failing fast.
With her last breaths, she makes out her bequests, to all the family members and friends, and many of the people who've done her kindnesses in her life, even in seemingly insignificant ways.
Lora is overwhelmed, realizing for the first time just how much she loves Annie, and how lost she'll be without her.
And lastly, she speaks of Sarah Jane: "Find her Mr. Steve, find her!"
"Tell her I know I was selfish and if I loved her too much, I’m sorry...She was all I had.”
"I'm so tired, Miss Lora. So very tired..."
As Annie dies, we see a picture of her lost little girl in happier times...
At the monumental funeral, everywhere is evidence of Annie's stature in the community, and hundreds of friends show up to pay tribute to her.
A young woman fights her way through the crowd and throws herself on the casket.
"Momma, I didn't mean it, I do love you! "
"Momma, I'm sorry, can you hear me? I did want to come home..."
"She'll never know how much I wanted to come home."
Sarah Jane rejoins her family.
(sentimentally I like to think that, with the civil rights movement and MLK Jr. around the corner, Sarah Jane became socially aware, working to improve the lives of others as a way of honoring her mother).