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retrospective film review: imitation of life

Sunday 26 February 2012

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Imitation of Life (1959) directed by Douglas Sirk, starring Lana Turner, Juanita Moore, John Gavin, Sandra Dee and Susan Kohner.

Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) is a young widow, model and aspiring actress who loses her young daughter Susie on the beach in Coney Island in 1947. Susie has been found by Annie Johnson (Juanita Johnson), a black single mother, whose daughter Sarah Jane has befriended Susie. Sarah cheap viagra online reviews Jane’s skin is fair, and her hair is straight and light – Lora initially assumes that Annie is Sarah Jane’s nanny. The two women form an immediate bond and Annie and her daughter return to New York with Lora and share her apartment, ostensibly as live-in help, but more truthfully as friends.

What ensues is a powerful and emotional narrative spanning the next 12 years of the women’s lives, encompassing their changing prospects and the various adolescent struggles of their respective daughters. Susie is played in adulthood by Sandra Dee, while Susan Kohner is mesmerising as Sarah Jane.

The emotional core of the film is Sarah Jane’s struggle with her racial identity, which destroys her relationship with those who love her. It is an enlightening exploration of racial attitudes at the time, and highlights the social phenomenon of ‘passing’ – fair-skinned black women who, in order to escape prejudice, lived their lives as white.

Both Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner were nominated for the Best Suporting Actress Oscar in 1959, and their performances are still passionate and heart-wrenching today. Sandra Dee, meanwhile, adds some light contrast in her perky portrayal of Susie, but the relationship between Lora and her daughter never reaches the height of emotion we see in their black counterparts, and they seem to serve to demonstrate the absolute love Annie has for her daughter, as contrasted by the diluted form in their own interaction.

Imitation of Life is a peculiar and unique film – the type which stays with you long after you’ve watched it. And Mahalia Jackson’s musical cameo at the film’s finale moves me to tears. Every time.