dir. Douglas Sirk, “Imitation of Life”

1959

Douglas Sirk’s famous 1959 remake of the 1934 John Stahl film and 1933 Fanny Hurst novel changes a number of key features of the story. Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) takes the place of the white heroine Bea Pullman, her daughter Susie (Sandra Dee) replaces Jessie, and the live-in help they meet at the beach and hire are not Delilah and Peola but Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) and Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner). Instead of selling pancakes and syrup, Lora Meredith is selling herself here – first as a stage, then a movie actress, offering a sort of meta-commentary on film in film (Lana Turner was incredibly successful at this point, and her wardrobe of over $1 million for the film was the most expensive to date). Steve Archer (John Gavin) remains the love interest Susie falls for, but in this version, after refusing Steve for 12 years for the sake of her career, Lora decides to marry him, with Susie going off to school in Colorado to recover from her crush. In this sense, the novel hierachizes the two female leads more as masculine breadwinner and feminine domestic laborer – a “queerer couple” even than the original film. Sarah Jane runs off and changes her name after being beaten by a white boyfriend who discovers she is “colored.” The massive funeral of the brokenhearted Delilah comes after a trip to see Sarah Jane in L.A., where she is acting and dancing. The funeral, featuring Mahalia Jackson’s gospel singing invites us, as Lauren Berlant points out, to see the scene as satire and melodrama, which Sirk intended. It has nevertheless been read “straight” by many viewers since the film’s release. The spectacle of the funeral, more ostentatious even than any of Lora’s spectacles, reveals to the white woman the entire universe Annie has built, not with fame and notoriety, but action and commitment. The film was largely read as “soap opera” and “melodrama” and only came to be appreciated as one of Sirk’s “masterpieces” later on. The opening credits feature the song “Imitation of Life” Thomas Webster (“without love you’re only living – an imitation, an imitation of life), with weighty, faceted, rainbow-colored falling diamonds piling up and filling the screen, giving the sense of a wall of bubbles as the song concludes.

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