Imitation of Life, directed by Douglas Sirk, falls squarely into the subset of movies that I had never seen or heard of before starting this endeavor. Skeptical but optimistic, I was pleasantly surprised by how immediately I was swept up in the glossy technicolor dreamscape. The experience felt closer to binge watching six episodes of a half hour HBO drama (HBO Vintage?) than watching a movie. In classic fifties melodramatic fashion, the film moves at a breakneck pace as we rapidly montage our way through nearly two decades of Lora Meredith’s rise to fame on Broadway stages and eventually as a feature film actress. Admirably, the pace does not come at the sacrifice of characterization and dynamism.
As much as this is a story about Lora becoming a young starlet, it is as much about the three women in her life; Suzie, Annie, and Sarah Jane. What pushes Imitation of Life into the realm of greatness is that while it’s encased in a shiny, glimmering, wrapper of Hollywood romance, the most compelling moments come through the scathing dramatization of usually unseen struggles imposed on women and people of color in America. Sirk guides us across the bridges connecting the women, paying brilliant homage to each one as we pass through her vignette. The viewer is transferred through the perspectives of each of the members within this self forged family, and the complexity embedded in those relationships throws the prism of their stories together, illuminating all the struggles and love and resentment that can come from intense familial experiences.
A brief summary: in the opening scene Lora misplaces her daughter, Suzie. She finds her in the caring hands of an African American woman with an abundantly sweet disposition, Annie Johnson, who was looking after her own daughter, Sarah Jane. Lora and Suzie exchange various heartfelt pleasantries, including an exchange confirming that Sarah Jane is Annie’s biological daughter, explaining away the casting of a clearly white child actor — Sarah Jane’s late father was black, but very light skinned, a trait that Sarah Jane inherited. When Lora and Suzie say their goodbyes, it’s revealed that Sarah Jane and Annie are homeless and looking for a place to stay that night. After some hemming and hawing, the four ladies leave together to bunker down at Lora’s apartment. Over the course of the next few weeks, Annie proves herself to be an invaluable housekeeper and nanny to the two young girls, and single working mother, Lora, decides she needs all the help she can get. As Lora pulls herself out of poverty, she includes Annie and Sarah Jane along her meteoric rise to stardom, and the four women appear inextricably bound together.
I need to stem off the summary here, otherwise I run the risk of turning this into a rambling twelve page book report, but suffice it to say that Imitation of Life is about women and it is about race, a tagline that would might sink a proposed film of its nature in our time. Witnessing Suzie and Sarah Jane grow up side by side produces a powerful contrast for the viewer. Because of Sarah Jane’s light skin, she is especially attuned to the stark differences between life as a white person and as a Black person. Sarah Jane has spent her life being presumed white until being revealed as otherwise. The first time we see her passing as white she is in elementary school, and when Annie discovers this she is heartbroken. “Be who you are!” she implores of Sarah Jane. And yet, it’s easy to understand why Sarah Jane is so compelled to disguise her true identity, a fact that Annie herself admits when she tells Lora, “How do you tell a child that she was born to be hurt?”
Annie Johnson is a saint and a bystander in the film might think she is the type of woman who does not have a mean bone in her body but was somehow cursed with a headstrong, intellectual, daughter possessing the audacity to question her mother’s goodness. Thus there is an added resonance when Annie straightforwardly expresses the pain of being a Black American. Sarah Jane and Suzie grew up side by side, and although they have had similar experiences, Sarah Jane cannot reasonably expect an equitable life to her pseudo sister due to a system stacked against her. When a boyfriend of Sarah Jane’s learns she is not white, he beats her in an alley and the gruesomeness of the scene doubles down on the girl’s already wretched circumstances.
While Lora is consistently generous to Annie and Sarah Jane, Annie is anything but dead weight. In many ways, Annie is the wife in the unusual 1950’s cohabitation, tasked with rearing the children and keeping the house, she is never without her broad smile ready for anyone who might pass through. But although their friendship seems genuine, it becomes clear at one point that Lora has never taken the time to know Annie — content to cast her as her own sidekick. When Annie tells Lora that she wants a big funeral, with all of her friends there, and Lora says, “It never occurred to me that you had many friends,” the true nature of their friendship is exposed. Lora is Annie’s friend, but also her employer, and Annie is constantly reminded of her relative lack of power next to Lora.
Lora has also had to show resilience in the face of her own challenges. Early in the film, she is nearly destitute until she lies her way into an audition. The fallacy is revealed and the casting agent proposes some quid pro quo from the desperate mother. She rebukes his advances, but then accepts an offer to do a reading for a role. Lora’s most endearing suitor, Steve Archer, ends their relationship because he is unhappy with her decision to pursue a career in acting. He wanted her to be his own Annie, to keep his house and care for his kids. Lora rebukes Steve Archer’s offer as well. Shortly later, we see Lora’s career skyrocketed into fame and recognition, and the reasons for that ascension remain ambiguous. While Imitation of Life clearly demonstrates that Lora did not sleep her way to the top (we see her prove moral rectitude with her lecherous agent) it is interesting that she does in fact marry a leader in her industry. Eventually, work comes between the couple and they too split up.
Lora has faced a life long struggle between ambition and family in ways that remain relevant for working mothers today. Women still chase the impossible and contrived “have it all” perfection — a manufactured ideal that remains forever out of reach by design. Suzie starts resenting her mother as well, complaining that Lora is consistently absent, away filming movies or doing Broadway shows, not interested or engaged in her daughter’s life. Lora has lived her life forced to balance between provider and mother, all while navigating a workforce that has historically treated women as secondary individuals that can be easily preyed upon. In this way Lora is a distorted reflection of Sarah Jane, damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t.
I walked away from this film feeling wrought with emotion and as if I had grown close to the women on screen, which as a strong indication the movie was a success. It bears repeating that I have rarely seen an ensemble of characters woven together so seamlessly, and I almost feel like this movie should be required viewing for writers of movies with shifting perspectives. I was also impressed by the creator’s willingness to make women the backbone of the film and it’s comforting to watch an acclaimed production with a genuine interest in exploring the female hero’s journey. More importantly though, the narratives demonstrate how seemingly abstract sociopolitical issues have real effects on individuals, people who may be close to you without you knowing their pain. Much of Imitation of Life is saddening, but it’s hopeful too, and above all I admire the faith in humanity it shows without disregarding the complexities comprising every individual.