Saturday, December 07, 2013

To Sirk with Love

I consider Douglas Sirk one of the great auteurs of classic 1950s cinema, because all his films bear an indelible stamp: A Sirk film always presents a glamorized and superbly heightened reality, a story teeming with passion and drama, building to a grand crescendo. Emotions are sensationalized, sentimentalized and romanticized, and clothed in widescreen technicolor splendor, with lavish sets and costumes, sweeping music and of course, bigger-than-life and too-beautiful-to-believe stars. Sirk made many a great picture using this formula, most notably All That Heaven Allows and Written On The Wind, but his masterpiece of cinematic artifice is most definitely Imitation of Life (1959).

The classic tale of the bond between two single mothers, one black and one white, had been filmed successfully before, in 1934 with Claudette Colbert, so the 1959 version had to be bigger and better. Here, producer Ross Hunter (Pillow Talk, Backstreet, Madame X)  enabled Douglas Sirk’s opulent aesthetic vision with a generous budget and full creative control.

Lana Turner as Lora Meredith

Sirk takes the title of Fannie Hurst’s old novel literally in fashioning a film that is a near-perfect imitation of real-life love, passion and dysfunction. He focuses relentlessly on the superficial and cosmetic aspects of storytelling in a style that helped define camp  as “a lie that tells the truth.” Beginning with the casting of glamorous superstar Lana Turner in the lead, opposite a square-jawed, deep-voiced John Gavin, one of the handsomest, if not theatrically gifted, actors of the 1950s, Sirk reveals his aim is far from creating a gritty slice-of-life. No, this is soap opera at its entertaining best, a film that used to be known as a tearjerker, with only a few brief nods toward reality.

Juanita Moore as Annie Johnson

John Gavin as Steve Archer

Susan Kohner as Sarah Jane

Sandra Dee as Susie
A mature, still arrestingly beautiful Lana Turner, gowned by Jean Louis and dripping in David Webb jewels, turns in a skilled, if mannered, performance as selfish actress Lora Meredith, who sacrifices both love and family for the sake of career ambition. In the early sequences, as Lora struggles financially, living in a downtown “coldwater flat” with daughter Susie, Turner adopts the long-haired 1940s coiffure that she sported in films a dozen years earlier, with close-ups lovingly photographed in ultra-soft focus. Later, her hairstyle becomes short and severe after her transformation into the toast of Broadway, an ego-driven diva still burning with ambition to conquer the silver screen. The intensity displayed by Turner’s character is a pantomime of genuine human emotion, designed to reach the back row of the theater, but nonetheless divinely, compellingly watchable. In one of the climactic mother-daughter confrontations that drive the plot of this classic “women’s picture,” a teenage Sandra Dee implores of Turner, “Oh, Mama, stop acting!” But the audience pleads silently--”No, Miss Turner, don’t stop. Please keep on chewing that scenery!”

Turner had developed a flair for this type of melodrama, having earned her only Oscar nod the previous year for Peyton Place. And of course, she was no stranger to off-screen drama and tragedy, either. Just before beginning work on this film, sordid details of Turner’s private life had been splashed across the tabloid pages after her lover Johnny Stompanato had been stabbed to death, reportedly by daughter Cheryl Crane, during a domestic dispute. The scandal boosted publicity for Imitation of Life (with its eerily paralllel mother-daughter plot angles) making it one of the top grossers of 1959.

But beneath the veneer of melodrama and flamboyant production values is a storyline with a soupçon of substance, dealing head-on with one of the chief issues of the time...racial injustice and prejudice. Juanita Moore’s touching and understated performance as Annie Johnson strikes the film’s sole note of reality (erasing the offensive image of Louise Beavers as the Aunt Jemima-like pancake lady in the original 1934 version). Amid the bombast of practically every other performance, Moore quietly underplays, modulating her voice to a soothing whisper as she selflessly looks after everyone but herself, offering comfort and wisdom but suffering silently.

Susan Kohner (better known today as the mom of filmmaking brothers Chris and Paul Weitz of American Pie fame) is much more showy in her role Annie’s rebellious fair-skinned daughter, tortured and embittered by a life of always staying “in the back.” Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominations went to both Moore and Kohner for their very different approaches to the material.

But even the racial angle of the story is not immune to Douglas Sirk’s ostentatious, presentational style. Kohner’s Sarah Jane works in “low-down dirty dives” and morally corrupt nightclubs, even lip-synching a song with a highly sexual double entendre, likening an empty purse to a feature of the female anatomy and imploring the sleazy crowd to “fill what is empty.”   Earlier, a young Troy Donahue beats the hell out of Kohner’s character in a startlingly violent and over-the-top manner after asking, “Is it your mother a n****r?”

And the final funeral sequence is pure fantasy, with four white horses, a New Orleans blues band and of course, the iconic Mahalia Jackson singing “Trouble of the World.” (Look for an homage to this sequence in Mike Nichols’s brilliant film of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.) Of course, here is where Sirk gives Miss Kohner the opportunity to throw herself over the coffin of her dead mother and beg for forgiveness, something we in real life very rarely do. But it is a surprisingly effective catharsis...if you are in the right mood, you will cry right along with mourners Susan, Lana, John and Sandra. I know I always do.

Imitation of Life is an artfully constructed and captivating film that’s a feast for the senses and emotions, presented by a masterful auteur. It provides a glorious opportunity to while away a lazy afternoon with a pint of Haagen Dazs, and escape your own real-life “troubles of the world,” knowing that even the rich and beautiful have issues, too, though in Douglas Sirk’s world, they do their suffering in in mink.


  1. OMG! I haven't read your post yet, but I had to register my shock in seeing your post covering this Ross Hunter/Lana Turner film days before I posted my own! So weird!! We must be channeling one another!

  2. Ok, I've read it now...
    What a lovely tribute to this film you wrote! And to Douglas Sirk, who I know has many admirers and whose work has been (rightfully so, I think) re-evaluated and embraced by a whole new generation.
    I had to laugh at the reference to Dee's "Oh, Mother, stop acting!" admonition, because, as you say, that EXACTLY what we hope to get from Lana Turner. acting, acting, and more acting!
    I think you do a terrific job of highlighting the film's true merits (the funeral scene can be quite wrenching)while not ignoring the surface gloss that permeates every frame. While this film is not well remembered by me, perhaps I need to give it another look-see. Your very well-written piece makes it sound like a very worthwhile re-visit. Thanks!

  3. Ken, I felt the same way when I visited your blog this week to see you had written about Portrait in Black! I don't believe in coincidence! Last week, you and Poseidon both wrote about Alice--you about the film and he about the series. Another freaky synchronicity...anyone who doesn't believe in telepathy and the Law of Attraction isn't paying attention!!

    Thank you so much for stopping by to comment on this film. It is indeed worth another look...and you can compare and contrast the artistry of this Sirk film with what I would call the more uninspired and generic melodrama of a Portrait in Black...

  4. Anonymous4:19 PM

    That's not Tab Hunter--it's Troy Donahue!

  5. Yes, of course, thanks, Anonymous. He was married to Suzanne Pleshette, wasn't he?
    Have made the correction - thanks again!

  6. I just watched this on TCM recently. What strikes me about Sirk's films is how they work on a dual level. On the surface is an almost hyper version of the conventional melodrama of Hollywood's golden era. But below the surface are subversive themes regarding race, sexual roles, suburbia, etc. Such subjects were not often dealt with seriously in the '40s and '50s.
    I think that's what attracted director Todd Haynes to make his Sirk de Homage, "Far From Heaven" and remake another mother-daughter melodrama, "Mildred Pierce."
    I am enjoying all of these film blogs way too much!

  7. Mark Vanselow3:52 AM

    I surfed over here immediately from Ken Anderson's wonderful Le Cinema Dreams film review site. Douglas Sirk's "Imitation of Life" is a film that I saw on the big screen as part of a Douglas Sirk retrospective a couple years ago. I enjoyed the film so much the first time, I simply had to catch a second screening before the end of the showcase. It was easily my favourite Douglas Sirk film from the several that I saw, and it was wonderful to experience "Imitation of Life" in its original 35mm format. Of course, I too, was overwhelmed by the final scene--what a sad yet beautiful finale. The film is stylised and melodramatic, to be sure, but that's part of its appeal. When we think about major moments in our own lives, we tend to view them through a lens that makes them seem somehow larger than life, making them feel like scenes from a movie--certain things are often sadder, funnier, sexier, etc than they actually were. So I have no problem ingesting a story such as "Imitation of Life" through a similar type of lens--this is the power of cinema.

  8. Hi Rico - yes, Todd Haynes definitely shares our aesthetic regarding film...I think his remake of Mildred Pierce is absolutely brilliant. Far From Heaven I find visually stunning but not as deep and meaningful from Sirk's original All That Heaven Allows. But Haynes nailed it with Mildred, I own botht he original and the remake and can't decide which is better. I love them both.

    So delighted that you stopped by!

  9. Mark, I'm very jealous that you got to see this film on the big screen in the way it was originally must have been mindblowing.

    Yes, Sirk really uses the medium of film to present the human experience in a grand, larger-than-life way, but retains the meaning and message. Very well said!

    Thanks, Mark, for visiting. I too am a huge fan of Ken's Le Cinema Dreams. The Law of Attraction is working for all us movie lovers!!

  10. Farewell, Annie!
    Juanita Moore is gone at 99.

  11. Wow, thanks for letting me know, Rico! I think she appeared at a TCM Film Festival in recent years...I thought she would live forever!

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