Top 250 Tuesday: #098 – Imitation Of Life (1959)

Continuing to wend my way through the Sight and Sound Top 250 Greatest Movies of All Time. This week, it’s #100 on the list, Douglas SirkImitation of Life. For a longer introduction to this series and a look at the full list, just click here. And if you want a heads-up on what I’ll be watching for next week in case you want to watch along, just head on over to the Facebook page or follow me on Twitter (both of those links are in the sidebar) where I’ll generally be posting that info later in the day.

Imitation_of_Life_1959_posterI’m honestly having a hard time figuring out how I feel about Douglas Sirk‘s 1959 film Imitation of Life, and how to approach writing about it.

While I certainly can appreciate the movie on a number of levels, and can see its entertainment value, the skill behind the camera, and of course its status as an Important Film, there are, at the same time a number of things that bug me about it, not the least of which being, unfortunately, its lead actress, Lana Turner.

In some ways, I suppose, Turner is perfectly cast as the completely over the top, always on stage, dedicated-to-nothing-but-being-a-star actress Lora Meredith, because that is certainly the way that she plays the role, but at the same time, I couldn’t help but find myself cheering when Sandra Dee, playing her daughter Susie, finally calls her out and says to her “Oh, Mother stop acting!” as that was exactly how I felt at that point. It almost seems at times as if everyone else in the movie is actually giving themselves to their roles and understands how they should be played, but Turner simply can’t get beyond the melodrama of it all, and is treating the entire enterprise on the same level as one would, say, a soap opera.

And, at the same time, since the script actually does call attention to it, I can’t help but wonder if this was some kind of active choice on the part of both Sirk and Turner, or if it was simply the only way that she knew how to play it.

imitation_of_life_1959_familyEither way, however, it is a performance that really colors the whole movie, and at times almost completely drew me out of the entire enterprise.

Of course, Turner is not the only problem with this movie, nor is she the only thing that makes me feel like, as good as it is, it still could have been so much better.

One of the more questionable casting aspects of the movie in my mind, is the decision rather than to cast an actual mulatto in the role of the adult Sarah Jane is to instead cast Susan Kohner, who was actually of Mexican and Czech descent. Kohner, the daughter of well-known Mexican actress Lupita Tovar, is definitely easy on the eyes, but still there is something that niggles at the brain every time she protests (and she does quite often) “I am white!”

Imitation_of_Life-Susan_KohnerThen we come to the actual ending of the film, which, while effective, is so obviously drawn to elicit a purely emotional response that it almost again topples over into pure melodrama, to the point where it almost becomes laughable. I’m not going to completely spoil it, but I will say that even for a film that is supposed, I guess, to be what is called a “tear jerker”, I really wish I didn’t feel the hand of the director so blatantly pointing a finger into my eyes and going “You Will Cry Now, Damn You!’.

With all of the above having been said, however, I really don’t mean for this to be a negative review, because in the end, I really have to say that overall I did enjoy watching this film, and I’m glad that I did. And I especially appreciate the message it was trying to get across, and it’s daring, especially for its time. Nor can one possibly ignore the performance of Juanita Moore as Annie, which is extremely powerful, and makes it easy to see why she (along with Kohner, actually) received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. It’s also very easy to see why it endures today, and why it’s a movie that still resonates with viewers. I suppose, if anything, the critiques I am making are simply the ones that keep the movie, for me at least, in the category of “really good” movies that I’m glad I’ve watched and would, if asked, recommend to others, to a “must see”.

I suppose it comes down to, as cliche as it is to say it, the movie simply having too much “imitation”, and not enough real “life”.

So what are your thoughts on Imitation of Life? Is it a movie that you’ve seen or would like to? If you have seen it, is it one that would make your own Top 10 list? Or would it not even crack your Top 250? Let me know below.


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