Tuesday, November 27, 2012

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #53 - Imitation of Life (1959, dir. Douglas Sirk)

            German-born director Douglas Sirk, who like many talented directors fled Germany during the rise of the Nazis to find work in America, created a series of masterful melodramas in Hollywood. At the time the pictures were considered pure fluff, dismissed with the derogatory term “Women’s Weepies,” but time has come to show Sirk’s mastery of film and his preoccupation with women’s issues – and in this case race – to be prescient. By the time of Imitation of Life, Sirk had made some 30 films in Hollywood and in many ways it’s his crowning glory, his ideas all at a peak of expression. The exaggeratedly melodramatic expression of the characters – he called it "dramas of swollen emotions" – may induce a chuckle here and there, but nobody’s laughing at the ideas, or at the way he sets up the devastating finale of the film.
            The film, a remake of a 1934 film of the same title based on a Fannie Hurst novel, centers on an ambitious actress, Lora Meredith (played by Lana Turner), and her daughter Susie (played by Sandra Dee), who take on a black woman named Annie Johnson (played by Juanita Moore) and her light-skinned daughter Sarah Jane (played by Susan Kohner) to live in a spare room they have and help around the house. The first part of the film sees Lora and Annie and their daughters struggling to make ends meet (and also sets up the conflicts that will play out in the rest of the film) while the remainder shows the now-successful Lora Meredith and how her success has not brought happiness or fulfillment to herself or those around her. But the focus in the second half really shifts to the conflicts between Annie and her daughter. Sarah Jane finds that her race puts barriers between her and what she wants but is light-skinned enough to pass for white and does so whenever she has the opportunity, much to the chagrin of her mother who repeatedly tells her there’s no reason she should be ashamed of who she is.
            The film is fully centered on these women. Men play almost no part in the narrative except at moments of convenience, and it’s reflected in Sirk’s way of having Lora move in the film – note how often she’s separated from men in the frame, or facing or moving away from them. And when Lora’s on-again-off-again romantic interest Steve tries to tell her how she will live her life, he’s definitively rebuked. Men are there, but for Lora only as means to further her ambitions, and for the daughters as objects of unattainable desire. It would be a crime to spoil how things play out in the film, so suffice to say that Annie’s almost-saintly and long-suffering behavior with her daughter plays into Sirk’s best-ever ending, and that Lora’s ruthless and selfish ambition and Sarah Jane’s rejection of her race, hemming her in to only "busboys, cooks, chauffeurs" as potential romantic objects, combine to give the title more meaning than the glossy soap opera name it could be perceived as.
            Sirk is a master of composition and he’s abetted here by his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Russell Metty, creating dazzling Eastman Color (it’s not Technicolor just because it’s bright!) compositions that owe much to Sirk’s long-time interest in painting but also to his interest in using the frame to portray his characters as trapped and hemmed in by their worlds, blocked or separated from others by the things they’ve acquired. He’s also aided by a tight, no-nonsense script co-written by Allan Scott, responsible for many of the best of the Astaire-Rogers films, and certainly someone who knows how to use words sparingly and precisely. The film’s head-on depiction of race issues in the heating up time of the Civil Rights movement takes center stage in the film, making this unique amongst his “Women’s Weepies,” though it takes an equally strong stance about the women’s independence in the film and ices the whole cake with the generational conflicts between mothers and daughters. Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner both received nominations for Best Supporting Actress (which likely split the vote between these superb performances and gave the Oscar to Shelley Winters for The Diary of Anne Frank), and the film was ultimately Sirk’s biggest commercial success. Upon completion of the shooting, Sirk and his wife returned to Europe and he retired from filmmaking, living out the rest of his days in Switzerland and seeing belated acclaim for his brilliance finally come his way in the 1970’s and 1980’s. And while many of his superb melodramas of the 1950’s are worthwhile views – particularly All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, Magnificent Obsession, and A Time to Love and A Time to Die – this one may well be his finest achievement. Keep the tissues handy for that ending though.
            - Patrick Brown

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