Passing Time


Imitation of Life

Oak Street Cinema, Wednesday and

Thursday at 7:20 and 9:45 p.m.

WHETHER YOU THINK it's placating or incendiary, pessimistic or cruel, an antiquated reminder of racial self-loathing or a timeless study of the forces that might compel a person of color to "pass," Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life (1959) at least has an indisputably brilliant title. For starters, Imitation of Life is the perfect synonym for Hollywood convention--something the film itself imitates to the point of ridicule. Plus, it defines the psychological m.o. of this melodrama's every character: a shallow actress (Lana Turner), imitating life on stage and at home; her vacuous daughter (Sandra Dee), taking after Mom; the daughter's friend (Susan Kohner), a light-skinned black girl trying to pass for white; and the girl's mother (Juanita Moore), an African American domestic who plays the martyr in this life so as to earn points in the next.

Given the weight of this particular text (file under: race, class, gender, motherhood, religion, cinema studies, and the 1950s), it seems merely anecdotal that Imitation of Life imitated life by casting Turner--an actress estranged from her daughter--as an actress estranged from her daughter. Indeed, Sirk's prefab house of cards (a remake of an earlier film, yet) is also its own hall of mirrors.

The first scene is the movie in microcosm: life imitated via rear-projection shots of Turner's careerist Lora searching for her lost kid on some backlot "Coney Island," only to find her in the arms of Moore's habitually maternal Annie, who offers her services as a maid in exchange for a spare room for her and daughter Sarah Jane. "Just let me come and do for you," Annie says, daring the '90s viewer not to cringe. Actually, such period contrivances are there to suggest that everything is a social construct--including the screenplay, and also the realities to which it alludes. (The year 1959 followed the Arkansas governor's defiance of Southern attempts to desegregate schools, and preceded student sit-ins at white-only lunch counters in North Carolina.)

Loaded with artificial syrup and thick dollops of irony, Sirk's Imitation is a double-layered slice of sour apple pie: the acid regurgitation of a European intellectual, disguised as a fluffy treat whose mass appeal (and perhaps its message) hinged on its misappropriation by whites as a tonic. (Hence, it might seem a controversial choice for the Juneteenth Film Festival--but it shouldn't fail to stimulate discussion of Hollywood's race problem then and now.) Seen today, the movie seems bent on alienating the viewer through its shrill music, campy dialogue, blunt symbolism (as when a black doll hits the floor with a shocking thud, foreshadowing Sarah Jane's beating by her white racist boyfriend), and politically incorrect protagonists--played by actors whom Sirk chose precisely for their vain or hollow qualities. (Sirk on Turner's performance: "This character is supposed to be a lousy actress... She really grasped that part.")

Speaking of Brechtian tactics, the movie's white-male love interest is made deliberately unreliable by the smug presence of Rock Hudson stand-in John Gavin (unwittingly called on to perform yet another imitation of life). Yet Sirk's relentless cynicism is a bit harder to reconcile when it comes to Annie and Sarah Jane--whose views of blackness as a stigma appear self-fulfilling, and whose compelling story in the film often takes a (symbolic?) back seat to Miss Lora's privileged, formulaic one. Basically, we're left to intuit that the black characters (and the movie) are themselves products of '50s-era racism--which explains the film's perspective, but hardly makes it less dizzying. Possibly thinking of W.E.B. DuBois's notion of African American double-consciousness, critic Molly Haskell once described Imitation's double-vision: "The black girl's agonizing quest for her identity is not seen from her point of view as much as it is mockingly reflected in the fun house mirrors of the culture from which she is hopelessly alienated."

Time is of the essence here. As Sirk told an interviewer in the '70s, "Imitation of Life is about the situation of the blacks before the slogan 'Black is beautiful'"--in other words, a film reflecting the constraints of a decade in which Sarah Jane was but a rebel without a cause; Annie would cheerfully defer to heaven to explain her oppression; and black film actors like Juanita Moore had to settle for bottom-billing in white "social problem" melodramas. No wonder the generation gap between mother and daughter feels so profound: If Annie wouldn't seem out of place in the Mammy role from Gone With the Wind, one could easily imagine feisty Sarah Jane growing up to be Foxy Brown. But that was still 15 years away.

Thus marking the end of an era, the film's concluding scene of Annie's lavish funeral (the one time she allows herself to splurge) is also the image of Sirk going out with a bang--his bitter farewell to a Hollywood whose conventions didn't allow for doing the right thing. Of all the movie's hyperbolic emotions, frustration is the most palpable. In Imitation of Life, what Annie and Sarah Jane need most from their maker is something he couldn't have given them at the time: the 1960s. And yet one of the reasons Sirk's film remains provocative in the '90s is its depiction of all that hasn't changed.

John Wright, professor of African American Studies at the University of Minnesota, will lead a discussion of Imitation of Life following the 7:20 p.m. show on Wednesday.

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