Saturday, August 10, 2013

Weekend Cinema Spotlight: Imitation of Life

Not every film I watch stays with me days later. This one did. Imitation of Life (1959) starring Lana Turner, John Gavin, Sandra Dee, Susan Kohner, and Juanita Moore.

It begins in 1947, when Lora Meredith (Turner) is at a beach and searching for a missing daughter. She finds her in the company of an African-American woman named Annie Johnson (Moore) and her daughter, Sarah Jane. Much to Lora's surprise, Sarah Jane is fair skin and didn't realize her mother was Annie. They exchange kindness's and Lora allows Annie and Sarah Jane to stay in her home because they are homeless. In a short matter of time Annie becomes a part of Lora's family and runs the home for her as she pursues her dreams of becoming and actress.
When I started watching this film I didn't know what to expect but I assumed that this was going to be all about Lana Turner's character. I was wrong. That was just the top layer of this film. Although Turner was enjoyable to watch as a widow/mother yearning to make her biggest dream come true, it was Juanita Moore that stole the film and my heart along with it. Turner was the cake but Moore was the filling.

Eleven years later, Lora is no longer a struggling actress but a very famous and successful one. She stays in a long term relationship with a playwright but doesn't truly love him. And although her success allows her to send her daughter, Susie (Dee) to the best schools, her work load has created a rift between them.
Annie remains as the head housekeeper to Lora and is able to provide things for her daughter that she would have never been able to otherwise. But Sarah Jane is tortured but her mixed race identity and refuses to associate herself with anything African-American. Even her mother, at least in public. She even tries to pass as white at school and pursues a young man (Troy Donahue) in the hopes that she could break free from where she has come from and who she really is.

Annie, always peaceful, gentle, and kind tries her best to guide her daughter to self-acceptance. She never yells at her or voices her anger at her daughter's indifference but quietly attempts to teach her daughter to love herself for who and what she is.
After being rejected from her boyfriend and seeing no escape from her heritage, Sarah Jane runs away and becomes a dancer at a seedy club. Annie feeling drained and hopeless is determined to find her daughter and help her in anyway that she could. Annie was feeling ill before Sarah Jane's dissapearence but refused to get any medical help. Instead she flies to New York and in a very difficult scene to watch, tells her daughter that she loves her but that she will finally leave her alone.

I cannot express to you how painful that scene was to watch for me because Annie was everything a mother hopes to be for their child. She is loving, hardworking, dedicated, honest, supportive, kind, and oh what was more heartbreaking was that Sarah Jane loved her mother too. She embraces her after Annie asks for it for one last time.

After she returns from saying goodbye to Sarah Jane she falls seriously ill. You see for the first time how deep the friendship between Lora and Annie is and how important Annie was to everyone in the family. She was the anchor that kept everyone afloat.

All Annie asks for when she passes is a spectacular funeral. For someone who lived such a quiet and demur life, Annie wanted her exit to be like a superstar would have. And rightfully so. At the funeral there was a powerful solo performance by the incredible Mahalia Jackson. I got chills listening to her sing "Trouble of the World". My goodness, her voice to me was like listening to an angel sing.
Before the horse drawn carriages bring Annie to her final resting place, her daughter Sarah Jane run up and embraces her coffin. I think I must have cried for five minutes straight! 

Lora, decided to spend less time working and more time with her own daugher, Susie as well as trade in her playwright amour for someone she truly loved. Because of these changes she is able to see and understand Sarah Jane's need for acceptance and family. In the last scenes Lora comforts Sarah Jane and you get the impression that somehow they will all be alright without Annie.

I cannot recommend this film enough. It seems like it would be too much for the heart to bare but it does tell both the stories of Lora and Annie beautifully. You see the choices two mothers make for the sake of their children and for themselves. 

You can find both the dvd version of this film and the original novel by Fanny Hurst  here:

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  1. I haven't seen that one yet! Sounds really good. Must put it on my list! Lana Turner is just amazing

  2. Omg!! This has been my favorite movie since I was 8 years old!! My befriend and I would have sleep overs and watch it. We always had to have snacks ti try to keep the lump in our throats at bay (you keep from crying and all). Such a sad movie but still sits with me. I watch it every single time it comes on! Saw it last night actually! Amazing movie!

  3. I have never watched this version. I have seen the 1934 version with Claudette Colbert though and really enjoyed it. I've dvr-ed this one when it was on TCM the other night and plan to watch it soon.

    Great review!

  4. I watched this film when I was a little girl and remember my mother trying to explain to me the complexities of why the colour of your skin mattered to some people. I have never forgotten it and its subject matter must have been even more significant in its day.

  5. Love the way you began this post, dear Bunny (as well as the rest of too, of course :)). Isn't it fascinating how some movies really stick in your mind for days or even weeks after you see them and others all but forgotten hours later? I'll never forget the first time I Forest Gump as a child, I was probably about 11 at the time. It was one of the most adult, horizon expanding movies I'd ever seen up until that point and I thought about it for weeks on end afterwards. I really felt like I grew up a little via the mere act of watching it.

    ♥ Jessica

  6. Bunny,
    You are so very true: Some films find a way to pierce their path into one's heart. And they not only make us question some of our actions - but they also govern our days to follow.. those are, what I call "film worth watching". This just might be one of those.
    I'm adding this to my "I must watch this" list - I have no idea how come I havent' seen it before.

    Thank you for introducing this to me.



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