When it’s on: Saturday, 27 February (4.00 pm)
I’m white. White! White! If we should ever pass on the street, please don’t recognise me
In reading about Imitation of Life for this piece, I did some research on its star, Lana Turner. What a life she had! In his titanic Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson dismissed her as having ‘the sluggish carnality of a thick broad on the make’, but I get the impression that the roles she took were defined by a well developed survival instinct. As a child, her father took off and was later discovered dead, murdered for the money he’d stuffed inside his sock. She and her mother moved to Los Angeles, completely impoverished, Mildred working up to 80 hour weeks in a string of menial jobs just to survive. By sheer chance, Turner was ‘discovered’ when she happened to buy a soda from a Hollywood store, and from there was signed to MGM. Her debut performance in They Won’t Forget lent her instant fame as the figure hugging jumper she wore in the film landed her the nickname ‘the Sweater Girl’, and a fortune making career in the movies beckoned.
Had the story ended there, with Turner’s money worries over forever, then it would have had the makings of a classic Hollywood fairytale. But real life has a nasty habit of continuing after the credits have rolled, and success came at a price. As her professional career ebbed and flowed, Turner became renowned for her private life, marrying eight times and being involved with countless love affairs. She was five marriages in by the time she was hired for Imitation of Life, her life turning to scandal when her daughter stabbed and killed Johnny Stompanato, the mob bodyguard she was seeing and with whom she had a turbulent and abusive relationship. The murder was committed in defence of Turner and the court ruled it as justifiable homicide, but it also seemed to be career shattering until she was offered the lead role in Douglas Sirk’s upcoming melodramatic epic. It was of course stunt casting. The part she would play – that of a wannabe theatrical star whose single-minded determination to make it comes at the expense of any relationship she has with her daughter – was a reflection of Turner’s own life, a fact that made her as reticent about accepting it as the contract offer – a small salary plus half the net profits. Still, a job was a job. Turner was struggling financially and signed up, a wise move as the film was a box office smash and netted her $11 million.
Looking back, Imitation of Life seems to form the third part of a sort of triptych of defining roles for Turner. 1946’s The Postman Always Rings Twice presents her as the angel faced wife of a much older man, dressed in dazzling white whilst beneath the surface she’s a femme fatale, just waiting for John Garfield’s drifter to assist her in murdering the husband and running away together. Fate is naturally far from clement for the lovers, yet Turner is tremendous as the beautiful woman with an altogether black heart. In 1952, she starred in The Bad and the Beautiful for Vincent Minnelli, playing a booze-soaked actress whose potential is spotted by Kirk Douglas’s ruthless movie producer. He seduces her and in doing so inspires a great performance from her, only to drop her once she’s given the playing of a lifetime.
Both films have distinct echoes of Turner’s real-life adventures and emphasise the tendency for survival that kept her in work. She always strove to develop her skills, took roles that stretched her and proved restless in her effort to remain in the industry long after the initial impact she made wore off. Imitation of Life, made more than twenty years after her discovery and as she was in her late thirties, was as much evidence of this as it was the continuing public interest in her. Strangely enough, her story in the film isn’t the one that carries the most resonance.
Imitation of Life is the story of four women, two mothers and their daughters. Turner plays Lora Meredith, a widow who moves to New York with her girl, Susie, in the hope of making it on Broadway. What she discovers are unscrupulous, lecherous agents and dead end jobs, though the hope of future happiness also arrives in the form of John Gavin’s smitten photographer. Love with Gavin is set aside, as is Susie, as Lora charms her way into a starring role in Dan O’Herlihy’s new stage comedy and the start of a glittering career. Susie finds herself in the care of Annie (Juanita Moore), a homeless black woman who becomes Lora’s housekeeper. Annie comes with her own daughter, Sarah Jane, the outcome of a brief encounter, and because the father was white so is she. As Sarah Jane grows up, she finds increasingly that her mother’s race is the source of embarrassment and will turn her into a social pariah, and she tries to hide her identity.
The years pass. Lora has achieved fame and is now living the good life in a grand pile, with the movies beckoning. But the tensions between her and the teenage Susie (Sandra Dee) have grown, the latter spending more time with Annie and developing feelings for Gavin’s character. Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) has developed into a young woman with a strong sense of resentment over her roots, dates white boys and looks for a way out. Her feelings clash with those of her mother and become mutually destructive during a period in America that was defined by racial tension.
This being a Sirk movie, the piece plays like a highly stylised soap opera. It’s glossy and colourful – whilst I would argue that monochrome always favoured Turner better, there’s little doubt the film goes out of its way to glamorise her; a million dollars was spent on her gowns alone. There’s the usual elaborate set dressing and confection that punctuates his famous melodramas from this era, but there’s a keen sense of social realism also. As the Lora-Susie storyline fades because it simply isn’t as powerful as the narrative presented to Annie and Sarah Jane, the way it deals with the uncomfortable issue of civil rights is deft – no attempt is made to deny the presence of difficult race relations, but it’s just there and the characters deal with it. The difficulties faced by Annie are simply shown as fact and never given over to heavy handed polemics, leaving the plot to concentrate on the personal tensions between mother and daughter.
Both Moore and Kohner were Oscar nominated for their performances (whilst Turner and Dee were not), and when the camera is on them they are simply riveting together. It’s possible to look on Sarah Jane’s efforts to deny her black mother as altogether selfish, but I think that’s more an issue of watching the film as a twenty first century viewer when in reality there’s a horrible note of truth about her attitude. She’s young, gorgeous, has had the privileges showered on Lora and Susan shoved down her throat and wants some of that action. In the film’s one scene of brutality, she’s secretly been seeing a white boy, until he discovers that her mother’s black and beats her up, which makes Sarah Jane more determined than ever to break away. So she does, leaving the home and making her way in the entertainment business. What she fails to bank on is Annie’s determination to follow her and continue to love her. I admit my heart cracked when Annie tells Sarah Jane that she’ll always be there for her; the daughter realises the depth of a mother’s feeling and caves in. It’s the film’s best scene and it’s just devastating, raw and real amidst all the artifice presented elsewhere.
I’ll happily confess that I’m a complete sucker for Sirk’s American films. Imitation of Life was his last; dismissed at the time as unimportant and lacking realism, the critical response to his work led to his retirement and return to Germany, though it didn’t take long for feelings to change, for an appreciation of his iconoclasm – buried deep within the trappings of glossy melodrama – to emerge, and rightly so. These days, we can enjoy Sirk for his ability to tell women’s stories. It’s no accident that the men in Imitation of Life are either not very nice (Robert Alda’s oily promoter) or fade into the background; John Gavin, as the love interest for Lora and later Susie, is present to fill a role and doesn’t take any focus off the ladies. The problems faced by all four women in the picture are brilliantly set out and discussed, all leading ‘imitations of life’, though it’s the tale of Annie and Sarah Jane that takes pre-eminence because it’s more powerful, socially relevant and, let’s face it, better acted.
We also have the instance of Lana Turner’s last great role, one that ensured her longevity and lasting mark. Not bad going for a ‘thick broad on the make’ who somehow kept winning leading parts and fans many years after her Sweater Girl debut in the industry.
Imitation of Life: ****