Monday, November 17, 2008

IMITATION OF LIFE (1959)

At left, my favorite Lana Turner expression: stricken, freaked-out, NOOOOOOoooooOOOOO!!!!!--with scenery-chewing aplenty. Even though it's Annie's death scene, Lana takes over the screen with her melodramatic blondness. (She always looked utterly fabulous.)



While Mr Daisy read a high-minded historical biography of Andrew Jackson, I sat there watching, yes, IMITATION OF LIFE, probably for the 100th time. I find it impossible to stop once I have started. I was one of those fan-girls who yelped with joy when John Travolta ordered the "Douglas Sirk steak" at Jack Rabbit Slim's in PULP FICTION. Douglas Sirk!

He was born Hans Detlef Sierck, which if you think about it, wouldn't sound nearly as good on the menu at Jack Rabbit Slim's:

Sirk's melodramas of the 1950s, while highly commercially successful, were generally very poorly received by reviewers. His films were considered unimportant (because they revolve around female and domestic issues), banal (because of their focus on larger-than-life feelings) and unrealistic (because of their conspicuous style).
You can see the similarity to feminist blogging, she winked!

This dismissal of Sirk's films changed drastically in the 1970s when his work was re-examined by British and French critics. From around 1970 there was a considerable interest among academic film scholars for Sirk's work - especially his American melodramas. Often centering on the formerly criticized style, his films were now seen as masterpieces of irony. The plots of the films were no longer taken at face value, and the analyses instead found that the films really criticized American society underneath the banal surface plot. The criticism of the 1970s and early 1980s was dominated by an ideological take on Sirk's work, gradually changing from being Marxist-inspired in the early 1970s to being focused on gender and sexuality in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Well, I didn't need no European snobs to tell me that this is some great stuff. I was eagerly watching these movies as a kid, with the same unbridled abandon I used to read Harold Robbins novels or R. Crumb comic books, always thinking: I'm not supposed to be doing this, for some reason.

IMITATION OF LIFE has the fascinating distinction of having been based on the 1933 novel written by Fannie Hurst:

Hurst, a white woman, was deeply involved in the Harlem Renaissance, and for a time lived with Zora Neale Hurston. Both Hurston and Langston Hughes claimed to like Imitation of Life, though both revoked their opinion after Sterling Allen Brown lambasted both the book and the first film in a review titled Imitation of Life: Once a Pancake, a reference to a line in the first film. The novel Imitation of Life continues to be highly controversial, as some read it as heavy-handed stereotyping, while others see it as a more subtle and subversive satire of and commentary on race, sex, and class in early 20th century America. Both text and films have remained deeply embedded in American consciousness, for better or worse, as evidenced by Toni Morrison's use of a character named "Pecola" in her 1970 novel The Bluest Eye.
Left: Mahalia Jackson, sings at Annie's funeral in the overwrought finale.


The first version, directed by John M. Stahl in 1934, didn't move me much, and has too many side-plots weighing the movie down. As in Hurst's original novel, the story of the racially-passing child is just too incendiary, and simply couldn't be the entire focus of a 30s movie. It was far too early and scary for racial honesty from Hollywood, and too early and scary for the (intended white) audience to absorb. By 1959, everything racial in the US was dangerously teetering and ready to go BOOM, and in Sirk's second version of the story, he goes whole hog and everything suitably bursts wide open, technicolor, bammo, in your face. (It's my opinion that only a foreign director could go this far in the 50s, having had no "direct involvement" in the ongoing American Racial Drama.) For instance, teen idol Troy Donahue (!!) [1] beats up the biracial Sarah-Jane when he discovers that she is passing, to the shock of the slack-jawed 50s audience. At the end, Mahalia Jackson sings Trouble of the World, and holy God, not a dry eye in the house.

And I should fess up. I love Lana Turner. She is almost in the same category as my Goddess Elizabeth. Unfortunately, Lana wasn't quite an actress, as was Liz, who had that uncanny born-in-cinema ability to make you believe anything. With Lana, you are periodically thinking, Oh come ON (with the steamy exception of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE). Lana's life was movie-material itself. Her daughter, Cheryl Crane, went on trial for the murder of Lana's mobster lover, Johnny Stompanato. My mother, who knew everything, told me Lana really did it. (Thus, I grew up staring at Lana in abject wonder; I figured any woman who gets away with stabbing a mobster and pinning it on her daughter must be some kind of evil genius.) [2]

The parellel tracks of Lora and Susie (Sandra Dee) [3] in the film, and Lana and Cheryl in real life, are incredible to think about, since Lora portrays an actress in the film, as well. "Oh mama, STOP ACTING!" Susie begs her at one point, and Lora looks genuinely annoyed...did she hit a nerve? (Did Cheryl ever tell Lana that, in real life?) And this is a standard narrative (unhappy daughters) in Hollywood's "women pictures"--as it was in MILDRED PIERCE. From Stephen Handzo's article at Bright Lights Film Journal:
If the working-class male was the presumed audience for the gangster film, one supposes the hypothetical patron of the woman's picture to have been a housewife rather than the aggressive career woman the films depicted. As in Mildred Pierce, the first half of Imitation of Life allows the housewife to experience vicariously the excitement of a career — and a glamorous one. Turner wears $1,000,000 worth of jewels in the film and a $78,000 Jean Louis wardrobe — 34 costume changes at an average cost of $2,214.13 each. (Even the film's main title is superimposed over cascading jewels that eventually clog the screen.) Although she is supposed to be a great actress, Turner is utilized to conform to her negative critical reputation as a "clothes horse."

The second half of the classic woman's picture demonstrates that money does not buy happiness, which can only come from being successful in love, thereby reassuring the spectator that she was actually better off than the woman she has been encouraged to envy and enabling her to leave the film reconciled to returning to the domestic situation.
Even with the predictable chick flick baggage, IMITATION OF LIFE delivers on the big front, it's daring address of race in the 50s. Juanita Moore is prevailed upon to act like a saint in her role as Annie, which doesn't leave much room for interpretation. Perhaps if she'd been more human, 50s audiences would not have identified with her? She had to be "perfect"--but the 50s idea of perfect. Now, all of her "Miss Lora's" are like bludgeons to our (supposedly) advanced race-relations sensibilities. In my lifetime, I have gone from believing that Annie was completely honest with Lora, to realizing how careful she was in what she allowed her to see. There is a great exchange in which Lora believes Annie doesn't have any friends of her own, and Annie corrects her. She goes to the Baptist church, she tells her, and she knows lots of people. Lora says, "Annie, I never knew."

"Miss Lora," Annie says, "You never asked."

Susan Kohner, the Jewish-Mexican woman who plays angry Sarah Jane, strikes just the right notes in her performance. The scene in which she dances in her bedroom after making her decision to pass as white, is almost scary in its solipsism, as she kicks over a stuffed lamb for emphasis. She is fabulous in the role, but I think it's interesting that a racially-mixed African-American actress (such as Dorothy Dandridge or Lena Horne) [4] wasn't cast, although either would have been equally wonderful. I think the fact that nobody knew for sure WHAT Kohner was (she played a lot of Native Americans in Hollywood) worked well in the role. Everyone "knew" Dandridge and Horne were black. But the mystery of Kohner's ethnicity played well for the story, and added to the plot in a personal way. In several scenes, you can almost hear the 50s audience marveling that she could have fooled anyone! Which is the whole idea.

Handzo comments:

Annie is the self-sacrificing mother dear to tearjerkers but to little purpose. Sara Jane wants something that even Mildred Pierce's money couldn't buy: white skin.

Where it is a common fault of both liberal problem pictures and soap operas to talk their issues to death, Imitation of Life excels in explicit directness. When Kohner's boyfriend (Troy Donahue) discovers that she has been passing for white, he beats her mercilessly. Instead of underplaying the melodramatic scene in the name of "good taste," Sirk intensifies it.

Kohner's escape from her racial identity takes the form of dancing in nightclubs; although the chorus lines are all white, this is a form of show business traditionally open to blacks as opposed to the "legitimate" theater of Turner's career. (Nevertheless, Lana Turner provides an indirect role model for Kohner just as Juanita Moore functions as a mother substitute to Dee.) In further contrast to the subdued colors of Turner's world, the nightclubs are a garish wonderland of reds and purples and all the gaudiness stereotypically associated with blacks merchandised to sensation-seeking whites.

Moore chases Kohner to Hollywood, where she finally agrees never to embarrass her daughter again by being seen with her.
The scene in which Annie follows Sarah-Jane to her new apartment, is famous. Three-hanky alert! Make sure you have plenty of kleenex first, before watching:



Handzo:

It is only with Annie's death that Sara Jane again acknowledges her mother. For the funeral scene, Sirk pulls out all the stops, even to Mahalia Jackson singing "Trouble of the World." Yet all the brilliant hues of the stained-glass windows and floral arrangements serve to throw into relief the most potent visual elements in this color film about color that are black and white: the white hearse requested by Annie, the white casket upon which Sara Jane flings herself hysterically when she finally realizes the emotional cost of this posthumous whiteness. As a final inversion, the white women, Turner and Dee, and Kohner, who wanted to be white, are reunited in Turner's black Chrysler limousine, temporarily equalized by the black of mourning.
[5]
This elaborate, overdone, melodramatic and beautiful soap-opera has a rock-hard truth at its core, which is what keeps some of us coming back to it again and again. What an interesting movie to show so soon after our recent election!

It's a new day, and let's hope our Sarah Janes never feel they must make such choices, ever again.


~*~


[1] During commercials, I was flipping back and forth from IMITATION OF LIFE to the GODFATHER movies, wherein Troy Donahue plays Connie Corleone's would-be husband, Merle, immortalized thusly: "Now, I don't know this Merle--I don't know what he does--I don't know what he lives on." (A shared catchphrase between me and Mr Daisy, regarding those interesting people who have no visible means of support.) Donahue's real name, in fact, was Merle Johnson. How amazing to see the arrogant teen idol morph into a middle-aged gigolo right before my eyes!

Cover of Cheryl Crane's memoir, DETOUR.

[2] Obviously, nobody but Cheryl Crane, Lana Turner, and the deceased Johnny Stompanato, will ever know what really happened. But the standard Hollywood gossip and movie-magazine narrative was that Lana killed Johnny, and underage Cheryl took the fall for it, because she wouldn't get an adult sentence. Speaking of Harold Robbins, this was also the brazenly-stolen plot of his novel and subsequent movie Where Love Has Gone (1964), starring Susan Hayward as the Lana character (named Valerie) and Joey Heatherton as the Cheryl character (named Danielle). Heatherton, Stanley Kubrick's smoldering first choice for the role of LOLITA (Joey's dad said no), is perfect as an early-60s, juvenile delinquent-temptress, while Susan Hayward delivers one of those trademark threatening-to-boil-over performances of hers. (She's no Lana, but Joey is worth the movie.) In Cheryl Crane's biography DETOUR (yes, I just happen to have a copy of the book right HERE, she said, embarrassed), Cheryl dutifully repeats the legal version of events and I don't believe it for a minute. But the photos in the book are GREAT!

[3] Sandra Dee's delicate, wispy frame, once lauded in the coveted role of GIDGET, now causes me to wince, since I know (from reading DREAM LOVERS) that she had a harsh, world-class, Hollywood-style eating disorder. Her stage-mother had her injected with all manner of bizarre shit. (As I stated in my comments on this thread, I have long refused to watch the biopic of Bobby Darren, BEYOND THE SEA, because I heard it trashed his devoted wife Sandra Dee. And besides: KATE BOSWORTH?!? Not hardly.)

[4] Both had been considered for Elia Kazan's PINKY (1949), also about a biracial woman passing as white, but studios went with (decidedly lukewarm) Jeanne Crain, for box-office appeal. In the first IMITATION OF LIFE, Kohner's character was played by African-American actress Fredi Washington.

[5] The entire bang-up finale of IMITATION OF LIFE; Annie's death, Mahalia Jackson, the grand, over-the-top funeral, Sarah-Jane throwing herself on the casket in hysterics, is available on YouTube.

10 comments:

bryce said...

you didn't mention Cheryl Craine is gay but i forgive you this time. !

hsyperia said...

WOW! What a bunch of great stuff. You like all "my" movies. I saw "Imitation of Life" when I was fairly young. As I remember, there was very little treatment of race in movies of that time. It was an eye-opener for me.

Jackie said...

Thanks for taking me back in time. Haven't seen a Lana Turner rerun for ages or thought about the major dramas in her real life.

YogaforCynics said...

That was Troy Donahue in Godfather II? Gotta admit, I only know him from that line from one of the songs in Grease: "look at you Troy Donahue, I know what you wanna do, won't go to be 'til I'm legally wed..." or something like that.

I'll add "Imitation of Life" to my Netflix queue as soon as I leave this blog.....

Logan Lamech said...

I don't think you're allowed to change the channel from a Godfather movie. I'm pretty sure it's in the constitution.

Logan Lamech
www.eloquentbooks.com/LingeringPoets.html

Ann O'Dyne said...

That post took my breath away.

Firstly I must bless Douglas Sirk's little heart - what a guy MHDSRIP.

and yes,
Dame Elizabeth is A Monument.

I have just discovered your blog but I am sure as I read more, I am going to find something about two actors I love - Kim Novak (Third Girl From The Left!) and Tuesday Weld.
Actors who got away with it Part 2:
There is a new book about an english actor Kenneth Williams who killed his brutal father and went onstage that night to give the "performance of his career"

shadocat said...

I remember reading something (maybe I read it in "Detour")that a young Sean Connery was making a movie with Lana in England once. Johnny Stompanato came to visit the set, and roughed her up pretty bad. Sean saw it, took him outside, and KICKED HIS ASS! (I know it's wrong, but I always though that was kind of cool...)

mikeb302000 said...

Wow, you really know some stuff, Daisy. I'm right with you on the Pulp Fiction and Godfather, but some of the other things I need to check out.

risa said...

Daisy, I'm in awe. Never, in my brightest young days, could I have held that much culture in my head at one pop!

Now I gotta netflix it ...

Anonymous said...

Troy Donahue played the tough guy on Imitation of Life. Ironically, in the news, there is a hero with same nickname as the first name of Troy Donahue's: Ambers O'Neal "Troy" Shewmaker/Cansler. Troy gave his life saving a young woman but God took him.