A tale of two mothers
When I was 4 or 5, the 1959 film “Imitation of Life” came on TV. It had two little girl characters, so I figured this must be a movie for kids. But I couldn’t figure out what was going on, so I asked my mother to explain it. She did her best. She told me it was about a black girl “passing” as white. Then she tried to explain what “passing” meant, and I was really out in the reeds. I must have goofed it up somehow, because I thought the girl’s mother was encouraging this thing called passing. I learned I was wrong when, as an adult, I finally watched Douglas Sirk’s film in earnest.
This is a sometimes sweet, sometimes painfully dramatic, sometimes cliched Hollywood film that you’ve got to credit for being progressive for its time.
“Imitation of Life” opens on a sunny summer day at the Coney Island beach. We see Lora (Lana Turner), a blond woman with every bleached follicle sprayed into submission, frantically searching for her daughter. Meanwhile, under the boardwalk, a black woman named Annie (Juanita Moore) is giving hot dogs to two little girls, blond Susan (Terry Burnham) and brunett Sarah Jane (Karin Dicker). We correctly assume that the blond girl must belong to Lora.
Mother and daughter are finally reunited, and Lora is very grateful to Annie. “Sarah Jane is a lovely child,” she says. “How long have you taken care of her?”
“All her life,” is Annie’s reply.
Lora can’t help but register surprise when told that Sarah Jane is Annie’s daughter.
“It surprises most people,” Annie says. “Sarah Jane favors her dad. He was practically white. He left before she was born.”
Annie assumes that the impeccably attired Lora has money, and offers to work for her as a domestic. Lora first declines the offer. (We find out later that she is barely making the rent.) But when she overhears Sarah Jane asking Annie where they’re going to stay that night, Lora makes an on-the-spot decision that will affect the rest of her life: to invite Annie and Sarah Jane to her home. Susan is thrilled; she has a slightly older playmate, at least for the night.
Home is a cramped NYC walk-up. Lora, a struggling actress, warns Annie that she has no money to pay her. But Annie is unfazed. She just smiles and takes over, finding little ways to lighten the financial burden: taking in washing, licking envelopes, making deals with the landlord and milkman.
Things are good, considering. The first sign of trouble: Sarah Jane does not want the black doll that Susan offers her. (Why does Susan have a black doll? She says her mom gave it to her. Why does she offer her black doll, rather than a white doll, to Sarah Jane? Hmmm … maybe because Sarah Jane’s mom is black?)
Something is brewing behind Sarah Jane’s fixed expression. Her feelings become clear when, on a day that suddenly turns snowy, Annie totes the girl’s galoshes to school. Like Peter denying Jesus, Sarah Jane tries to hide behind her book.
“Why do you have to be my mother?” she later says.
“It’s a sin to be ashamed of what you are,” Annie says.
But “Imitation of Life” stars Turner, after all, and in this tale of two mothers, her character eats up much of the film’s running time. The Lora storyline is almost like another movie. She has a love interest in a straight-arrow photographer named Steve (John Gavin) … she gets a modeling gig … she is nearly molested by a “handsy” theatrical agent (Robert Alda) … her career heats up … she spurns Steve … she becomes the toast of Broadway …
Meta alert: After establishing herself in comedies, Lora wants to play a social worker in a dramatic play. But she is warned that the play’s “colored angle” will be “absolutely controversial.” (This, in a movie with its own “colored angle.”)
Lora eventually moves into a beautiful, secluded spread outside of the city, and becomes a movie star. Through it all, Annie remains in her employ. Even though the employer/employee lines are drawn and respected, beneath it all, Lora and Annie are more like sisters.
One scene in particular still draws gasps: when grown-up Sarah is confronted by her boyfriend (then-unknown Troy Donahue) after he hears talk that she is black. “Is it true?” he demands. “Is your mother a n*gger?” He brutally beats her — I counted six hard whacks to the face — and leaves her on the street, bloodied and crumpled.
Enough synopsizing. Just wanna add that the last 10 minutes will wring your tear ducts.
Mississippi native Moore, who died at age 99 in 2014, was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. (So was Kohner. They lost to Shelley Winters for “The Diary of Anne Frank”). Despite Turner’s billing, Moore’s performance as Annie is the center of “Imitation of Life.”
Below is a “Classic Critique” segment on “Imitation of Life” by film buff Mercedez. (Her Kohner imitation is a riot.) Gotta love it when the young folks pay respect to the old movies.