Monday, January 22, 2018

Imitation of Life

The movie of the evening last night was "Imitation of Life". A crafty piece of cinema with a racial theme woven around a rags to riches subplot. The film was made in 1959 when the tough years for racial tension were not far ahead. Lora Meredith, played as a star vehicle for Lona Turner, is an actress with drive to be on top and is willing to sacrifice it all for her dream but somehow remains true to her young daughter. How she balances raising the daughter, as a single, ambitious mother is the plot device that brings in Juanita Moore, a homeless black mother with a mixed racial daughter. This part of the plot plays through the entire movie and is the catalyst for an exploration of the bigotry that has challenged America to this day.
Susan Kohner, as the troubled, mixed blood daughter justifiably got a nod by the Academy for her performance. As Sarah Jane, Moore's daughter, she is painfully aware that her life's path is set if she embraces her blackness. However, her predominant features are white so she sees her escape path as severing herself from her black side. This has painful consequences because it means distancing herself from her mother, whom she loves.
How could she not love Annie Johnson, a near saintly black woman whose love is unconditional and selfless? 
As is true for nearly all of this slosh through sentimentality, the principle players are far too good to be true. It is this that is far reaching in America, playing out in movies and TV throughout the early, post WWII era. Characters in mid-century cinema offered an impossible model for human behavior that would be broken by emerging trends with examples like "Bonnie and Clyde", "The GetAway", "The Graduate" etc. That turn in the path was caused by polarization. In TV families, like "Donna Reed", "My Three Sons", "Leave it to Beaver", the right words and the right behavior did not have the ring of truth for so many. America's longing for perfection in human interaction, exhibited by "Imitation of Life", met a harsher, more real, world for the many and the clash is the Reality of today between idealistic Left and the tough love Right.  
The title is fitting and leads me to wonder if these things were a conscious understanding in Douglas Sirk, the director. Other Sirk's vehicles explore problems with the American Dream. "Written on the Wind", "The Heiress", perhaps he is offering a warning to not set our sights too high. It was in five years of this movie that America was engaged in Vietnam, a conflict that challenged fundamental American Ideals. 
In this movie Annie must die and the last scene of the movie is a send off to Heaven with an elaborate funeral. "Imitation of Life" causes us to question the plastic arts and the validity of their Truths and ask ourselves what we can claim, as Americans, to be really like.    

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