Holy crap, guys. This film.
I’m really not using The Retro Set as a therapy couch, I would just like to point the finger at TCM’s Summer Under the Stars movie marathon. Every day of the month, the classic film network is featuring a movie star of yesterday, and bloggers around the world are writing about them. I grew up on these movies, largely because of my mother, so god help me if a few of my posts have their … uh … Freudian issues.
Like this one.
Star of the day Lana Turner is far from my favorite screen personality– oh don’t get my wrong, she’s smokin’ hot. I just never had a personal affinity for any of her performances. Except one. One that is entirely due to my mother and her cunning use of subterfuge.
See, my mother had many methods of discipline–but her subtle tactics were the ones that really worked, much more so than verbal correction. One of such clever tactics was to scold me (and my sister) through movies. Particularly old movies. (If you know anything about me from my Pictorial, you’ll know that we communicate mainly through films. It’s … this … thing we have.)
I don’t remember what my silly 13-year-old mouth said that day “(mouthing off,” as it’s so commonly called), but apparently it warranted a mandatory viewing of Douglas Sirk’s 1959 melodrama Imitation of Life, followed by a written page of my personal thoughts on the film after it was over. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was something akin to capital punishment.
And, knowing my mouth, I surely deserved it.
Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) is a beautiful blonde who goes from penniless bit-part actress to the toast of Broadway by her own force of will and the loyal assistance of her personal maid and close friend, Annie (Juanita Moore). Like Lora, Annieis a divorcee with a young daughter of her own. The two meet on a day at Coney Island when Turner’s daughter has gone walkabout, and Annie has found the wayward child who is happily playing with her own daughter. Lora mistakes the light-skinned child for being Annie’s ward. She is surprised when Annie tells her that the pretty brunette, Sarah Jean, is her own daughter–her father being ‘practically white.’ This infers that Annie’s husband was biracial, owing to Sandra Jean’s light complexion. These two very different women find they have everything in common–save for the color of their skin–and begin a close-knit friendship from that day forward.
They bridge an unshakable bond through their hardship and heartache. Lora has her definite issues, trying to make it on Broadway. I’m normally not a fan of Turner’s films, but Imitation of Life was something I was raised on and so I have come to truly appreciate her turn in this role. She’s playful, down-to-earth, and rises to the occasion of playing opposite the magnificent Juanita Moore. (The original version of this film, John Stah’s production starring Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers–with the impossibly beautiful Fredi Washington as the young girl–is lesser known but absolutely worth the watch.)
Moore’s performance as the soulful matriarch is the heart of the film.
Annie’s burden is soul-crushing. Her light-skinned daughter, from her early age, is ashamed of her mother. “Why do YOU have to be my mother,” she screams one day, after being found out for passing. And a dark, ugly, resentful streak manifests in her that carries through the rest of the film–dangerously.
The two girls grow up into very attractive young women, portrayed by the (not-so-wholesome) Sandra Dee and the flirtatious Susan Kohner. (Who, by the way, is Natalie Wood’s doppelganger, if she ever had one!)
What transpires is a Douglas Sirk Blue Plate Special. You get plenty of mistaken affection, violent arguments, passion, disgust, mistrust, and betrayal. But on a much more intimate level that raises it from the usual Sirk fare.
John Gavin as Lana Turner’s old flame is duly smoldering, Kohner is the scheming sexpot who carries on behind her mother’s back with hunk-of-the-town Troy Donahue. Kohner’s Sarah Jane is a delicate role, and Kohner nails it. Sarah Jane truly does love her mother. But she is blinded by her ambition to live her life as a white woman. When Donahue finds out, he beats her to the ground for lying. Annie tries to console her, while Lora scolds the girl with the vicious words, “Don’t you dare talk to your mother that way.”
Sarah Jane runs away from home, determined to live her life as a white woman. Annie tries to rescue her daughter from the sleazy nightclub life she’s fallen into, but the exposure of Sarah Jane as being black costs her the job at the nightclub and sends Sarah Jane over the edge. She tells her mother that she never wants her acknowledge her, or ever associate herself with her again.
The loss breaks Annie in half. Without her daughter, Annie’s sole purpose for living, her heart is broken and she beings to simply waste away.
But Lana Turner isn’t without her own troubles.
Lora’s own daughter Susie (Sandra Dee) has fallen in love with Lora’s long-term off-and-on-again lover, Steve (John Gavin.) Steve has stepped in as a father-figure for Susie, while Lora is off pursuing her acting career. And when Lora announces her engagement to Steve …well…Susie is hardly thrilled with the news. They fight– not nearly so brutal as the fights between Annie and Sarah Jane–but enough to evoke emotion.
Despite Lora’s nursing, Annie falls to her deathbed. She begs of Steve to please find her Sarah Jane to convey one simple message: “Tell her that I know I was selfish. And if I loved her too much, I’m sorry. She was simply all I had.” Lora screams into Annie’s bosom as she dies, and the camera focuses on the on the one photo at Annie’s bedside: Sarah Jane’s.
Um….ALL THE TEARS.
Might I add, my own mother was next to me during the entire screening and I could feel her gauging my every reaction. Which, I assure you, was quite unabashed in its torrential howling.
Annie’s funeral is given a grand procession, having been a revered member of the black community–a life the self consumed Lora had no idea even existed.
In my opinion, Sirk’s film is defined entirely defined by its closing, dramatic funeral scene. Douglas Sirk is a director known for his over-the-top melodrama. Well. One must doff his cap to Mr. Sirk for this scene, if nothing else in his career, when over-the-top melodrama feels deeply needed. The beautiful, wrenching strains of the gospel singers drape over Annie’s coffin.
It is Sirk’s finest moment.
Sarah Jane, learning of the news, devastated by it, comes running to see her mother. The solemn streets are shattered by her hysterical screams of “MAMA!”
The sequence, even as I write this, brings tears to my eyes.
The pained Sarah Jane, grief-stricken with guilt, throws herself at her mother’s coffin, and Sirk does not hold back: He is the master of manipulative emotion and, oh boy, does he ever fire on all six cylinders here. Sarah Jane grasps at the lilies of her mother’s coffin, sobbing, “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it! I love you!”
On that first viewing, at 13, I hated Sarah Jean. But I also understood her. As a biracial child myself, I grew up in 1980s Southern California and was therefore fortunate to be surrounded with liberal family and friends–black, white, and every color. But I knew fellow girls my age, of similar race but different rearing, and they had decidedly harder issues with identity–some of whom, as incredulous as it may sound, mirrored Sarah Jane.
Therefore, my mother’s intent on forcing me to watch the film wasn’t some sort of lecture on racial identity–as I was confident with mine–it was about something else.
It was about respecting my mother. And, quite punishingly, demonstrating the importance of my appreciating her since she will not always be there to run to.
A required essay on the lessons learned from the film followed.
Needless to say, a tear or two might have stained the ink as I wrote.
Now if you’ll excuse me…I think I need to go and call my mother to tell her I love her.