When I worked in the Dallas Public Library’s Fine Arts Division, I would annually replace our DVD copies of IMITATION OF LIFE, due to non-stop usage and occasional disappearances. I often wondered why that particular film inspired such constant viewing and/or possessiveness! Dallas author Sam Staggs provided some answers.
Akin to his previous books on the films SUNSET BOULEVARD and ALL ABOUT EVE, Staggs offers an engrossing “biography” of IOL, profiling nearly every person involved in its production, plus describing its origins, promotion, controversy and significance in cinema history.
Directed by Douglas Sirk and produced by Ross Hunter, 1959′s IMITATION OF LIFE was based on the Fannie Hurst novel and starred Lana Turner as a rising actress neglecting her teenage daughter; Juanita Moore as her black housekeeper and devoted friend; and film newcomer Susan Kohner as Moore’s light-skinned daughter who ultimately passes for white, thus breaking her mother’s heart. (The book’s title is a direct quote from the movie, as Moore describes her daughter’s seemingly inevitable fate.) IOL was an important project in all the actors’ careers.
It would be Turner’s first film since her own daughter, Cheryl Crane, murdered her mother’s lover, gangster Johnny Stompanato, in 1958, resulting in a tabloid-esque trial for the ages. For Moore, a versatile though largely unknown performer, her appearance in IOL would represent both her “big break” and also, hopefully, an advance for African-Americans in cinema. For Kohner, the Caucasian daughter of a prominent Hollywood agent, it would be her first, inherently risky, starring role. (Moore’s and Kohner’s careers did ultimately benefit, as both received Supporting Actress Oscar nominations for their performances.)
As for the film itself, Staggs characterizes it as “both schizoid and revolutionary: surface safety that conceals hidden explosives”. Miscegenation and “passing” were inflammatory notions in the late 1950s, as the civil rights movement grew in intensity. Blending those story lines into what Staggs calls a glossy “blonde” melodrama—complete with Turner’s extravagant costumes and acted-to-the-hilt dramatic scenes galore—challenged audiences and the film industry at a volatile time in our history. While some critics may take issue with the movie’s more superficial aspects, at age 50+, IOL’s enduring popularity is undeniable, and Staggs does a solid job in characterizing the film as an important reflection of its era.
While he occasionally indulges in tangential political commentary, Staggs’s writing style and enthusiasm are engaging. His research, highlighted by personal interviews with both Moore and Kohner, is impressive. This film’s “biography” is delivered with thoroughness and flair.
Before reading this book, I was unconvinced that IMITATION OF LIFE deserved more than a passing nod from film historians, but I now gladly acknowledge the work’s cinematographic and societal significance. As those DVDs keep a-checking out….