“Children are always pretending,” Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) consoles her friend Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) after the latter’s daughter, Sarah Jane (Karin Dicker), runs off crying, insisting she is white despite her mother’s dark skin. “Pretending” is a light way to describe a pervasive identity and racial issue that Sarah Jane carries with her well into young adulthood. If only Lora were to realise that it is adults pretending that affects their children – or that, for some, pretending can be a means of survival.
Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959) features two young girls: Sarah Jane, and Lora’s daughter, Susie (Terry Burnham). They first meet in the film’s opening scene, playing at the beach, instant best friends. This is also when their mothers first meet: Lora is frazzled because she’s lost Susie, then relieved when she finds her in Annie’s care. Upon finding out that Annie and Sarah Jane have nowhere to stay, she invites them home. They are only meant to stay for the night, but close friendships form, and they stay forever – or, at the very least, for the next eleven years.
Annie soon takes on the role of maid, although Lora, a well of naïveté, does not consider her to be one, embarrassed when the milkman presumes otherwise. Having seen what her mother’s path offers her – life coming through the back doors; a feeling of being lower than other people – Sarah Jane views her light skin as an opportunity to find a new, better life for herself than the one Annie has found. Though Lora and Susie never treat Annie and Sarah Jane with anything less than respect, it is the outside world that Sarah Jane battles with when it comes to the truth about her race. Light skinned, even from the young age of seven, Sarah Jane understands what it means to be considered black in postwar America. She desires to be seen as white her whole life – at school, by her white boyfriend, in her jobs at cabaret clubs – and runs away before anyone can figure out her parentage, before anyone can fire her or treat her differently.
As in many coming-of-age stories, white girls such as Susie are afforded the luxury to have relatively trivial concerns, whereas girls of colour such as Sarah Jane have bigger, societal issues to deal with. While Sarah Jane (played as a teenager by Susan Kohner) tries to live a life of her own, far, far away from her darker-skinned mother who is always at home, Susie (Sandra Dee) just wants to talk about boys, kissing and algebra with her mother, who has become a successful Broadway actress and thus is never around.
Susie keeps a list of things she wants to talk to her mother about, but it is Annie with whom she often ends up having those conversations. It is to Annie that Susie divulges her love for Steve (John Gavin), her mother’s boyfriend. Lora ensures Susie receives the best of everything, everything Lora grew up without: a “solid achievement that any mother can be proud of.” This ambition of class ascension that Lora dreamed of as a child is not the same value shared by her daughter. What Lora fails to realise is that all her daughter really wants is a mother’s love; Lora is just too busy imitating life to give it. Thus, having seen what little emotional connection her mother can offer her, Susie seeks her independence – thousands of miles away, in Colorado.
Where Susie longs more for her mother’s love than glitz and glamour, Sarah Jane deliberately performs whiteness to achieve a higher quality of life, one beyond being a glorified live-in maid like her mother, or like the bus boys, cooks and chauffeurs offered to her at her mother’s church. But we also see the physical effects of what Sarah Jane’s blackness can mean, via a brutal confrontation with her white boyfriend upon his finding out about her mother. Sarah Jane’s performance is not only for class ascension, but for survival. Annie, blinded by love, and the goodness of her heart, does not understand what this means for her daughter. Annie blames the attack on Sarah Jane’s lying; Sarah Jane blames her mother.
Although Sarah Jane’s arc interrogates much deeper and broader issues, there is a similarity in the disconnect between both mothers and their daughters. As the 1950s in America were filled with a pervasive feeling of alienation between youth and adults, this generational divide often resulted in a loss of faith in authority. Sociologist Kenneth Keniston wrote in 1965 that the rapid advancement in technology meant that the future for the youth of that era was more unknowable and uncertain than for any generation before it.1 As such, Lora and Annie are unable to truly understand the needs and desires of their daughters. As for Susie and Sarah Jane, with a lack of proper guidance, it is only through distance from the home that they can forge their own path.
Sirk expressed a strong interest in the contrast between children and adults: “There is a world looking at another world which is going downhill … the look of a child is always so fascinating. It seems to be saying: is this what fate is in store for me, too?”2 Children, he said, usually enter the end of a film to signify the new generation emerging; but for him, they are an image of melancholy, of the tragedies that start over and over again.3
The end of Imitation of Life is, accordingly, a hopeless one. It is only with Annie’s death that Sarah Jane accepts the magnitude of her actions and distance. Her mother may have loved her too much, but at least she always tried to be there. Only through death does Sarah Jane publicly admit that Annie is her mother, yet it is unclear whether this means she will now try to live more authentically, or whether she will continue her imitation of life. Susie, home from college in Colorado, also reunites with her mother at the funeral, but the pair do not exchange words. This relationship, too, is uncertain. There is no resolution or true happiness for anyone – just a tragedy, over and over.
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Imitation of Life (1959 USA 125 mins)
Prod. Co: Universal International Pictures Prod: Ross Hunter Dir: Douglas Sirk Scr: Eleanore Griffin, Allan Scott Phot: Russell Metty Ed: Milton Carruth Mus: Frank Skinner
Cast: Lana Turner, John Gavin, Sandra Dee, Susan Kohner, Juanita Moore, Robert Alda, Dan O’Herlihy, Karin Dicker, Terry Burnham