Imitation of Life (1959)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Imitation of Life</strong> (1959)

(On TV, July 2013) Dipping into Hollywood’s back-catalogue can be a strange experience, as films developed for an earlier generation can become interesting for things they didn’t intend.  So it is that Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life becomes fascinating as much for its period background detail than for its subject matter.  From a contemporary perspective, it’s certainly not a tightly-plotted feature film: The story jumps forward abruptly, doesn’t quite know what story it’s trying to tell and ends abruptly, leaving a bunch of threads up in the air.  Still, the point isn’t the story as much as the emotional problems that the characters have: The film’s most compelling plot strand has to do with a mixed-race teenager rejecting her racial heritage, and while the film’s dialogue may feel a bit melodramatic by today’s standards, there’s no denying the impact of lines such as “How do you tell a child that she was born to be hurt?” The film’s other plot, about a suddenly-successful actress ignoring her daughter and leading on a suitor, is almost insufferably dull… except for studying bits and pieces of the decor and imagining being back in the 1950s.  Lana Turner is nice-but-boring in the lead role (much the same can also being said about Sandra Dee as her daughter) but the film’s most compelling performances easily belong to Juanita Moore and Susna Kohner as the estranged mother/daughter pair.  Imitation of Life has held up better than many films of its era not for the melodrama, but for the substance underneath.

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