Imitation of Life (1959)

A struggling young actress with a six year-old daughter sets up housekeeping with a homeless black widow and her light-skinned eight year-old daughter who rejects her mother by trying to pass for white.
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Beauty! Romance! Betrayal!

12 February 1999 | by Doug Phillips (janabro@aol.com) (Seattle, Washington) – See all my reviews

This Five Hanky Weeper is a classic Lana Turner vehicle. She never looked better.

This is a remake of a 1934 Claudette Colbert movie of the same name from a popular Fannie Hurst novel.

The 1934 version is more true to the original story but it is difficult to find and is seldom shown on television.

The story has been rewritten to take full advantage of Ms. Turner’s luminescent beauty. Now, instead of a restaurant owner she is a glamorous star of stage and film.

But the underlying pathos is the same — two women, each with a daughter that does not appreciate the sacrifices their mothers have made.

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Before I saw this film I had no idea who Susan Kohner was. She turns out quite a performance and I wonder why she didn’t do more films.

Sandra Dee as Ms. Turner’s daughter is Sandra Dee playing a daughter — you’ve seen it before.

In the final scences when Susan Kohner’s character does her “That’s my momma…” piece you can hear sobs coming from the people in the audience…

Do not be surprised if some of them are yours.

You Can Feel the Soap Coming Right Out of the TV.

8/10
Author: nycritic
17 March 2005
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Douglas Sirk did not do subtle romances; he embellished his stories with interesting yet vaguely exploitative elements more suited to the soap opera genre and then amped the melodrama to eleven.

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IMITATION OF LIFE, basically a romantic potboiler by Fannie Hurst that would not be out of place in an Oprah’s Book of the Month, is here given the grand Technicolor treatment and stars Lana Turner — not particularly known for warmth or romantic heroines. This for the most part, is her movie and even as a struggling actress (hard to believe given her icy beauty) she is dressed impeccably and seems quite well-to-do despite her character being a waitress. That she improbably forms an alliance with Juanita Moore and her daughter Sarah Jane in tow (who cries at the drop of a hat and later has what seems to be a moment when she quietly cracks as she says “White, like me”) is only to set the stage for the “racial confusion” that develops later on (and drives the majority of events) and would color the film with “controversial elements”.

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That Turner’s success as an actress seems as forced as her romance with daughter’s love interest doesn’t detract the soapy elements of IMITATION, but Susan Kohner, playing Sarah Jane all grown up, steals the show and is the only one who rises above the drivel that surrounds her, carrying a lot of the film’s weight in its second half. In playing her racial trauma and need for survival at least her story fits the times; light skinned blacks admit that they did have to “pass for white” in order to move on up, and with Kohner being half white, half Mexican only hammers the point home even more and exposes a lot of hypocrisy that at the time a light-skinned African-American actress would and could not be cast for this part.

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The best scene comes when Kohner’s beau, on discovering she is actually black, all but rapes her in a dark alley. It’s the only sequence that doesn’t reek of soap, and although Kohner’s storyline eventually becomes muddled with her melodramatic interaction with Moore and her later appearance at her mother’s funeral, it’s really the most poignant part of this film and manages to reveal its soul. This was the cornerstone of Douglas Sirk movies: tell a good, tissue-friendly yarn that in its second half and conclusion would punch the audience with a strong moral and in this he succeeded, with followers in Herbert Ross’ STEEEL MAGNOLIAS and James L. Brooks TERMS OF ENDEARMENT.

Douglas Sirk, after this film, would basically retire and leave behind a collection of overblown melodramas that have quite a following..

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A Real Tear Jerker

26 December 2003 | by smrhyne (North Carolina) – See all my reviews

I have seen this movie a countless number of times and know the dialogue by heart. Each time I watch it, I say, “I’m not going to cry this time”. Sometimes I almost make it, but then Mahalia Jackson starts to sing and I lose it. My children don’t understand why Sarah Jane wanted to pass for white. I tried to explain to them that in that day and age, it was sometimes necessary. The beautiful Susan Kohner steals the film. It’s a shame that she only made a handful of movies. To me the most heart-wrenching scene is where Annie visits Sarah Jane in her hotel room. She says’ “I want to hold you my arms one more time. Just like you were my baby.” I puddle up just writing about it.

In Lana Turner’s biography, she writes about the making of this movie. It was made shortly after her daughter stabbed Lana’s gangster boyfriend to death. She said that when you see her crying in the funeral scene, those tears were real. When Mahalia started to sing “Troubles of the World”, all of her troubles started to come back to her and she got up and ran out of the church. They had to run after her and bring her back to complete the scene.

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