Several weeks ago I watched a brilliant movie, Imitation of Life, starring Lana Turner.

I can remember my grandfather, a police officer, saying that he would sit in the police department watching audiences leave the movie theatre, and there was never a dry eye.

I can understand why… very moving.

In 1947, Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), a struggling white widow with plans to become a famous Broadway actress, l18_lana2oses track of her young daughter Suzie (portrayed as a child by Terry Burnham), and requests the help of a stranger named Steve Archer (John Gavin) to help her find the girl. Suzie is found and looked after by Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), a black widow with a daughter, Sarah Jane (portrayed as a child by Karin Dicker), who is about Suzie’s age and, unlike her mother, is very light-skinned to the point of appearing Caucasian. In return for her kindness, Lora takes Annie in temporarily. Despite the fact that Lora cannot afford a nanny, Annie persuades Lora to let her stay and take care of Suzie, so that Lora can pursue an acting career.

With struggles along the way, Meredith becomes a successful star of stage comedies, with Alan Loomis (Robert Alda) as her agent and David Edwards (Dan O’Herlihy) as her chief playwright. Although Lora had begun a romantic relationship with Steve Archer, the stranger she met at the beach, their courtship falls apart because of Lora’s ambition to be a star. Lora’s tight focus on her career also prevents her from spending time with her daughter, who sees more of Annie than she does her own mother. Annie and Sarah Jane have their own struggles, as the light-skinned Sarah Jane is in a constant state of turmoil over her identity and steadfastly wants to pass for white. Sarah Jane’s anger at being black translates into animosity towards her long-suffering mother.

The film progresses to 1958, finding Lora as a highly regarded Broadway star living in a luxurious home in upstate New York. After rejecting David’s latest script (and his marriage proposal), Lora takes a role in a dramatic play. At the show’s after-party, she meets Steven, whom she hasn’t seen in a decade. The two slowly begin rekindling their relationship, and Steve is reintroduced to Annie and the now-teenaged Suzie (Sandra Dee) and Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner). When Lora is signed to star in an Italian motion picture, she leaves Steve to watch after Suzie, and the teenager develops an unrequited crush on her mother’s boyfriend.

imitation_turnerAdolescence has not stopped Sarah Jane from attempting to pass for white: she begins dating a white boy (Troy Donohue), who severely beats her after learning she is black. Some time later, Sarah Jane passes in order to get a job performing at a seedy nightclub, and lies to Annie and tells her she is working at the library. When Annie learns the truth and appears to claim her daughter, Sarah Jane is fired, and Sarah Jane’s subsequent dismissal of her mother’s care begins taking a physical toll on Annie. Lora returns from her trip to Italy to find that Sarah Jane has run away from home, and has Steve hire a detective to find her. The detective locates Sarah Jane in California, living as a white woman under an assumed name and working as a chorus girl. Annie, becoming weaker and more depressed by the day, flies out to California to see her daughter one last time and say goodbye.

Annie is bedridden upon her return to New York, and Lora and Suzie both look after her. The issue of Suzie’s crush on Steve becomes a serious issue when Suzie learns that Steve and Lora are to be married, and Lora learns from Annie of Suzie’s crush on her fiancé. After a confrontation with her mother, Suzie decides to go away to school in Denver, Colorado to forget about Steve. Not long after Suzie leaves, however, the now gravely ill Annie passes away, presumably “of a broken heart”.

As per her last wishes, Annie is given a lavish funeral in a large church, complete with a gospel choir (and a solo by gospel star Mahalia Jackson) and a parade-like procession with a horse-drawn hearse. Just before the procession begins, however, a remorseful Sarah Jane tears through the crowd of mourners and throws herself upon her mother’s casket, begging forgiveness. Lora takes Sarah Jane to their limousine to join her, Suzie, and Steve as the procession slowly travels through the city.

juanita-moore-susan-koehler

Juanita Moore, and her on-screen daughter, Susan Kohner, 2008.

Advertisements