Imitation of Life (DVD, 2003) Reviews
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Imitation of Life (DVD, 2003)

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Soap Opera of the Highest Order: Imitation of Life

Jan 21, 2003
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:witty dialouge, good scenes and direction, generally compelling storylines.

Cons:Questionable (?) racial content, unsubtle acting.... but this IS a soap opera.

The Bottom Line: It's not Bergman, it's not going to change your life, but as a soap opera, it's a class act.

Imitation of Life is one of Douglas Sirk’s melodramatic soap operas from the 1950’s, and is certainly worthwhile for anyone who wants to see rich people, lurid situations, and high emotions. It has been said by some critics that Sirk’s movies are the prototype for all the nighttime soaps that followed a few decades later, like “Dallas” and “Dynasty”, and I can see their point, although I’ve not been lucky enough to see Sirk’s more famous films such as All that Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind, both of which, I believe, starred Robert Stack and Rock Hudson, among others.

Being described as a “soap” shouldn’t be considered a negative. Hey, I used to watch soaps back in the day (is this an awful confession for a member of the male species?). Back when I was a preteen and older, I was watching Dallas, as well as some of the daytime soaps; I distinctly remember that, for a couple of summers, I followed the antics on One Life to Live, and on a very short-lived but highly regarded multiracial soap called Generations. Soaps can be addictive, even if they aren’t always in the best of writing, or of taste. The twists and turns of the story can be enough to keep you hooked for a fair amount of time -- I was hooked, although I suppose I “grew up” since then, and figured that watching weird foreign films and old Hollywood pictures were more intellectually stimulating, even if it isn’t actually so.

Lana Turner stars as a woman who, one day, loses her daughter at the beach. She finds her playing with a another young girl, and overseen by a black woman (Juanita Moore). The two women get to talking, and Turner discovers that the young girl accompanying the black woman is in fact her daughter. The explanation is that the kid’s father was very light-skinned, which is why the daughter also appears white. The black woman offers her services to Turner, but she feels that she would be incapable of affording a housekeeper. She is a struggling actress, and hasn’t had work in a very long time.

A man played by John Gavin is also on the beach. He is a hopeful photographer, who takes a few pics of the children and their goofing around, and promises to deliver the photos when they are developed.

At the end of the day on the beach, Turner allows her sympathy to get the best of her, and invites Moore and her daughter to her apartment. Turner says it will only be for one night, but, in actuality, of course, it ends up being a lifelong relationship, with numerous struggles that they go through both individually and together.

Turner does, in fact, become a famous actress, although not without some moral struggles; there is a great scene in which a sleazy producer (Robert Alda) tells her the sorts of things she has to do if she is to be taken under his wing. She refuses, not wanting to sell herself and her integrity for stardom. But, later on, a famous playwright notices one of her little billboard ads for flea powder, and thinks she’d be great for his next play. This is the beginning of a decade-long professional and personal collaboration.

Moore’s character has a more provocative storyline, as she has to deal with her self-loathing daughter. The daughter despises the black part of her ethnic background, and does everything in her power to blend in with the white society. While I seriously doubt that a small child of ten would be this self-hateful, once she grows up into a teenager (played by Susan Kohner), her character becomes (relatively) more credible, and her behavior more self-destructive.

While the whole notion of self-denial of one’s race, and 1950’s era race relations in general, are serious issues, the storyline is pure soap, as the young girl’s self-destruction involves lying to her mother about a new job (her mom thinks she’s working at the library, when she’s really working at a tawdry burlesque club, as a singer --- if the Production Code weren’t enforced , she might as well have been a stripper), and sneaking around with a white boyfriend. The treatment of this storyline would most likely rankle sensitive nerves expecting more politically charged material, and that would be quite understandable, especially considering that Kohner is so transparently a white actress, and Moore’s character willingly becomes a servant to a rich white woman.

Turner’s lifestyle is a soap as well. There are two men in her life -- the playwright, of course, and John Gavin, who strikes up an interest in Turner after delivering his photos of the children on the beach. Gavin’s insistence that Turner walks away from her career for a more traditional home-life drives her away, and into the arms of the playwright. Years later, she and Gavin meet again, and rekindle their love, but the soap opera is cranked up even more when Turner’s daughter (now played by Sandra Dee) falls for Gavin as well........

Watching this movie made me reflect on how movies from our time will be received decades from now; if the silly romantic comedies and vulgar teen flicks will suddenly be regarded as classics. During Sirk’s productive period, his movies were considered soap opera trash, and, ominously, “women’s pictures”, as if movies about women were naturally inferior. Such an attitude is snobby at best and misogynist at worst, because it assumed that stories that focused intently on women’s lives, even melodramatic lives, were inherently lesser. Of course, this is stupid. As if, say, Hitchcock’s storylines were any deeper. Do you really get the meaning of life from watching North by Northwest, or just a very entertaining thriller? In turn, Imitation of Life isn’t any deeper, but is certainly just as entertaining.

And besides, there are real emotions and situations here. While the racial content might make more than a few eyebrows arch upwards today, it does give us a bit of a reflection of how some people viewed the situation back in the 1950’s. And, in terms of women in general, this movie does give us a take on some important issues, most notably, the struggle for certain women to maintain both a professional life and a family life. Being a movie from the 1950’s, naturally, the script does offer us some rather conservative thinking -- especially when Sandra Dee says how little attention she received from her mother, who was always off doing a play or a movie, rather than being a mother. At the same time, however, it is admirable that we have a woman, in a 50’s movie, who is a take-charge, ambitious sort -- she doesn’t back down early on in the film when the producer tries to get her to lower herself to his standards, and she doesn’t back down when John Gavin insensitively demands her to not go after her dreams, or else ruin their possible marriage.

As a movie, Imitation of Life is incredibly entertaining. I enjoyed it as much as I would the best tearjerker/soap opera, if not more. The storyline moves along at a great pace, there are many good scenes and good dialogue, the acting is suitably unsubtle, and, overall, makes me want to see more of Douglas Sirk’s films.

Recommend this product? Yes

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