Imitation of Life

  • Director: Douglas Sirk
  • Released: 1959
  • Writers: Eleanore Griffin, Allan Scott
  • Featured Actors: Lana Turner, John Gavin, Sandra Dee, Juanita Moore

I tried to make it into a picture of social consciousness — not only of a white social consciousness, but of a Negro one, too. Both white and black are leading imitated lives …. There is a wonderful expression: seeing through a glass darkly. Everything, even life, is inevitably removed from you. You can’t reach, or touch, the real. You just see reflections. If you try to grasp happiness itself your fingers only meet glass. It’s hopeless.

Douglas Sirk


  • 1933: novel by Fannie Hurst
  • 1934: film directed by John Stahl
  • Both the book and film are straightforward & unambiguous in attitudes:
    • race
    • motherhood
    • emotional centers for story
  • Title: refers to trying to “pass” for white: imitating white life;
  • Sirk subverts this

Narrative Structure (First Scene)

  • Opening scene: in public
  • Coney Island:
    • Lora has lost Susie
  • Lora’s success due to her beauty:
    • she’s a sexual object: actress
    • Annie not part of it
  • man enters Lora’s life – in first scene:
    • he’s conscious reminder of her choice
    • between career and love

Theme & Construction

Issue of motherhood just as clouded as that of race:

  • Both black and white mothers exposed:
  • Clichés
    • excessive love/excessive egotism
    • present mother/absent mother
    • nurturer/sex object

Race: but in 1950’s America: issue much more complex than in 1930’s:

  • Rosa Parks, Brown v. Board of Education, etc.
  • civil rights issues not resolved
  • Sirk avoids direct reference to Civil Rights Movement:
  • But it’s there under surface:
    • e.g., Sara Jane’s refusal to go to school: Brown v. Board
    • Sara Jane’s affair w/white man: loosening prohibitions
    • Mahalia Jackson: participation in CR demonstrations
    • introduced black gospel music to mainstream
  • Theme of race: not dealt w/directly:
  • Becomes issue between. black mother & white-skinned daughter
  • Not issue between black domestic & white employer
  • Familial, not social, problem:
  • Crucial that white actress plays Sara Jane
    • her problem shown as internalized: split character

Sirk’s reversal: stereotypes:

  • Fair, blonde woman: self-centered, bad dark woman: martyr-like, good (too much)
  • Shows how white woman & black woman used vs. each other:
    • white woman: embodies social standards of beauty:
    • impossible for black woman to achieve
    • black woman: powerful rebuke to self-indulgent narcissism of white woman who dares think of herself

Failed motherhood:

      • Time frame of story: 1947-58:
      • Period of drastic shifts for woman:
    • Female employment: grew by 50 %
      • Women pulled between careers & domestic responsibilities
      • Mixed signals given to women at the time:
    • restrictive attitudes: re:
    • woman working & need or desire to work
      • 1963: 4 years in future:
      • Betty Friedan: “The Feminine Mystique”:
      • Suburban wives: sympathetically described:
      • “Is this all?”: women torn
      • 2 mothers: Lora’s life a sham, a performance
    • Annie has too much heart: smothers child
      • Film becomes drama of split female consciousness:
    • Annie as Lora’s psychic other half:
    • good mother to Lora’s bad
    • nurturer to her egotist
    • “natural” mother to her synthetic one
    • “janitorial” worker to Lora’s professional woman
      • Symbolically — and literally — black and white
      • Film offers no way out: CAUGHT:
    • Lora: the careerist: a female mannequin
    • Annie: the traditional woman: fails at raising her daughter

Criticism of American materialism:

  • Beads falling under credits: ultimate symbol:
    • self reflexivity of film:
    • primary iconography of performance, spectacle, visual display:
  • Women’s sole escape: towards theater:
    • Lora: literally: actress: finds salvation on stage:
  • Maternal activities seem contaminated by material ones
  • Susie: “Oh, mother, stop acting”:
    • but she’s Lora’s understudy (romance w/Steve)
  • Annie: pretends to be Sara Jane’s “mammy”
    • orchestrates her own funeral
  • Sarah Jane: pretends to be white
    • mimics slave
    • works as showgirl
    • and so, too, w/many woman who saw film:
  • Element of pretense to their lives
  • “Feminine Mystique”: McCall’s magazine piece: mid-1950’s:
  • “… the bored editors … ran a little article called ‘The Mother who Ran Away.’ To their amazement, it brought the highest readership of any article they had ever run. ‘It was our moment of truth,’ said a former editor. We suddenly realized that all those women at home with their three and a half children were miserably unhappy.”
  • in other words: these women had been role-playing just like the protagonists

Lana Turner:

“Turner replied to a question about her sole experience with Sirk: “Douglas Sirk. Such a gentle man. Very quiet… but the wheels were going all the time. But when he would give you direction it was not (like some have done who didn’t last long) sitting in a chair saying ‘Hey babe! Do this, and that, and the other thing.’ Mr. Sirk would ask, ‘May I speak with you?’ and sit down and say, ‘I think this should be done this way. And how do you feel about it? Do you feel it that way?’ He didn’t yell or throw his weight around. Everyone had the most marvelous respect for him because he was a true craftsman.”