When I was a kid, my mother and I would often stay up late watching old movies on the Zenith console in our living room. Gosh, how we loved those flicks!
One of our favorites was Imitation of Life, a 1959 tear-jerker with a message. More than just a melodrama, Imitation of Life shines a light on female empowerment, race and class. It’s also about identity and how the color of your skin defines who you are and your place in the world. Finally, it’s about reconciling and accepting who you are.
The story revolves around two single moms—one white, one black—with young daughters. The African-American mother, Annie, is played by Juanita Moore, who received an Oscar nod for her role, and the white mom, Lora is portrayed by Lana Turner, whose forte was playing long-suffering women down on their luck. If you ask me, she was the queen of heartbreak cinema.
When they first meet they are both struggling to survive, and through circumstance and need, they end up living together, though not as equals.
From the get go, it is clear that the only way they can live together—at least back in the 1950s—is if Annie serves as Lora’s maid. Remember, this is before the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.
At first, Lora, who is a struggling actress, can’t afford to pay Annie, but Annie doesn’t seem to mind. Frankly, she’s just grateful to have food on the table and a roof over her head. Conveniently, Lora’s apartment comes equipped with a bedroom off the kitchen. Otherwise known as, the maid’s quarters.
Lora may have the upper hand in this relationship, but she is kind to Annie, and never bossy. She even demonstrates concern for Annie, in between running to auditions and rehearsals, but she is so self-absorbed that she doesn’t notice Annie’s troubles with her daughter, or even that her own daughter, Susie (played by Sandra Dee) is feeling neglected.
Annie’s daughter, Sarah Jane, has very light skin. Annie explains early on in the movie, that Sarah Jane’s father was also light-skinned. Because of this, Sarah Jane spends most of her life trying to pass for white, which troubles Annie immensely. She doesn’t want her daughter to be ashamed of who she is. Which leads to this bit of telling dialogue between Lora and Annie:
“Annie, don’t be upset. Children are always pretending.”
“No, it’s a sin to be ashamed of what you are. And it’s even worse to pretend. To lie. Sarah Jane has to learn that The Lord must’ve had his reasons for making some of us white and some of us black.”
“Don’t worry Annie, I’m sure you’ll be able to explain to your child.”
“I don’t know. How do you explain to your child she was born to be hurt?”
The message here is that because of who she is, Sarah Jane is destined to a lifetime of racism and prejudice, no matter how many times she tries to reinvent herself. She was born to be hurt, and you see the movie make its point when Sarah Jane is violently rejected by her white boyfriend (Troy Donahue), when he discovers the truth about her identity. The scene is followed by one in which Annie is seen rubbing a tired Lora’s feet. Yet it’s Annie, whose health is deteriorating, that could use the foot massage. It’s clear, she too, was born to be hurt.
These two single moms of different races, living their parallel lives, is a daring commentary of the times. Annie will always be the maid, supporting Lora as she rises to the top. But Annie, is more than her job, as Lora eventually discovers. Throughout the movie, there’s a quiet dignity and respect about Annie that makes her, in my estimation, the hero of this film.
I won’t give the ending away, but suffice it to say, it’s called a tear-jerker for a reason. As many times as I’ve seen it, I still get teary-eyed.
Imitation of Life is filled with stars, but special kudos goes to Juanita Moore for playing the role of Annie. Moore, who passed away last month at the age of 99, lost the Oscar to Shelley Winters, who won for her role in The Diary of Anne Frank.
Having the nomination under her belt didn’t help Moore’s career take off and may have even hindered it, as future offers were few and far between. But she deserved the Oscar and if I could, I’d give it to her posthumously. The film has its flaws but see it for yourself, and take it for what it is. A film that in some ways was ahead of its time–trying to make a statement, but limited by the conventions of the times.