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Imitation Of Life Review

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A melodrama following the intertwining lives of struggling actress Lora Meredith and her black penniless maid Annie Johnson. As Lora becomes a stranger in her own home in her pursuit of stardom, Annie undergoes the trauma of being rejected by her lighter skinned daughter Sarah Jane on racial grounds.

★★★★★

Using the same source material — the novel by Fannie Hurst — and title as an equally entertaining 1934 John M. Stahl melodrama starring Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers, this five star women’s picture gets the edge via the ersatz style and masterful manipulation of German émigré director Douglas Sirk. In a pitch perfect parody of herself, Lana Turner exudes cold, strong willed independence but the acting plaudits go to Moore and Kohner who invests Sarah Jane with an edgy sexual energy — in a standout scene Turner and Kohner go at it hell for leather, both piling on the malice and bitterness with delicious relish.

      Yet for all the camp and pantomime on display, this is a consummate display of populist weepie-making. Cinematographer Russell Metty colour codes the character’s surroundings to match their overblown emotions. Production designer Alexander Golitzen finds nifty contrasts between the small dingy apartment the characters inhabit in the first half and the nouveau riche mansion they occupy in the second. And Frank Skinner’s score dials back the mushiness to poignantly underscore the emotions rather than hammer home the schmaltz. 

Sirk displays his usual array of alienation techniques — placing objects between the actors and the characters to deny us identification, finding unusual angles rather than eye-level — to encourage us to look objectively at the characters and their choices. It’s a sophisticated approach and one that bizarrely makes for a more moving experience. It proved to be Sirk’s final feature, was a huge box office smash and remains both superior soap opera and one of the director’s finest films.

A consummate display of populist weepie-making

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