Imitation of Life (1959 film)

Imitation of Life is a 1959 American drama film directed by Douglas Sirk, produced by Ross Hunter and released by Universal International. It was Sirk's final Hollywood film and dealt with issues of race, class and gender. Imitation of Life is the second film adaptation of Fannie Hurst's novel of the same name; the first, directed by John M. Stahl, was released in 1934.

Imitation of Life
Film poster by Reynold Brown
Directed byDouglas Sirk
Produced byRoss Hunter
Screenplay byEleanore Griffin
Allan Scott
Based onImitation of Life
1933 novel
by Fannie Hurst
StarringLana Turner
Juanita Moore
John Gavin
Sandra Dee
Susan Kohner
Mahalia Jackson
Music byFrank Skinner
Sammy Fain
Henry Mancini
CinematographyRussell Metty
Edited byMilton Carruth
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release date
  • March 17, 1959 (1959-03-17) (Chicago)[2]
  • April 30, 1959 (1959-04-30) (US)
Running time
125 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1.2 million[3]
Box office$6.4 million (est. US/ Canada rentals)[4]

The film's top-billed stars are Lana Turner and John Gavin, and the cast also features Sandra Dee, Dan O'Herlihy, Susan Kohner, Robert Alda and Juanita Moore. Kohner and Moore received Academy Award nominations for their performances. Gospel music star Mahalia Jackson appears as a church choir soloist.

In 2015, the United States Library of Congress selected Imitation of Life for preservation in the National Film Registry, finding it "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" just like the original 1934 film.[5]


In 1947, widow Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) dreams of becoming a famous Broadway actress. Losing track of her young daughter Susie at the beach (portrayed as a child by Terry Burnham), she asks a stranger named Steve Archer (John Gavin) to help her find the girl. Susie is found and looked after by Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), a black widowed mother who also has a daughter, Sarah Jane (portrayed as a child by Karin Dicker), who is about Susie's age. Sarah Jane inherited her father's fair skin and can pass for white. She does this with much fervor, taking advantage of her European heritage and features.

In return for Annie's kindness, Lora temporarily takes in Annie and her daughter. Annie persuades Lora to let her stay and look after the household, so that the widow can pursue an acting career. With struggles along the way, Lora becomes a star of stage comedies, with Allen Loomis (Robert Alda) as her agent and David Edwards (Dan O'Herlihy) as her chief playwright. Although Lora had begun a relationship with Steve, their courtship falls apart because he does not want her to be a star. Lora's concentration on her career prevents her from spending time with Susie, who sees more of Annie. Annie and Sarah Jane have their own problems, as Sarah Jane is struggling with her mixed-race identity and wants to pass for white because of its privileges in American society in the pre-Civil Rights Movement era.

Eleven years later, Lora is a highly regarded Broadway star living in a luxurious home in New York. Annie continues to live with her, serving as nanny, housekeeper, confidante and best friend. 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 encounters Steve, whom she has not seen in a decade. The two slowly begin rekindling their relationship, and Steve is reintroduced to Annie and the now-teenaged Susie (Sandra Dee) and Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner). When Lora is signed to star in an Italian motion picture, she leaves Steve to watch after Susie. The teenager develops an unrequited crush on her mother's boyfriend.

Sarah Jane begins dating a white boy (Troy Donahue), but he beats her in an alleyway after learning she is black. Some time later, Sarah Jane again passes for white to get a job performing at a seedy nightclub, but tells her mother she is working at the library. When Annie learns the truth, she goes to the club to claim her daughter; Sarah Jane is fired. Sarah Jane's rejection of her mother begins taking a physical and mental toll on Annie. When Lora returns from Italy, Sarah Jane has run away from home, leaving Annie a note that says if she truly does care about her, she will leave her alone and let her live her life.

Lora asks Steve to hire a private detective to find Sarah Jane. The detective locates her living in California 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 see her daughter one last time and say goodbye. Upon meeting with Sarah Jane, Annie apologizes for being selfish by loving her too much and wishes her the best. Annie pleads to Sarah Jane that if she ever needs help, she will reach out to her, and the two share one last embrace. Sarah Jane's roommate interrupts them, presuming Annie is the maid, to which Annie says that she is an old nanny of "Miss Linda," Sarah Jane's new name.

Annie is bedridden upon her return to New York, and Lora and Susie look after her. The issue of Susie's crush on Steve becomes serious when Susie learns that Steve and Lora are to be married. Annie tells Lora of the girl's crush. After a confrontation with her mother, Susie decides to go away to school in Denver to forget about Steve. Not long after Susie leaves, Annie passes away. As she wished, Annie is given a lavish funeral in a large church, complete with a gospel choir, followed by an elaborate traditional funeral procession with brass band and horse-drawn hearse. Just before the procession sets off, Sarah Jane pushes through the crowd of mourners to throw herself upon her mother's casket, begging forgiveness. Lora takes Sarah Jane to their limousine to join her, Susie and Steve as the procession slowly travels through the city.


History and production

Molly Hiro of the University of Portland stated that the plot of the 1959 version of Imitation of Life had "many significant changes" from those of the original book and the 1934 film version.[6] In the original story, the "Lora" character, Bea Pullman, became successful by commercial production of her maid Delilah's family waffle recipe (the 1934 film version features a family pancake recipe instead of a waffle recipe). As a result, Bea, the white businesswoman, becomes rich. Delilah is offered 20% of the profits, but declines and chooses to remain Bea's dutiful assistant. Like the previous film, in this one the Peola (Sarah Jane) character returns, going to her mother's funeral and showing remorse, a scene described by Hiro as "virtually identical" to the previous one, while in the novel she leaves the area for good.[6]

Director Douglas Sirk and screenwriters Eleanore Griffin and Allan Scott felt that such a story would not be accepted during the Civil Rights Movement amid milestones, such as the Brown v. Board of Education case and the Montgomery bus boycott, but racial discrimination and inequities was still part of it. The story was altered so that Lora becomes a Broadway star with her own talents, with Annie assisting her by serving as a nanny for Lora's child. Producer Ross Hunter was cannily aware that these plot changes would enable Lana Turner to model an array of glamorous costumes and real jewels, something that would appeal to the female audience at that time. Lana Turner's wardrobe for Imitation of Life cost over $1.078 million, making it one of the most expensive in cinema history at that time.[7]

Although many actresses, most of them white,[8] were screen-tested for the Sarah Jane role in the 1959 remake, Susan Kohner, daughter of actress Lupita Tovar, born in Mexico, and Paul Kohner, a Czech Jewish immigrant, won the role.[8] Karin Dicker made her debut in this film as the young Sarah Jane. Noted gospel singer Mahalia Jackson received "presenting" billing for her one scene, performing a version of "Trouble of the World" at Annie's funeral service.

Release and critical reaction

Sirk's Imitation of Life premiered in Chicago on March 17, 1959, followed by Los Angeles on March 20 and New York City on April 17.[2] Following its New York opening, it became number one in the US for two weeks[9] before Universal put the film into general release on April 30. Though it was not well-reviewed upon its original release and was viewed as inferior to the original 1934 film version – many critics derided the film as a "soap opera,"[10] Imitation of Life was the fourth-most successful motion picture of 1959, grossing $6.4 million.[11] Imitation of Life was Universal-International's top-grossing film that year, and ranked as Universal's most successful film until the release of Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967).[12] Hiro wrote that in contrast to the novel, this film and the previous film received "far more critical attention", with the second film being "more famous" compared to the first.[6]

Both Moore and Kohner were nominated for the 1959 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and the 1959 Golden Globe award for Best Supporting Actress. While neither actress won the Oscar, Kohner won the Golden Globe for her performance. Moore won second place in the category of Top Female Supporting Performance at the 1959 Laurel Awards, and the film won Top Drama. Douglas Sirk was nominated for the 1959 Directors Guild of America Award.[13]

Since the late 20th century, Imitation of Life has been re-evaluated by critics. It has been considered a masterpiece of Sirk's American career. Emanuel Levy has written, "One of the four masterpieces directed in the 1950s, the visually lush, meticulously designed and powerfully acted Imitation of Life was the jewel in Sirk's crown, ending his Hollywood's career before he returned to his native Germany."[14] Sirk provided the Annie–Sarah Jane relationship in his version with more screen time and more intensity than the original versions of the story. Critics later commented that Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner stole the film from Turner.[7] Sirk later said that he had deliberately and subversively undercut Turner to draw focus toward the problems of the two black characters.

Sirk's treatment of racial and class issues is also admired for what he caught of the times. Writing in 1997, Rob Nelson said,

Basically, we're left to intuit that the black characters (and the movie) are themselves products of '50s-era racism – which explains the film's perspective, but hardly makes it less dizzying. Possibly thinking of W.E.B. Du Bois's notion of black American double-consciousness, critic Molly Haskell once described Imitation's double-vision: "The mixed-race girl's agonizing quest for her identity is not seen from her point of view as much as it is mockingly reflected in the fun house mirrors of the culture from which she is hopelessly alienated."[15]

Imitation of Life became a staple of both the American Movie Classics and Turner Classic Movies cable television networks. Todd Haynes' Far from Heaven (2002) is an homage to Sirk's work, in particular All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Imitation of Life. The 1969 Diana Ross & the Supremes song "I'm Livin' in Shame" and the 2001 R.E.M. song, "Imitation of Life," are based upon this film.

In 2015, BBC Online, the website of the British Broadcasting Corporation, named the film the 37th greatest American movie ever made based on a survey of film critics.[16]

Awards and nominations

Home media

Both the 1934 and 1959 films were issued in 2003 on a double-sided DVD from Universal Home Entertainment. A two-disc set of the films was issued by Universal in 2008. A Blu-ray with both films was released in April 2015;[17] this edition has been re-mastered, and is not identical with earlier DVD releases.[18]

Madman Entertainment in Australia released a three-disc DVD set, including the 1934 film version as well as a video essay on the 1959 film by Sam Staggs.[19]

See also


  • Hiro, Molly (Winter 2010). ""'Tain't no tragedy unless you make it one": Imitation of Life, Melodrama, and the Mulatta". Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory. Johns Hopkins University Press. 66 (4): 93–113.


  1. Imitation of Life at the American Film Institute Catalog
  2. "Imitation of Life - Details". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Retrieved June 24, 2018.
  3. Archer, Eugene (16 October 1960). "HUNTER OF LOVE, LADIES, SUCCESS". New York Times. p. X9.
  4. "1959: Probable Domestic Take", Variety, 6 January 1960 p 34
  5. Mike Barnes (December 16, 2015). "'Ghostbusters,' 'Top Gun,' 'Shawshank' Enter National Film Registry". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved December 16, 2015.
  6. Hiro, p. 94.
  7. Handzo, Steven (1977). "Intimations of Lifelessness". Bright Lights Film Journal (6). Retrieved 2013-03-09.
  8. Foster Hirsch (April 9, 2015). "Imitation of Life". Film Forum (Podcast). Retrieved 2015-06-15.
  9. "National Boxoffice Survey". Variety. May 5, 1959. p. 3. Retrieved June 16, 2019 via
  10. Gallagher, Tag (July 2005). "White Melodrama: Douglas Sirk". Senses of Cinema. Retrieved 2013-03-09. The critics had barfed all over the film, hating it as "a soap opera" for the same reasons Sirk and we loved it.
  11. "Database: 1959". Box Office Report. Retrieved from Archived 2007-02-03 at the Wayback Machine on January 16, 2007.
  12. Schwartz, Dennis (January 29, 2002). "Review of Imitation of Life". Archived from the original on 2010-12-19. Over the course of time, many have come to consider this as a great film about post-war America—something the public recognized before most of the critics did.
  13. Awards and nominations for Imitation of Life. Internet Movie Database. Retrieved from on January 16, 2007.
  14. Levy, Emanuel (August 15, 2009). "Imitation of Life (1959)".
  15. Nelson, Rob (June 11, 1997). "Passing Time/ Through a Glass, Darkly: Juanita Moore and Lana Turner in Douglas Sirk's 'Imitation of Life". Minneapolis City Pages. Archived from the original on 2015-04-08. Retrieved 2015-04-05.
  16. "The 100 Greatest American Films". July 20, 2015.
  17. Imitation of Life (DVD (Blu-ray)). Universal Studios. April 7, 2015.
  18. Tooze, Gary W. (2015). "Imitation of Life Blu-ray Lana Turner Claudette Colbert". DVDBeaver.
  19. Imitation of Life (DVD). Madman Entertainment. April 23, 2008. OCLC 269454090.

Further reading

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