1959 is often considered to be a time of historical change, particularly in the history of film. The numerical end to the “50s” was the waning period of the Eisenhower administration, and with the rise to popularity of John F. Kennedy, a generational shift seemed in the works. Conveniently, 1959 is also tossed up as the true end of the classic Hollywood studio system and the “golden age” to which it has been retroactively referred. However valid that distinction is, 1959 was definitively the end of the career of Douglas Sirk, who retired after the release of his landmark film IMITATION OF LIFE. The film proved to be the final gem of an under-heralded career still unknown to many, even those with a strong interest in film.
Sirk stands at a crossroads in the history of film, looking back and looking forward to what Hollywood has made and could inspire in the future. Consider that IMITATION OF LIFE, among the most lauded and iconic Sirk films, is itself a remake of a 1934 novel adaptation (just as another great Sirk weepie, 1954’s Magnificent Obession, was itself a remake of a 1935 novel adaptation.) Another of his masterpieces, 1955’s All that Heaven Allows, went the other direction, being remade twice by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Todd Haynes, for Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) and Far from Heaven (2002) respectively. Both films, like their Sirk counterpart, are among their decade’s highest cinematic achievements.
Something about Sirk’s aesthetic and content echoes out across time and unites films and filmmakers of varying backgrounds. Yet Sirk’s career, unlike those of many other European expats, is often tied to the shifting fortunes and identity of the Hollywood system. His films have undergone a resurgence in acclaim since the end of the studio system, but perhaps because of their melodramatic subject matter and fetishization of 50s décor, they fail to waltz into the young film student’s canon as readily as 50s Hitchcock or Kubrick would. Perhaps Sirk films seem, at first glance, to be too much products of their time. But just a few frames of a Sirk film with their themes of oppression will dispel any of those assumptions and recast that past more closely to the present. That IMITATION OF LIFE is partly about the impregnability of racism to time further underscores Sirk’s role in film history and why his dissections of American life ought be explored and commended through to today.
The alley scene, what may rightly reign as the film’s landmark moment, is enough of a reason to see IMITATION OF LIFE. It is peak Sirk, and the one scene I’d show if given 120 seconds to demonstrate to film students that classic Hollywood regularly astounds and is neither “stuffy,” “boring,” nor “too old.” Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), a young black girl with white features, spends most of the film trying to pass among white society, striving to convince even herself. When her Aryan-looking boyfriend hears a rumor of her true heritage, he beats her and abandons her in an alley. The alley scene is unflinching, sickening, and contains extremely sophisticated usage of mirror imagery and swift pans. But it is its relationship to the film around it that gives it truly affective power.
If the alley scene sought to beat the audience into submission, the resulting edit slips the audience a cyanide capsule. The scene of Sarah Jane’s beating leaves her bloody and crying, lying with hair wet in a puddle of something, set to a burst of manic, atonal jazz. The jazz cuts out and the shot cuts abruptly to a wide shot of a living room as Lora (Lana Turner) sits in a luxurious pink robe on her couch, having her foot massaged by Annie (Juanita Moore), her friend-turned-maid, and sighing with contentment.
Earlier in the film, Sarah Jane’s mother, Annie, described Sarah Jane to Lora as being “born to be hurt.” Annie at the time was giving a premonition about a completely innocent black 8-year-old child targeted solely by race, which is painful enough to hear. Sarah Jane is able to live that life for much of the film, but when Annie’s check is brutally and viscerally cashed eleven years later in the alley scene, the passage of time and the supposed growth it brings are halted and denied. Time can heal some wounds, like the romantic ones between Lora – at this point in her life a Broadway smash hit – and successful advertiser Steve (John Gavin), but time has no bearing on other wounds, the ones endemic to people and societies. This is the legacy Sirk imparts with IMITATION OF LIFE. Perhaps more significantly in IMITATION than anywhere else, Sirk stretches his push-pull relationship with his plots as far as it will go (no small wonder then that IMITATION gave him the final push away from his Hollywood career.) Sirk balances the backstage ladder-climbing of Lora’s story with the racially-motivated slide of pain and degradation experienced by Sarah Jane and Annie with growing intensity. The two stories exist alongside each other, often in the same densely-packed frame, rarely visible to anyone but the camera, as the aftermath of Sarah Jane’s beating demonstrates.
It’s an alarmingly quotidian scene of two dear friends whose economic relationship only became more pronounced as Lora made it big and Annie stayed exactly where she was, exactly where she was supposed to be. The impact of her continued servitude is made clear by this cut to a perfectly-apportioned, perfectly-50s, luxuriously kitschy living room. Sirk’s shot is a product of and comment on its time, but never feels trapped there. It feels as fresh as it always has, and always will.