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Imitation of Life

Imitation of Life(1959)

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teaser Imitation of Life (1959)

SYNOPSIS

Two mothers discover that success is not necessarily the key to happiness, particularly when it comes between mother and child. Actress Lora Meredith claws her way to stardom only to realize the daughter (Sandra Dee) she has neglected for years is now a stranger to her and --worse yet-- her rival for the love of a younger man. At the same time, her African-American housekeeper finds herself rejected by her light-skinned daughter who wants to pass for white.

Director: Douglas Sirk
Producer: Ross Hunter
Screenplay: Eleanor Griffin, Allan Scott
Based on the novel by Fannie Hurst
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Editing: Milton Carruth
Art Direction: Alexander Golitzen, Richard H. Riedel
Music: Frank Skinner
Cast: Lana Turner (Lora Meredith), John Gavin (Steve Archer), Sandra Dee (Susie), Dan O'Herlihy (David Edwards), Susan Kohner (Sarah Jane), Robert Alda (Allen Loomis), Juanita Moore (Annie Johnson), Mahalia Jackson (Herself), Troy Donahue (Frankie), Sandra Gould (Receptionist), Jack Weston (Stage Manager), Bess Flowers (Geraldine Moore), Myrna Fahey (Actress)
C-125m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

Why IMITATION OF LIFE is Essential

In April of 1958, Lana Turner's teenage daughter Cheryl Crane stabbed Lana's mobster lover, Johnny Stompanato, to death. Although the killing was ruled justifiable homicide because Cheryl was defending her mother, the scandal rocked Hollywood, and many people thought Lana's film career was over. Enter Ross Hunter, producer of lavish women's pictures for Universal, who had breathed new life into the careers of aging stars like Jane Wyman and Barbara Stanwyck. Hunter offered Turner the starring role in a remake of Imitation of Life (1934).

For Lana Turner, that hit a little too close to home, and she hesitated. But she was deeply in debt, and she needed to work. Hunter offered a first-class production, with Jean Louis gowns and Laykin et Cie jewels, the leading women's director, Douglas Sirk, and a chance to make a lot of money, if Lana would work for a small salary plus half the net profits. Turner agreed, and the film succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Lana Turner was back on top, and a rich woman as well. In particular, Imitation of Life (1959) proved that her fans had not rejected her after the scandals surrounding the death of her lover Johnny Stompanato. It also reshaped her image to reflect the public's perception of her as a glamorous sex symbol who was a victim of her own success.

Fannie Hurst's novel, Imitation of Life, was the story of two single mothers, one white and one black, who join forces and become successful businesswomen. But both women suffer heartbreak caused by their daughters. (The idea for the book was born when Hurst traveled with black author Zora Neale Hurston and encountered racism, although the story was not remotely based on either of their lives.) The novel was a huge success and it was made into a film in 1934, starring Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers, directed by John Stahl. Ross Hunter wanted to update the story, making the leading character an actress instead of a businesswoman, but keeping the race issue and the conflicts between mothers and daughters.The film's treatment of race, considered daring in its day, provides a powerful view of liberal sentiments at the birth of the civil rights movement.

Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner were both nominated for Best Supporting Actress Oscars for their searing portrayals of the African-American mother and daughter. Imitation of Life became Universal's biggest moneymaker to date, and a 1995 poll by the New York Daily News still ranked it as one of the top-ten all-time favorite films.

Imitation of Life was the last collaboration for producer Ross Hunter and director Douglas Sirk, who previously had teamed for such hit melodramas as Magnificent Obsession (1954) and All That Heaven Allows (1955).

Despite its success, it was also Sirk's last commercial feature. He eventually returned to his native Germany, where he taught film and made a few experimental pictures.

With Sirk's other melodramas, Imitation of Life has become one of the central films for proponents of the auteur theory, who point to his filmmaking technique as a clear reflection of his personality and his attitude toward the often exaggerated soap opera plots in his films.

by Margarita Landazuri & Frank Miller

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teaser Imitation of Life (1959)

In conjunction with the film version, a new paperback edition of Imitation of Life hit bookstores, selling half a million copies.

The same year Imitation of Life hit movie theatres and became a best seller all over again, the book's inspiration, Zora Neale Hurston, died forgotten and penniless in Florida.

A year after the film came out, Brazilian television presented a telenovella based on the book.

Helping boost the success of Imitation of Life was the studio's unprecedented decision to release it simultaneously to both white and black theatres in the South. At the time, Hollywood didn't release films to black theatres until they had played out in other markets. A demographic study of the film audience in 1960 surprised executives by revealing that 30 percent of the audience for movies was African-American.

The Douglas Sirk revival started in 1968 when film critic Andrew Sarris placed him in his second ranking of directors, just behind such geniuses as Orson Welles and Charles Chaplin, in The American Cinema. This was followed by major attention in academic film journals and retrospectives at film festivals.

As recently as 1995, readers of the New York Daily News voted Imitation of Life a place among their ten favorite films.

Among the directors citing Sirk as an influence on their own work are John Waters and the late Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Waters featured references to the film in both Female Trouble (1974) and Desperate Living (1977).

Todd Haynes' Far from Heaven (2002), starring Julianne Moore, is a pastiche of scenes and themes from Sirk's films.

by Frank Miller

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teaser Imitation of Life (1959)

Imitation of Life is one of only two dramatic films to feature gospel legend Mahalia Jackson. The other, St. Louis Blues (1958), actually gave her a character name.

During the publicity tour for the film, one reporter asked Susan Kohner if she had "minded" playing a black character.

At a suburban theatre in the Philadelphia area, the manager stood in the lobby at the film's end with a box of Kleenex for sobbing patrons.

Juanita Moore's Oscar® nomination for Best Supporting Actress was such a surprise the studio didn't even have a biography on hand to distribute to the press.

Although Imitation of Life put Kohner on the fast track to stardom (she had three other features that year), she retired from acting in 1964 when she wed fashion designer John Weitz. Her sons, Chris and Paul Weitz, are film producers/directors best known for the American Pie films and About a Boy (2002).

Despite the film's success with black audiences, there also were African-Americans who resented the sympathetic depiction of Annie's (Moore) subservient nature and the casting of a white actress as her daughter. Troy Donahue claimed that after the film's release, blacks actually came up to him and thanked him for beating up Kohner on screen.

Turner's daughter, Cheryl Crane, visited the set during location shooting for Sandra Dee's high school graduation. The scenes were shot at the Town and Country School, where Crane had been a student.

At the studio's suggestion, Turner took her daughter to the premiere. She even arranged a special advance screening for the girl so she could get her tears out of the way with the first screening and look her best for the critics at the premiere.

Ads for the film showed Sandra Dee saying "You've given me everything a mother could but the thing I wanted most...your love!" and Turner saying "I'll get the things I want out of life...one way -- or another."

Famous Quotes from IMITATION OF LIFE

"Sarah Jane is your child?" -- Lana Turner, as Lora Meredith, expressing surprise that the light-skinned little girl is the daughter of African-American Juanita Moore, as Annie Johnson.

"Why do we always have to sleep in the back?" -- Karin Dicker, as the young Sarah Jane Johnson, beginning to question her position as an African-American.

"My camera could easily have a love affair with you." -- John Gavin, as Steve Archer, coming on to Turner, as Lora Meredith.

"If the dramatist's club want to eat and sleep with you, you'll eat and sleep with them. If some producer with a hand as cold as a toad wants to do a painting of you in the nude, you'll accommodate him for a very small part." -- Robert Alda, as Allen Loomis, explaining the business to Turner, as Lora.

"I'm going up and up and up, and nobody's going to pull me down!" -- Turner refusing a marriage proposal from Gavin, as Steve Archer.

"It's drama. No clothes, no sex. No fun." -- Dan O'Herlihy, as David Edwards, dismissing Turner's decision to tackle a serious drama.

"You know I still have you in my blood, don't you?" -- Gavin, as Steve, meeting Turner after she's become a star.

"All the kids talking behind my back! Is it true? Are you black?" -- Troy Donahue, as Frankie, confronting Susan Kohner, as Sarah Jane, about her race.

"I'm white. White! White! If we should ever pass on the street, please don't recognize me." -- Kohner, as Sarah Jane, rejecting her mother, Moore, as Annie Johnson.

"Oh, Mama, stop acting. Stop trying to shift people around as though they were pawns on a stage." -- Sandra Dee, as Susie.

"Tell her I know I was selfish -- and if I loved her too much, I'm sorry -- but I didn't mean to cause her any trouble. She was all I had." -- Moore's deathbed confession.

"I'm sorry, Mama. Mama, I love you. Miss Lora, I killed my mother." -- Kohner realizing the error of her ways.

Compiled by Frank Miller

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teaser Imitation of Life (1959)

Popular novelist Fannie Hurst got the idea for Imitation of Life during a road trip to Canada with African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston during which she saw first-hand the depth of racial prejudice. The result was the story of two mothers, businesswoman Bea and housekeeper Delilah, who find success with a chain of waffle restaurants using Bea's business skills and Delilah's recipes. Their success is tainted by problems with their daughters. Bea's daughter, Jessie, becomes her romantic rival, while Delilah's light-skinned daughter, Peola, rejects her mother and attempts to pass for white.

Hurst wasn't happy with the book, but after a year of writing, she couldn't afford to turn down an offer of $45,000 for the rights to serialize it in Pictorial Review under the title Sugar House. Then she panicked and tried to return the $5,000 advance Harper & Bros. had paid for the book rights. Instead of accepting her offer, they made Imitation of Life their major offering for spring 1933.

Imitation of Life hit number nine on the New York Times best seller list and went through nine printings in its initial release.

The book's reviews were mixed, with the best notices going to the depiction of Delilah and the story's racial issues. Those issues also brought Hurst an impressive amount of fan mail thanking her for her depiction of the African-American characters.

Universal bought the screen rights to Imitation of Life and produced a faithful screen adaptation in 1934 under John Stahl's direction (he had previously directed the very successful first version of Hurst's Back Street in 1932). Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers played the mothers, with Rochelle Hudson and Fredi Washington as their daughters. The film was a major box office success.

Universal Pictures was suffering from financial problems in the late '50s. Only producer Ross Hunter was consistently delivering solid box office returns. Executives particularly valued his ability to deliver glamorous productions on relatively small budgets.

The idea for remaking Imitation of Life came up in 1956, when Hunter was looking for a follow-up to All That Heaven Allows (1955), a hit romance co-starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson in the romance of an older woman and younger man.

While developing the re-make, Hunter took Fannie Hurst to lunch and asked for her ideas about updating the story.

After Lana Turner's success in Peyton Place (1957), which pointed to a new career for her as the star of big-screen soap operas, she was Universal's only choice for the female lead. Even though she was currently the subject of a major scandal after daughter Cheryl Crane killed Turner's lover, mobster Johnny Stompanato, Hunter insisted on offering her the role.

Turner hesitated about accepting the role, fearing that the combination of the scandal and the recent financial disappointment of Another Time, Another Place (1958) had put her in a very tenuous position. Not only could she not risk another flop, but she wasn't sure she was ready to go back to work. She also thought the plot about a single mother who discovers her teenaged daughter and she are in love with the same man was a little too close to the rumors about a romantic triangle involving herself, her daughter and Stompanato.

Finally, Hunter and Turner's agent, Paul Kohner, convinced her that making the film was the only way to lay the rumors to rest.

To keep the budget under control, Turner agreed to lower her fee in return for half of the film's profits.

Director Douglas Sirk suggested changing the leading lady from a businesswoman to an actress. Stories about women in the workplace had declined in popularity since the '30s, and the change also reflected Turner's notoriety as an actress and single mother.

Although the Sarah Jane role had been played by black actress Washington in the original film version, for the re-make Universal cast white actress Susan Kohner, the daughter of Turner's agent Paul Kohner and Mexican actress Lupita Tovar.

More than 40 women were considered for the role of Annie (Delilah in the original), including Pearl Bailey and classical singer Marian Anderson. The role finally went to Juanita Moore, who had mostly played uncredited roles as African-American domestics to that point. The 36-year-old actress was barely old enough to play 22-year-old Susan Kohner's mother.

Natalie Wood was first considered for the part of Turner's daughter, but eventually Universal went with its own contract player, Sandra Dee, whom they were grooming for stardom. Two other popular releases in 1959, Gidget and A Summer Place, would make her a star and contribute to Imitation of Life's box office success.

Leading man John Gavin was being groomed for stardom at Universal, where he was seen as a younger version of Rock Hudson. He had already played the lead in Douglas Sirk's A Time to Love, and a Time to Die (1958). Casting him opposite Lana Turner seemed a logical step in his development, mirroring Hudson's casting opposite Jane Wyman in Sirk's Magnificent Obsession (1954).

Agent Henry Willson had hoped that new client Troy Donahue would fare as well working with Sirk as had his most famous client, Rock Hudson. Sirk had given Donahue a small role in The Tarnished Angels (1958), but when he offered him the role of the fraternity boy who discovers girlfriend Kohner is black and beats her up, Willson almost turned down the role. He was afraid playing a violent racist would damage Donahue's career.

by Frank Miller

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teaser Imitation of Life (1959)

Because of the heavy public interest in Turner's first film after the Stompanato scandal, producer Ross Hunter threw the set open to the press on the first day of shooting. They even staged a press conference with the stipulation that Turner would not answer any questions about the case.

Hunter insisted on maintaining a lavish production, despite a tight budget. He always used real flowers on the sets, and the jewelry was the real thing, too, supplied by Laykin et Cie. It was appraised at $1 million.

He also had a reputation for pampering his female stars. During filming, he sent flowers and gifts to Turner's dressing room regularly. She also had a limousine and driver at her disposal. Not only was there a music system in her dressing room, but Hunter even hired somebody to operate it for her.

Director Douglas Sirk worked gently with his actors. Rather than dictating the way a scene should be played, he would take each actor aside, suggest what he wanted and ask how he or she felt about it.

The funeral scene hit a little too close to home for Turner. As Mahalia Jackson started singing, she lost control and fled to her trailer in tears. When no arguments could convince her to return to the church and shoot the scene, her makeup woman slapped her in the face, breaking her out of her hysterics. She then returned to the set and completed the scene perfectly.

In New York, the film premiered at the Roxy, the same theatre at which the 1934 version had opened.

Although she has the second largest role in the film, Juanita Moore was billed seventh, behind actors with much smaller roles. As some form of compensation, her on-screen billing reads "presenting Juanita Moore as Annie Johnson," but that credit didn't make it into the film's advertising.

Imitation of Life became Universal's top-grossing film to that time, and Turner's most successful film ever. Her deal for half the profits kept her financially comfortable for the rest of her life, particularly after fifth husband Fred May invested much of the money in real estate.

by Frank Miller

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teaser Imitation of Life (1959)

Made for $2 million, Imitation of Life grossed $6.4 million during its initial U.S. release, placing number five on the year's list of top box-office films. By 1970, it had made over $25 million worldwide.

AWARDS & HONORS

Imitation of Life received Photoplay magazine's Laurel Award for Best Drama.

Both Susan Kohner and Juanita Moore were nominated for Golden Globes for Best Supporting Actress, with Kohner winning the award.

Douglas Sirk was nominated for the Directors Guild Award but lost to William Wyler for Ben-Hur (1959).

Both Kohner and Moore won Oscar® nominations for Best Supporting Actress. They lost to Shelley Winters in The Diary of Anne Frank (1959).

"Imitation of Life crosses a succession of emotional bridges, hitting the heart with each step in one of the best Universal films of recent years. It's a film that will benefit from word-of-mouth, particularly of lipsticked mouth." Variety.

"...Miss Turner and the others act unreally and elaborately...[They] do not give an imitation of life. They give an imitation of movie acting at its less graceful level twenty-five years ago." -- Bosley Crowther, The New York Times.

"When passed before the moviegoer's eyes, it may force theatre owners to install aisle scuppers to drain off the tears." -- Time Magazine

"...it has a genuinely touching sub-plot involving a stanch Negro woman and her wayward daughter. To these two roles Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner bring a degree of emotion that virtually dissolved the audience watching the film with me. This is life as they would like to believe it, and it makes good movie material -- at least for a matinee." -- Arthur Knight, The Saturday Review.

"Sirk's last movie in Hollywood is a coldly brilliant weepie, a rags-to-riches tale of two intertwined families, in which the materialist optimism is continually counterpointed by an emphasis upon racial tension and the degeneration of family bonds...Forget those who decry the '50s Hollywood melodrama: it is through the conventions of that hyper-emotional genre that Sirk is able to make such a devastatingly embittered and pessimistic movie." - Geoff Andrew, TimeOut Movie Guide (Penguin).

"Fine performances and direction overcome possible soapiness to make this quite credible and moving." - Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide (Plume).

"Stunningly produced but dully acted, making its racially sensitive plot seem insincere." - Halliwell's Film & Video Guide (HarperPerennial).

"I think it's impeccably made Hollywood trash - a watchable, laughable, lamentable soap opera/"women's picture"/"problem" picture....The most honest scene has white Troy Donahue brutally beating date Kohner, who he has learned is black." - Danny Peary, Guide For the Film Fanatic (Fireside).

"Imitation of Life may be the most important movie ever made. It has everything: mother love, musical numbers, backstage intrigue, race relations, gowns by Jean Louis, garish Technicolor, irony, Oscar®-nominated performances. You name it, it's got it!" -- Lypsinka, "My Favorite Things."

Compiled by Frank Miller & Jeff Stafford

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teaser Imitation of Life (1959)

In April of 1958, Lana Turner's teenage daughter Cheryl Crane stabbed Lana's mobster lover, Johnny Stompanato to death. Although the killing was ruled justifiable homicide because Cheryl was defending her mother, the scandal rocked Hollywood, and many people thought Lana's film career was over. Enter Ross Hunter, producer of lavish women's pictures for Universal, who had breathed new life into the careers of aging stars like Jane Wyman and Barbara Stanwyck. Hunter offered Turner the starring role in a remake of Imitation of Life (1959).

Fannie Hurst's novel, Imitation of Life (1933), was the story of two single mothers, one white and one black, who join forces and become successful businesswomen. But both women suffer heartbreak caused by their daughters. (The idea for the book was born when Hurst traveled with black author Zora Neale Hurston and encountered racism, although the story was not remotely based on either of their lives.) Thanks to its provocative themes, the novel was a huge success. It was made into a film in 1934, starring Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers, directed by John Stahl. Ross Hunter wanted to update the story, making the leading character an actress instead of a businesswoman, but keeping the race issue and the conflicts between mothers and daughters.

For Lana Turner, that hit a little too close to home, and she hesitated. But she was deeply in debt, and she needed to work. Hunter offered a first-class production, with Jean Louis gowns and Laykin et Cie jewels, the leading women's director, Douglas Sirk, and a chance to make a lot of money, if Lana would work for a small salary plus half the net profits. Turner agreed, and the film succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Lana Turner was back on top, and a rich woman as well. Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner were both nominated for Best Supporting Actress Oscars for their searing portrayals of the African-American mother and daughter. Imitation of Life became Universal's biggest moneymaker to date, and a 1995 poll by the New York Daily News still ranked it as one of the top-ten all-time favorite films.

Director: Douglas Sirk
Producer: Ross Hunter
Screenplay: Eleanore Griffin, Allan Scott, based on the novel by Fannie Hurst
Editor: Milton Carruth
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Art Direction: Alexander Golitzen, Richard H. Riedel
Music: Frank Skinner
Principal Cast: Lana Turner (Lora Meredith), John Gavin (Steve Archer), Sandra Dee (Susie, age 16), Juanita Moore (Annie Johnson), Susan Kohner (Sara Jane, age 18), Dan O'Herlihy (David Edwards), Robert Alda (Allen Loomis).
C-125m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

By Margarita Landazuri

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