Imitation of Life

Joy in Pain, Pleasure in Sacrifice

“As Linda Williams has noted,” Marina Heung writes, “The dominant emotion in the Women’s Film is ‘Joy in pain, pleasure in sacrifice.’”

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Indeed, the predominant emotions felt by both of Imitation of Life’s protagonists, Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) and Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) could be described as “Joy in pain, and pleasure in sacrifice.” Lora’s existence is sacrificial of her family life, and her love life. Time and again, she turns down the role of mother and love-interest in order to pursue her ambitions, which ultimately lead her down a hollow path that never lives up to her expectations. By the end of the film, her daughter, Susie (Sandra Dee), considers her an absentee parent, and shares her life with Annie instead. Meanwhile, Annie’s existence is struggle. As a black woman, she subverts her own ambitions – or is never allowed to have them in the first place – to take care of Lora’s daughter and household. Sara Jane (Susan Kohner) complicates matters, and makes her life ever the more painful, as Sara Jane is constantly reminded that the color of Annie’s skin is a source of shame, and, quite literally, an anchor, as she guides herself toward young adulthood with a cringe-worthy self-hatred, and worse, a visceral hatred of her own mother.

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Sara Jane is partially right, Annie – despite having her daughter’s best interests at heart – is, in fact, an anchor. Seemingly small, kind acts, like bringing her daughter’s boots to school, turn out to be emotionally traumatizing for Sara Jane, through no fault of Annie’s own. She can’t help the color of her skin, nor should she apologize for loving her daughter, nevertheless, her presence at times in Sara Jane’s life become a very real detriment. Although Sara Jane is intrinsically selfish throughout the film, making the climactic scene in which she throws herself on Annie’s coffin so utterly gut-wrenching, moments in Sara Jane’s life – like taking brutal beatings in alley ways by degenerate boyfriends – would not have happened if her mother was white. So, while we tend to abhor Sara Jane’s behavior throughout the film, we also understand her when she delivers lines like these: “…Because I’m white too. And if I’m colored, then I want to die. I want to have a chance in life. I don’t want to come through back doors, or feel lower than other people, or apologize for my mother’s color. She can’t help her color, but I can, and I will.”

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There are two points in the film in which a daughter throws herself into the lap of her mother, in the third act, when Susie falls into Lora’s lap after threatening to leave for Colorado, and toward the beginning of the second act, when Lora falls into Annie’s lap. The blocking and the shots used during both scenes are exactly the same, and they speak directly to the character of Lora, who plays the role of Annie’s dependent daughter, and the role of Susie’s independent anti-mother, simultaneously. When Lora falls into Annie’s lap, ever the mother, Annie responds, “Everything will be OK. I’ll get some milk.” Up until this point in the film, Annie is Lora’s live-in help, but once Lora throws herself into Annie’s lap, she becomes the mother, and, simultaneously, Lora fails to reach motherhood with her own daughter. By the end of the film, Lora is famous, and buying extravagant gifts for Susie in place of being there to help her grow up. Of course, this leaves her daughter empty and confused, as she falls for Steve (John Gavin), the only man in her life to show her any sort of affection. It’s no surprise Susie misinterprets his love, and falls head over heels for him despite his father-figure role.

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Just as Lora and Annie are polar opposites in form and function, so too are Susie and Sara Jane. While Susie clamors for the affection of her mother, Sara Jane struggles to outrun the shadow of hers. Where Susie turns out to be emotionally dependent as a young adult, and in search of meaningful love, after the beating she endures, Sara Jane objectifies herself in order to maintain steadfast independence from her family. While Susie rides horseback with Steve through a lush meadow, Sara Jane entertains gentlemen callers three times her age for money. Neither Sara Jane or Susie has a father figure, but both search them out through their sexuality. Heung speaks at great length about psychoanalysis throughout her piece, and it would seem that both Susie and Sara Jane play out similar Oedipal fantasies with much older men, to differing results. Nevertheless, the absence of their mother figures – Susie’s involuntarily, and Sara Jane’s voluntarily – leads them in search of the male affection they never had as children. “How do you explain to your child she was born to hurt?” Annie wonders aloud, summing up the entire film in one beautifully-succinct but heart-breaking line. Annie was ultimately unable to explain to Sara Jane, instead, her daughter had to find out on her own. The same could be said for Susie.

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Lora, perhaps the film’s only daughter, in the metaphorical sense, becomes so self-obsessed at one point, she says to Annie upon learning of her church group, “It never occurred to me you have any friends.” Annie replies with a knowing chuckle, the comment doesn’t surprise her, but it should have. Lora is a grown woman, but barely knows her closest confidante. Instead, she acts like an oblivious child, not cognizant that her “mother” has a life outside of her own. When Annie lies on her deathbed, Lora drops to her knees and weeps like a child, bellowing when Annie finally crosses over to the other side. The adults in the room look on with deep sadness, but never shed a tear. Nor should they, because the scene serves to point out one last time that Lora’s loss is the loss of a parent, not a friend. It’s beyond merely sad to Lora, it’s devastating, and deeply scary. Lora is crying more for herself, than for the loss of Annie. After all, how will she go on without her mother to help guide her? Lora was a mess before Annie came into her life, but while Annie was around, her ambitions were fully realized. Instead of an anchor, Annie was Lora’s rock. Without her, what does she have left?

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