Fifty-six years after it opened, Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (playing Film Forum in a new restoration) remains the apotheosis of Hollywood melodrama — as Sirk’s final film, it could hardly be anything else — and the toughest-minded, most irresolvable movie ever made about race in this country.
For all its reputation as a relentless tearjerker, this story of Annie (the peerless Juanita Moore), a black maid trying to hold on to a light-skinned daughter determined to pass as white, is characterized by Sirk’s deeply ironic control.
That’s most apparent in Sirk’s handling of Lana Turner as Lora, Annie’s boss, the generous stage star who is nonetheless oblivious that the opportunities she takes for granted aren’t available to everyone. Annie exists in the real world Lora never really has to.
What makes the movie so thorny is that Lora’s is the world Annie’s daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner, in a fierce performance) aspires to — and Sirk refuses to judge her for that. Sirk lays out the life Sarah Jane would settle for — a stifling one of church dances and teachers college and marriage to a young black who knows to keep to his place — and dares us to impugn her desire to escape.
He never condescends to his material, but he questions every motive, relentlessly showing us the delusions each character is caught in. Too often, New York audiences have treated the stylization of Sirk’s films as an occasion for derisive laughter. The depth and bitterness of Sirk’s irony, his refusal to provide easy answers, shames those who’d bring any less to this American masterpiece.