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Douglas Sirk's luxurious widescreen tearjerker contrasts the troubles and travails of two mother-daughter pairs — the very blonde Lana Turner and Sandra Dee and the Academy Award®–nominated Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner — to create one of Hollywood's most complex and fascinating portraits of American race relations.
Sirk extended his critique of fifties America to focus on racism in this supreme weepie — only the stone-hearted will not be left sobbing — and produced a profound and damning masterpiece. (Fassbinder considered this Sirk's best film, calling it "a great, crazy movie about love and about death. And about America.") Imitation of Life parallels two mother-daughter relationships: between ambitious actress Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) and her troubled daughter Suzie (Sandra Dee), both very blonde, and between their black housekeeper Annie (Juanita Moore) and her resentful daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), who attempts to "pass" for white. The two families become intertwined, their fates shadowing and contrasting each other as they both surrender the essential — a sense of self — to America's vast imitation of life. While Sirk's perceptions about exploitation masquerading as charity are acute, like Fassbinder he does not spare the victims. ("Both white and black are leading imitation lives," he explained.) Which is not to say that he doesn't tip his liberal hand: in a film about falseness, Sirk chose white actors whose qualities were arch and insubstantial (Turner, Dee, John Gavin) while Moore and Kohner both received Academy Award® nominations for their wrenching performances. The stops-out majesty and emotion of the final sequence — a double requiem — is the kind of full-bodied cinema that irony has since rendered impossible.