John Gavin and Lana Turner in Imitation of Life.
Everett Collection

Melodrama is one of the most maligned genres, often denigrated by people who think they’re above being manipulated by a movie. But a great melodrama is really a vessel, a place for us to put overwhelming feelings that have nowhere else to go. In Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life—adapted from a 1933 novel by Fannie Hurst and filmed previously in 1934—Lana Turner and Juanita Moore star as Lora Meredith and Annie Johnson, single mothers who join forces out of need and forge a lifelong friendship. Lora is an aspiring but struggling actor. Annie may be a close friend, but she’s also essentially a servant, helping Lora along on her rise to stardom as the two raise their children together. Sirk, a master of big feelings writ large on the screen, is fully aware of the complicated dynamic between the two women: at one point Annie speaks of her dream to have a big, lavish funeral, with all her friends in attendance. “It never occurred to me that you had any friends!” Lora responds, wide-eyed. “You never asked,” Annie responds, not bitterly but with a kind of gentle weariness.

Turner is an undeniably glamorous presence, but it’s Moore’s performance—restrained even amid the movie’s grand swirls of emotion—that will stick with you forever. Annie’s daughter, Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), resents her mother for the darkness of her skin: Sarah Jane is light-skinned and desperately tries to pass, even as Annie pleads with her to take pride in who she is. Imitation of Life tangles with issues that still make America uncomfortable—but then, Sirk always defied the idea of comfort altogether. To be comfortable means accepting the status quo. With his grand gestures, Sirk sought to bust our world wide open.

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