As the years pass, Lora’s fierce ambition and Sarah Jane’s (now played by fellow Oscar nominee Susan Kohner) determination to ‘pass for white’ only becomes more problematic, resulting in devastating repercussions for all involved. The impassable gulf between the now teenaged Susie’s (Sandra Dee) privileged existence and Sarah Jane’s desperate attempts to distance herself from her race, and her own mother, fulfils the crux of the story.
Throughout, Moore’s performance scores the emotional steps deftly, between the polarities of enthusiastic support to silent anguish, without ever concealing her defining commitment to the one thing that truly matters: cultivating her daughter’s pride in who she is. All this builds up to an emotionally wrenching, operatic finale – a masterclass in three-hanky audience manipulation – where the gap between mother and daughter can only be bridged in death.
On closer inspection, Imitation of Life reveals itself as a dexterous example of covert subversive filmmaking, since it contains a powerful anti-racist message, at a time when racial segregation was still very much alive in the USA.
As so often with Sirk (whose films include the hugely popular Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows, both of which were dismissed as ‘women’s weepies’), his pointedly social commentary is purposefully disguised by narrative sleight-of-hand, lavish costumes, a symphony of music and a vivid spectrum of dazzling colours. The seduction is perfect.
Critical opinion about Sirk has since dramatically changed and he is now recognised as one of the great masters of Hollywood cinema. He has also proven to be a key inspiration for the likes of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Pedro Almodóvar and John Waters. Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven (2002) is an acknowledged love letter to Sirk’s melodramas.