Imitation of Life (1959) Movie Review

By: Alex Phuong (A Toast) –

There is the popular notion that art, literature, and film reflect the time period in which such work was created. For example, Jane Austen’s novels captured the essence of the Regency period through novels like Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. This phenomenon is almost like a natural re-occurrence because the films made in the late 1950s provide a unique transition to the radical and psychedelic 1960s. Around the same time that Martin Luther King, Jr. rose to prominence, filmmakers began to challenge the status quo with powerful, but also sometimes controversial, motion pictures. Imitation of Life is a great example of how a film reflects the time period in which it was made because it reveals how society began shifting from the acceptance of racial segregation to a more unified way of living in which people could have civil rights.

A Toast

This film has a highly original plot because it deals with racial tensions that existed in the late 1950s. It also features two outstanding performances by women in supporting roles. Juanita Moore is one of the few contemporary African-American women to excel in film given the social restrictions at that time. It is a bit of a shame that she could never receive the notoriety of other black actresses, like Hattie McDaniel and Halle Berry. Nevertheless, Moore was very lucky to have lived up until the age of 99 before she passed away on New Year’s Day, 2014.

Susan Kohner also did well in her supporting role as Sarah Jane, and she even won a Golden Globe for her performance. Unfortunately, the coveted Oscar went to Shelley Winters that year for playing Mrs. Van Daan in The Diary of Anne Frank. The Academy has a strange tendency to nominate, and also award, Oscars to performers who play real-life people. Such a trend continues to this day, such as when Meryl Streep won the Oscar for playing Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady (2011). That same year, Michelle Williams brought Marilyn Monroe to life in My Week with Marilyn, and her performance allowed her to win the Golden Globe. Interestingly, Monroe herself won the Golden Globe for her role in Some Like It Hot (1959), which was made the same year as Imitation of Life (1959). It is almost as if the Academy and the motion picture industry both work hand-in-hand to create all of these interesting coincidences throughout the history of cinema!

Verdict

1959 was a very interesting year for Hollywood. It was the year that Ben-Hur took home a record-setting 11 Academy Awards, a feat that would not be repeated until the releases of Titanic (1997) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003).  Imitation of Life might not be as famous as Ben-Hur nor The Diary of Anne Frank, but it is still a very powerful film about the nature of identity for all people regardless of race. One of the main themes of African-American literature and film is the importance of defining oneself, and this film reveals that there is no need to imitate other people in order to live a fulfilling life. That is because people can only be themselves, and that itself is one of the joys of life.

Imitation of Life (1959) Drinking Game

Take a Drink: whenever Lora keeps on pursuing fame in a narrow-minded fashion

Take a Drink: whenever there are tense arguments between the mothers and their respective daughters

Do a Shot: every time the characters make references to racial tension, such as when Sarah Jane keeps on shouting, “I’m white!”

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