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Imitation of Life (1959) by Douglas Sirk
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The Lost Desires:
Cinema creates a reflection of what people expect reality to look like. It is a romanticized version of what we expect from others, and how we prefer to see our daily activities pan out. However, a reflection of life is only the beginning. A reflection refers to looking at a mirrored image through a secondary apparatus. When cinema presents itself, it is showing an imitation, a rendition of a made up story that is supposed to replicate reality. For example, if a group of friends play telephone, the starting point is the truth; as it continues, material is added, some taken away, and eventually the story becomes something different. It becomes a rendition of what first became of it. That is cinema.
The elements added to the original story are dramatic ones. Drama increases the interest, therefore further engaging the audience watching. In some cases, filmmakers have taken the extra step to intensify the dramatic moments to make classic tales of melodrama, such as Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of life (1959). This film is melodrama at its finest. The characters are constantly throwing their heads back in shock, demise, or even happiness. Though, because of the vast array of emotion they express, it gives the film room to introduce ideas of gender, interracial relationships, and class – which are only a few topics that can be picked out. Using melodrama to tie these elements together breaks the term melodrama down. It no longer becomes a genre of film, as Linda Williams discusses, it becomes a “broad mode … it emerges primal sentiments of love and loss.” Therefore, Imitation of life is given the opportunity to easily, and discretely, share a story of one woman’s desire for her best friend.
Lora Meredith, a single mother of one, is the melodrama queen of Imitation of life. She is a widowed woman, unemployed, and trying to make it big as an actress in New York. Though it seems Lora cannot decipher between reality and acting. Her self-expression is reflected strongly on either side of the spectrum almost instantly. It is as if she is auditioning at every moment. For example, When Lora is introduced, she is leaning off the side of a pier sign looking for her daughter. However, the way she is leaning suggests that she was expecting people to be looking up at her taking her picture, which someone was.
Not only does Lora display a sense of narcissism, she also displays a strong conscious towards her gender identification. She is a strong independent woman who, although accepts help from men, does not show necessity for it. These actions show that she is not necessarily looking for a marriage, she is looking for a partner. Lora’s fluidity about partnership helps to reverse the gaze men have over a female. Cinema normally objectifies the woman, making her vulnerable, submissive, and unable to support those close to her (Smith, 5). Society influences gender roles, and with media, woman are encouraged to represent the expectation cinema has held to them. However, Lora’s ability to normalize what a partnership looks like, she is also able to reflect that fluidity in her sexuality.
Lora befriends a woman on the beach, Annie, while she is searching for her daughter. Annie is an African American Woman who seems lost for a place to stay. With little doubt, and a promise of perfect compatibility, Lora accepts Annie’s help and companionship. Because of their strong relationship that builds over fifteen years, a deep love grows. However, their love is not something culturally accepted. Their interracial friendship and Lora’s promiscuity with men, hides the idea of there being any homosexual desires. Lora and Annie accept their heteronormative roles almost immediately. Lora has already identified her role as an independent provider, but more so identifies with it when Annie moves in with her daughter.
There are subtle examples throughout the film which demonstrate what Judith Butler describes as gender melancholia. Gender melancholia is, “the process by which the heterosexual ego assumes normative gender by giving up its forbidden homosexual attachments” (Williams, 169). Using a heternormative gaze, Lora takes on more of a masculine role, while Annie takes the feminine.
The gender melancholia in Imitation of Life is Lora and Annie’s grief towards themselves and each other. They are mourning their inability to express their love to one another openly; therefore, they naturally appropriate heternormative gender roles to fulfill their desire. As Williams recalls, it is the “grief for the homosexual attachment that have been lost in the process of heterosexual identity formation” (Williams, 168). Lora uses lines reflecting phrases such as, “honey, I’m home.” She provides for all four in her household, and is the stereotypical absent “father” figure, leaving the nurturing to the mother, Annie. Annie wants nothing more than to care for her family very maternally. She cooks, cleans, and listens to their worries.
A suggestion of Judith Butler explains that, “gender melancholy exists because there are no culturally accepted forms for the mourning of the loss of same sex ‘passion and rapture'” (Williams,189). From the beginning, Lora and Annie make a commitment to each other. This is just as sudden as their accepted roles. It is as if this is saying their love was confirmed immediately after meeting – a love at first sight. Though, because their desire is culturally unaccepted, they commit to each other rather obliquely. Lora has just had her first paying job since she moved to New York, and upon coming home, we find Annie offering her supper and taking her coat. Though, that is not the solidifying moment that promises their commitment.
Their dialogue with one another goes as so:
Lora: I’ll pay you for staying today and cooking and…
Annie: uh-uh. That money goes into our kitty.
Lora: Our? Seems as if you intend to stay.
Annie: Seems like I do, if, if you want it.
And so on.
Although it seems as though they are confirming Annie’s help, their passionate need reflected in their dialogue presents more so a romantic partnership. It is the agreement to one another’s responsibilities, children, and most importantly, each other.
Their story continues, and their love sees hardship when Lora’s career takes off. She seems to always have a distraction, a male distraction, leaving Annie second. Her male lover in the height of her career is appropriate to hide her homosexual partnership with Annie, and to also move her up faster. In Lora’s dressing room, they have a conversation about love, and whether Lora loves her boyfriend and director, Mr. Edwards. This interaction, and their reaction to her answer, made it apparent that Lora was using Mr. Edwards to disguise her and Annie’s relationship; however, the way Annie turns away from Lora right before Mr. Edwards walks in is with much grief, and the beginning of losing their desire while still understanding they would stay together.
It is not until Annie’s last moment we see their love unregretfully unfold. Judith Butler expresses much opinion about forbidden homosexual desires in cinema. She explains gender identification and how the loss of a loved same sex partner causes societal stress because of its effect on heterosexual desires. This last scene together tells true to their queer identities. It is, “Played straight as melodrama, and as such, it finally comes to the heart of the [queer] romance that lies at the films center” (Williams, 180). Lora falls over Annie, yells dramatically, only as if her overbearingness that she lacked over the years was going to revive her. Either that or her willingness to express their relationship in front of witnesses would do the same. However, more realistically, losing Annie meant losing her life partner.
Whether it was losing her partner, expressing her sexuality, or having the opportunity to be overdramatic, it seems as though Lora’s genuine feelings towards losing Annie was that she did not know how to live, or love, without her. Lora was able to disguise her relationship using men, but she never knew how to solely be with a man. With Annie’s absence, Lora was no longer able to use men, she was now culturally forced to give herself to a man fully. Her barriers hiding her homosexual desires were no longer available; furthermore, losing a partner meant losing her sexuality and gender identity.
Imitation of Life is a reflection of what its characters expect their reality to look like. This is especially true for Lora as she finds her path to have interesting diversions, distractions, and illusion. Her and Annie’s ability to conceal their relationship romanticized other versions of themselves, making their lives seem seamless. This then creates an imitation. It is an imitation of what they expect life to look like outside of their relationship, a rendition of a made up story that ultimately tries to replicate reality, or what Lora and Annie want others to think their reality is. Lora, although using melodrama to express herself fully, also uses these qualities to disguise her sexuality, desire, and passion for another woman. It becomes her mode of expression, leaving the melodramatic genre out of the film, as Linda Williams explains. Lora uses melodrama to increase interest in those around her, pulling focus away from her relationship with Annie. As Judith Butler argues, “heterosexual identity is purchased through melancholic incorporation of the love that it disavows. In the case of love between persons of the same gender there is no acknowledged public discourse through which this love can be named – and mourned” (Williams, 187).
Imitation of Life is discrete. It is able to share a story of ones woman’s desire for her best friend, and shift focus to other areas of the story so not only the characters do not see the connection, but the audience may not either. Lora is able to tie elements together, and avert attention towards topics like race and class, leaving gender identity and homosexuality out of the mix. It is cleaver in adding a queer element without addressing its vitality. There were only so many opportunities in Hollywood cinema to be explicate about homosexual relationships; and although Imitation of Life did not necessarily have that freedom, it was able to make it an important undertone for queer audiences.
Hirschberg, Lynn. The Redeemen. NY Times, 2004.
Smith, Paul Julian. Desire Unlimited: The Cinema of Pedro Almodovar. 2nd Edition. 2000.
Williams, Linda. Melancholy Melodrama: Almodovarian Grief and Lost Homosexual—————————-Attachments. AAA. 2009.
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