Apr 17, 2006

Imitation of Life: Lana Turner

Even by today's standards, when actresses have pumped their lips into pouts never seen in nature and sport D-cup breasts on size 0 bodies, is there a more artificial looking actress than Lana Turner?

It wasn't always that way; as a teenager she had a very sweet look.

Lana Turner, 1937 Screen Test

But as the years progressed all that plucking, dying and maquillage transformed the "sweater girl" discovered at the lunch counter Schraft's into a real life mannequin.

Lana Turner

In Imitation of Life that artificiality is played up to the hilt. At the movie's opening Lora Meredith (Turner), a down-on-her-luck actress and her young daughter Susie meet the black Annie Johnson and her daughter Sarah Jane on the beach at Coney Island. Annie is desperate for a place to live and offers to work as Lora's maid for food and lodging.

Imitation Lana

Annie is the movie's moral and spiritual core. While Lora is off pursuing her career--ignoring her child and turning down (repeatedly) the love of a good man in the process--Annie keeps things together, becoming a real mother to Lora's child, Suzie. Annie's story, however, does not end well. Annie's daughter, Sarah Jane, hates being a second-class citizen and leaves her mother to try to pass as white.

One way the movie emphasizes the difference between the two women is through Turner's makeup and wardrobe. As she becomes more successful, Turner's jewelry gets bigger, bolder and more glittery. In the picture above, that necklace shines so much it looks as though Turner were wearing a string of blue and white sparklers around her neck. In another scene, Turner is turned out in a coral turban, blouse and capri pants with a turquoise necklace and matching earrings the size of dinner plates for a day in the country with her daughter. Throughout, Turner is one layer of lipstick away from looking like a drag queen. Yet, somehow, it works.

Imitation is the tear jerker of all tear jerkers: You know you're being manipulated and that the situations the movie depicts are preposterous, yet by the end you're bawling like a baby. The capper comes at Annie's funeral. (Of course, she dies before her time. She's too good to live.) The scene opens with a number by gospel great Mahalia Jackson. Then Sarah Jane comes back and tries to throw herself on her mother's gardenia-laden-casket. A more subdued Lora, wearing just a slightly showy black hat with veil, takes her by the hand and leads her to the limosine. Then we watch a funeral cortege, complete with six white horses and a marching band sedately roll on as a crowd of onlookers pays the black woman the ultimate respect by taking off their hats.

It's preposterous, I tell ya. But I cried all the same.

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