Douglas Sirk’s final — and most subversive — foray into Hollywood melodrama represents a conscious step forward for the types of characters and stories portrayed within the genre. IMITATION OF LIFE manages to function not only as a straightforward melodrama of its era, but also as a not-so-hidden critique of the suffocating confines of gender and race — rendered in the candy-coating of technicolor. In fact, the film feels like a blowing up of Sirk’s own unique formula for the sake of engaging with urgent and contemporary subject matter.
IMITATION OF LIFE follows two widowed women, one white (Lana Turner) and one black (Juanita Moore) — both of whom struggle with raising their daughters (Sandra Dee and Susan Kohner) over a span of a decade. Sirk contrasts their problems through a steady pace of dramatic episodes, and while both struggle against the social mores of womanhood in late 1950s, the tragedy quietly shifts to acknowledge the disparity of privilege and experience between white and black life, culminating in an unexpected gut-punch of an ending.
One of the most essential films of the 1950s, IMITATION OF LIFE stands amongst the greatest films of Douglas Sirk’s career — a somber, innovative, finale, capping off a remarkable decade of work.