Imitation of Imitation of Life

Pin it





owadays, the director Douglas Sirk is best known for Todd Haynes’ 2002 homage Far From Heaven, which starred Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid in a homoeroticized take on Sirk’s sociosexual vision of the bourgeoisie. My history with Sirk goes back a little further. As a teenager, I was reduced to tears by a TV screening of Sirk’s film Imitation of Life — a reaction the film’s producer, Ross Hunter, surely hoped to wrench from the audience when the film was released in 1959.

    Two decades later, commentators rediscovered Douglas Sirk as an unsung auteur and subtle social satirist. Suddenly his films — Written on the Wind, All That Heaven Allows and Magnificent Obsession — were no longer just gaudy melodramas. Sure, they inevitably starred fading actresses (Lana Turner, Jane Wyman) beset by hilariously overwrought dilemmas (wealthy woman falls in love with her gardener!) in lavish environments full of gleaming surfaces and Technicolor wardrobes. But beneath it all, Sirk slyly critiqued American acquisitiveness and the alienation of women.

    All of Sirk’s films were produced by the very commercial-minded Hunter, who didn’t quite pick up on the submerged ironic content Sirk planted throughout his films. Sirk was a European scholar who had worked in German

Imitation of Life (1959)

Expressionist theatre;
Hunter was a failed actor who had become a producer at Universal, the lowest
on the totem pole of the major Hollywood studios, known for cranking out
junk like Cobra Woman starring Maria Montez, the Abbott and Costello series
and horror movies.

    Tired of being considered merely a director of melodramas and the so-called “women’s pictures,” Sirk left Hollywood
after Imitation of Life. But Hunter persevered, making the same kind of sumptuous movies with the same production team — cinematographer Russell Metty and his bizarre camera angles, Alexander Golitzen’s gleaming production design, Frank Skinner’s syrupy music — and often the same actors, but without Sirk’s deft touch. I call these movies — Portrait in Black, Back Street, Madame X and the Warner Brothers/Delmer Daves rip-offs — the Faux Sirks.

    Although they’ve been critically dismissed, certain elements
of the Faux Sirks are incredibly pleasurable. Untempered by a foreign intellect,
their seaminess is more evident. (It has been argued that the fat flop Showgirls
is a satire of American pop culture from the European director Paul Verhoeven’s
point of view.) Lacking Sirk,
but with th
censors breathing down his neck, Hunter made a series of movies that are perhaps
better in their awfulness than if they had been made in the more carefree late
1960s: they had to be suggestive. (Rather than simply telling her low-class
daughter-in-law she knows she’s been screwing around, in Madame X, wealthy
Constance Bennett refers to Lana Turner’s friends as “the bedroom set,” akin,
no doubt, to “the jet set,” a popular phrase at the time. And it’s worth noting
that Billy Wilder’s and Hitchcock’s uncensored latter-day films weren’t nearly
as good as, say, 1940’s

Written on the Wind (1956)

Rebecca, in which the housekeeper’s possible lesbianism is only hinted at.)

    The Hunter films are also wonderful because they are lush. It’s fun to enjoy a cheap, rotten black and white movie like Wicked Woman, made in 1953 with almost no money, but oh-so-much more pleasure can be derived from a

Technicolor stinker on which much care and a jewelry budget have been lavished. (For instance, Back Street has not only onscreen acknowledgements for hair and makeup, it also credits the furrier Alixandre and the jeweler David Webb.)

    Just as the great Sirk films contained lurid 1950s ideas (Written on the Wind reeks of alcoholism, nymphomania and violence; The Tarnished Angels is about exhibitionism), the tradition continued in Back Street starring Susan Hayward. The film is entirely about extramarital sex, which was, of course, forbidden by the Hollywood Production Code, so dreamy lover John Gavin has to die in a car accident with his alcoholic wife, the dazzlingly bitchy Vera Miles. But his back street girlfriend Hayward (her character is couture designer rae; “All in small letters. Very chic, don’t you think?”) somehow lives on, sadder but wiser.

    Whereas Back Street was a “woman’s picture” through and through, some of the other Faux Sirks ground out by Hunter were luxe thrillers. Madame X was reviled by the human razor blade Pauline Kael (“Lana Turner isn’t ‘Madame X’; she’s Brand X”) but it was a sexy success, as bored Lana steps out on her politician husband, kills her playboy lover, is sent away to live forever anonymously by

Madame X (1966)

her snob mother-in-law, gets addicted to absinthe doled out by a blackmailer and gazes at her long-lost son as she croaks at the end. Delicious!

    Hunter’s penchants for suspense, a flashy wardrobe and back-alley sexual situations are also on display in another Turner vehicle, the jaw-dropping Portrait in Black. Here, Lana is seen fooling around with her dying husband’s doctor (Anthony Quinn), whom she convinces to kill her spouse, then the family lawyer because he knows too much. As suggestive notes begin arriving in the mail, Lana and Quinn squirm throughout the remainder of the film, wondering who has guessed their secret. It’s finally revealed that Lana is sending the mysterious notes herself to make sure her homicidal beloved stays nearby!

    It’s a kooky reverse on the old Gaslight idea, which is also the obvious inspiration for the baroque Doris Day vehicle Midnight Lace, made during the same Universal/Hunter period. In that one, a Scotland Yard inspector tries to figure out who’s trying to drive Doris crazy. Or is it all in her head? She is, after all, a woman in 1960!

    Sirk subtly employed Golitzen’s shiny surfaces, flowers and furniture to symbolize the objectification of women in a patriarchy. In the Faux Sirks, the mirrors and flowering plants and furnishings are all there, but they don’t seem to have a purpose other than decoration, leaving plenty of room for more panting and heaving and more gowns.

Portrait in Black (1960)

The agenda for a Ross Hunter film seems to be what one of his characters says: “No clothes. No sex. No fun!”

    Without Hunter — who moved on to make bland hits like Airport — and quashed by the dawn of the women’s movement, the genre of the fun trash movie disguised as a "women’s picture" died. But thanks to DVD, we can still enjoy what was at one time shocking and beautiful and artificial — the plush, shameless guilty pleasure. Empty, maybe. But not nearly as empty as the overmarketed messes Gigli or The Next Best Thing or other current romantic potboilers, which are, after all, pale facsimiles of reproductions of imitations. Why settle for them when you can feed on Ross Hunter’s and Hollywood’s sexy, sumptuous leavings and scraps?

photo: Austin Young  

A writer and performer in theater, film and TV, John Epperson is Lypsinka!, a.k.a. The Official Celebrity of the New Millennium. His award-winning shows include Lypsinka! As I Lay Lip-Synching, the autobiographical piece John Epperson: Show Trash and the play My Deah, a version of Medea set in the New South. See www.lypsinka.com.