Lobby card from the film's original release, featuring Susan Kohner as the troubled Sarah Jane Johnson.
Just got back from the Film Forum's screening of IMITATION OF LIFE (1959), a film that has fascinated me since I first encountered it in the great Esther Newton's infamous "American Society On Film" class during my SUNY at Purchase college days. It's a re-imagining of a 1934 chick flick/"weepie" about two mothers, one black and one white, and their daughters, who all come together under one roof as a blended family and contend with issues of class, race, and family dysfunction, and the 1959 version is one of the all-time classic examples of a textbook emotionally-manipulative Hollywood soaper. Its examination of how American society of its era made true equality/harmony between blacks and whites in general unlikely at best hauls out the longstanding tropes of the martyred, saintly older black woman who's the emotional backbone and real strength of the family (to both black and white factions), and the so-called tragic mulatto whose case of self-loathing is invariably more compelling than the upper-class travails of the white protagonists.
Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), surrounded by white masks. Subtle it is not...
I won't spoil the plot's details but the 1959 IMITATION OF LIFE's portrait of Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), the angry, self-loathing light-skinned daughter of a black father who's described as "almost white," is far more compelling than the rote rags-to-riches showbiz rise of its white main character (Lana Turner) and how her success leads her to unintentionally neglect her blossoming 16-year-old (Sandra Dee). The actress's storyline is not bad by any means, but it was something that was already seen numerous times prior to the film's release, however it's essential to the overall narrative by providing the perfect background against which to contrast the entwined lives of Sarah Jane and her mother (Juanita Moore) who works as the actress's live-in maid and bosom companion whose support and caring for the actress's daughter frees the actress to pursue stage gigs. Sarah Jane's rejection of her dusky heritage and her shattering desire to pass for white from an early age form the true emotional core of the story and Susan Kohner's Oscar-nominated performance renders the character's arc as nothing less than painful and heartbreaking. In short, if you have not seen this film, seek it out for Kohner's arc.
Which brings me to last night's Screening at the Film Forum, where I met the one and only Susan Kohner. Kohner's spectacular portrayal of the deeply troubled, self-loathing Sarah Jane Johnson struck a very strong chord with my mother's side of the family, especially with a certain aunt who basically was the character in real life. (Though Sarah Jane never ran into the same kinds of issues with the law that the aunt in question did, but the less said of that the better...) Following the film, Kohner sat for an interview with a film professor — whose questions/expoundings were of little or no weight and who clearly missed the entire point of the movie he was allegedly such an authority upon; that assessment was shared by a friend of mine who was also in attendance and is a highly-knowledgeable film scholar and director of films herself — and later answered questions from members of the audience. Since the opportunity was afforded, I took the mic and told Kohner of how much her character and performance meant to my family and especially my aunt. Following that, she was also kind enough to pose for a shot with her that I will send to the interested parties in my family, especially the aforementioned aunt.
Yer Bunche, with the one and only Susan Kohner.