"Born to be Hurt" by Sam Staggs: Book Review


"Born to be Hurt" by Sam Staggs
St. Martin's Griffin, 422 pp., $16.95 (trade paperback)
Reviewed by David Marshall James

"Imitation of Life" (1959) remains a sock-in-the-gut, emotional wallop of a movie that was so cutting-edge at the time it was released, it's a wonder it got made at all, especially as a high-gloss, big-studio production.

TV-- particularly Ted Turner's TBS cable channel, beginning during the 1970s-- breathed new life into the film, so it has become well-known to two more generations of viewers.

One of the principal benefactors of such renown has been director Douglas Sirk, an increasingly analyzed and respected figure in the Hollywood pantheon. Sirk's history traces back to the German theater of the early 1930s, and his leaving his first wife after she became an avid Nazi, along with their son, whom the director was not permitted to see after marrying a Jewish woman.

By the end of World War II, both that first wife and their son were dead. How close Sirk was, then, to the family-abandonment themes of "Imitation of Life."

Film historian and author Sam Staggs examines all the technicians on the film, most of whom had won, or would soon win, Academy Awards. Then, there are the performers, discussed at length-- from featured players to extras-- often in Staggs's trademark sidebars.

The author befriended Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner-- both nominated for Oscars for this film, although they "cancelled out" one another in the same category. Moore's magnificently sincere performance and Kohner's outstandingly rebellious one hold the film together, wrenching heartache from the story of the light-skinned daughter (Kohner) who rejects her darker-skinned mother (Moore).

The mother/daughter theme struck home for Lana Turner, just a few months off the scandal involving Lana's lover, Johnny Stompanato, allegedly fatally stabbed by Turner's daughter, Cheryl Crane. It's a scandal that Staggs explores from many fascinating angles.

Sandra Dee portrayed Turner's blonde princess of a daughter. The year 1959 was Dee's annus mirablis-- "Imitation of Life," "Gidget," and "A Summer Place" were released, and she would enter the 1960s as the most famous teenage girl in America.

Another emerging, and equally blonde, teen idol-- Troy Donahue (Dee's costar in "A Summer Place")-- has a small but grotesquely memorable turn in "Imitation of Life," as the boyfriend of Kohner's character, Sarah Jane Johnson, whom he viciously beats when he discovers that she's "passing" for white.

Also among the cast are Broadway musical star Robert Alda and Dan O'Herlihy, an Irish actor who trained at Dublin's famed Abbey Theatre, where he starred in the original production of Sean O'Casey's "Red Roses for Me."

Who could have brought such a cast and a crew together on such a budget but producer Ross Hunter, who worked with director Sirk on nine other films for Universal, this being their final collaboration and Sirk's final film (he returned to Europe for the remainder of his lengthy life).

Hunter believed in putting his production money on the screen, and that he did, including twenty-nine designer gowns by Jean-Louis for Miss Turner. However, the big gamble paid off. Trashed by the critics, it became the highest-grossing film, ever, for the studio.

Hunter went on to break his own record for the studio with "Thoroughly Modern Millie" (1968), which was soon bested by "Airport" (1970).

Author Staggs doesn't leave a glittery stone unturned concerning anyone remotely connected with the film, which has gained status as a classic through its repeated TV showings. New audiences continue to embrace it, plumbing the depths of the expansive emotions it unleashes, with each fresh viewing.

* * *