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Much is elusive when merely dabbling in 'Life'

Born to Be Hurt The Untold Story of "Imitation of Life" Sam Staggs

February 12, 2009|Liz Brown | Brown has written for Bookforum, the London Review of Books and the New York Times Book Review.

"Born to Be Hurt: The Untold Story of 'Imitation of Life' " is a fitting title for a book about the behind-the-scenes details of one of the greatest melodramas in American film, matched with one of the greatest real-life melodramas in Hollywood history. Douglas Sirk's 1959 remake of John M. Stahl's 1934 film (based on Fannie Hurst's novel) went into production just months after the film's star, Lana Turner, testified at her daughter's trial for the murder of Turner's gangster lover Johnny Stompanato.

Although author Sam Staggs appears fatigued by this well-known lore, he does touch on the echoes of Turner's relationship with her daughter that surface in the film. He also brings plenty of less widely known information to the surface. Indeed, reading his comprehensive documentation is a bit like taking in a Pop-Up Video treatment of "Imitation of Life."

There's something compelling about this approach to film history, which offers all kinds of detail that might not otherwise appear germane. I like knowing that Susan Kohner, who played the angry, racially passing daughter in "Imitation of Life," is the mother of Paul and Chris Weitz, the guys who made "American Pie."

I'm glad too that someone has told the story of Jo Ann Greer, the ghost singer who provides the voice for Kohner's burlesque number as well as Rita Hayworth's numbers in other films. I appreciate how far Staggs goes to cover everything behind the scenes -- even tracking down the photographers who supplied the shots that are supposed to be taken by John Gavin's character.

But some tidbits don't have to remain tidbits; they can actually function as lenses through which to view a film about filial estrangement and parental loss.

Here's one: When Sirk was still living in Germany and working as a theater director, he married an actress and they had a son. The marriage broke up, and Sirk got married again, to Hilde Jary, who was Jewish.

This led his ex-wife, an early member of the Nazi Party, to get a court order prohibiting Sirk from having contact with his son. Well placed in theatrical circles, she also oversaw the boy's rise as the leading child star in Nazi cinema. Except for going to the movies, Sirk never saw his son again.

This is a tragic story, offering insight into Sirk not just as a filmmaker but also as a human being. Yet Staggs gives it the same level of attention as he does the story of Ann Robinson, who eventually went out on the bullfighting circuit after playing a chorus girl at the Moulin Rouge.

Nor is the sequencing of all these stories clear. Without an organizing principle to anchor us, confronting this flood of information is like being bombarded by pop-ups that have been cut loose from their source material.

Staggs' great feeling for "Imitation of Life" is evident from his present-tense account of attending a 45th anniversary screening of the film. He uses first person liberally and often assumes we share his popular culture references, politics and nostalgia.

It's also clear that he's filled with feeling for the process of conducting research. He frequently describes making phone calls and devotes a chapter to his bewilderment that the woman who played one character as a young girl did not respond to his e- mails.

Staggs looks at the cultural reactions to "Imitation of Life" as well as other of Sirk's films, referencing John Waters and drag star Lypsinka. But he refuses to engage the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who had tremendous respect for the director and whose "Ali: Fear Eats the Soul" is a remake of "All That Heaven Allows."

Staggs' rationale? "Though I could never gnaw through Fassbinder's three dozen lazy, solipsistic films," he writes, "I've seen enough to know that whatever he borrowed from Sirk didn't improve his stillborn talent."

At one point, Staggs even dismisses Sirk for viewing Annie Johnson's funeral at the end of the movie as "an irony," declaring that "Sirk's shortcomings as an 'Imitation of Life' spectator mean little when measured against his accomplishment as a director."

Were "Born to Be Hurt" a study of one man's fandom, such lack of critical engagement might have made more sense. Indeed, had Staggs gone farther toward the territory of memoir, his accounts of doing research might not have been so distracting either.

But as it is, the hovering first-person voice never does emerge as a full character or embodied presence. Sometimes, it disappears altogether, and suddenly we're inside Lana Turner's point of view, as she turns down gentlemen callers: "Lana shook her head. Though recently divorced from Lex Barker, and without a man at present, she couldn't be had for the price of a phone call."

The mass of detail doesn't necessarily add up to a story, as the book's subtitle proclaims. It would be better described as reference material, in the vein of David Thomson's unabashedly subjective the New Biographical Dictionary of Film.

There isn't much melodrama, however, in an "untold encyclopedia."

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