PlotLana Turner), a struggling white widow with plans to become a famous Broadway actress, loses track of her young daughter Suzie at the beach (portrayed as a child by Terry Burnham), and requests the help of a stranger named Steve Archer (John Gavin) to help her find the girl. Suzie is found and looked after by Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), a black widow with a daughter, Sarah Jane (portrayed as a child by Karin Dicker), who is about Suzie's age and, unlike her mother, is very light-skinned to the point of appearing to be white. In return for her kindness, Lora takes Annie in temporarily. Despite the fact that Lora cannot afford a nanny, Annie persuades Lora to let her stay and take care of Suzie, so that Lora can pursue an acting career.
With struggles along the way, Meredith becomes a successful star of stage comedies, with Alan Loomis (Robert Alda) as her agent and David Edwards (Dan O'Herlihy) as her chief playwright. Although Lora had begun a romantic relationship with Steve Archer, the stranger she met at the beach, their courtship falls apart because of Lora's ambition to be a star. Lora's tight focus on her career also prevents her from spending time with her daughter, who sees more of Annie than she does her own mother. Annie and Sarah Jane have their own struggles, as the light-skinned Sarah Jane is in a constant state of turmoil over her identity and steadfastly wants to pass for white. Sarah Jane's anger at being black translates into animosity towards her long-suffering mother.
The film progresses eleven years later to 1958, finding Lora as a highly regarded Broadway star living in a luxurious home in New York. Annie continues to live with her, serving all at once as nanny, housekeeper, confidant and best friend. After rejecting David's latest script (and his marriage proposal), Lora takes a role in a dramatic play. At the show's after-party, she meets Steve, whom she hasn't seen in one decade. The two slowly begin rekindling their relationship, and Steve is reintroduced to Annie and the now-teenaged Suzie (Sandra Dee) and Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner). When Lora is signed to star in an Italian motion picture, she leaves Steve to watch after Suzie, and the teenager develops an unrequited crush on her mother's boyfriend.
pass for white: she begins dating a white boy (Troy Donohue), who severely beats her after learning that she has black blood. Some time later, Sarah Jane passes for white in order to get a job performing at a seedy nightclub, and lies to Annie and tells her she is working at the library. When Annie learns the truth and appears to claim her daughter, Sarah Jane is fired, and Sarah Jane's subsequent dismissal of her mother's care begins taking a physical and mental toll on Annie. Lora returns from her trip to Italy to find that Sarah Jane has run away from home, and has Steve hire a detective to find her. The detective locates Sarah Jane in California, living as a white woman under an assumed name and working as a chorus girl. Annie, becoming weaker and more depressed by the day, flies out to California to see her daughter one last time and say goodbye.
Annie is bedridden upon her return to New York, and Lora and Suzie both look after her. The issue of Suzie's crush on Steve becomes a serious issue when Suzie learns that Steve and Lora are to be married, and Lora learns from Annie of Suzie's crush on her fiancé. After a confrontation with her mother, Suzie decides to go away to school in Denver, Colorado to forget about Steve. Not long after Suzie leaves, however, the now gravely ill Annie passes away, presumably "of a broken heart".
Per her last wishes, Annie is given a lavish funeral in a large church, complete with a gospel choir (and a solo by gospel star Mahalia Jackson) and a parade-like procession with a horse-drawn hearse. Just before the procession begins, however, a remorseful Sarah Jane tears through the crowd of mourners and throws herself upon her mother's casket, begging forgiveness. Lora takes Sarah Jane to their limousine to join her, Suzie, and Steve as the procession slowly travels through the city.
- Lana Turner as Lora Meredith
- John Gavin as Steve Archer
- Sandra Dee as Susie, age 17
- Susan Kohner as Sarah Jane, age 19
- Robert Alda as Allen Loomis
- Dan O'Herlihy as David Edwards
- Juanita Moore as Annie Johnson
- Karin Dicker as Sarah Jane, age 8
- Terry Burnham as Susie, age 6
- Ann Robinson as Showgirl
- Troy Donahue as Frankie
- Sandra Gould as Annette
- Jack Weston as Tom
- Mahalia Jackson as Choir soloist
- Susan Kohner's singing voice dubbed by Jo Ann Greer
History and productionThe plot of the 1959 version of Imitation of Life was significantly altered from the original book and the 1934 film version. In the original story, the "Lora" character, Bea Pullman, became famous with the help of her maid Delilah's family waffle recipe (the 1934 film version features a family pancake recipe instead of a waffle recipe). As a result, Bea, the white businesswoman, becomes rich. Delilah is offered 20% of the profits, but declines and chooses to remain Bea's dutiful servant. Director Douglas Sirk and screenwriters Eleanore Griffin and Allan Scott felt that such a story would not be accepted in the wake of civil rights milestones such as the Brown v. Board of Education case and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and also felt that, by the 1950s, a black woman with a potentially successful food enterprise could make it on her own. As a result, the story was altered so that Lora becomes a Broadway star with her own talents, with Annie assisting her by serving as a nanny for Lora's child. In addition, producer Ross Hunter was cannily aware that these plot changes would enable Lana Turner to model an array of glamorous costumes and real jewels, something that would appeal to the female audience at that time.
Fredi Washington, the actress who plays the African-American daughter Peola in the 1934 film, was an actual light-skinned African American, who was noted for turning down a number of offers by Hollywood agents to pass for white and become a star.Although many African Americans were screen-tested for the corresponding Sarah Jane role in the 1959 remake, Susan Kohner, of Mexican and Czech Jewish descent, won the role. Karin Dicker, of Jewish descent, made her film debut as the young Sarah Jane in this film. Gospel singing star Mahalia Jackson received "presenting" billing for her one scene in the film, performing a soaring version of "Trouble of the World" at Annie's funeral service.
Lana Turner's wardrobe for Imitation of Life cost over $1.078 million, making it one of the most expensive in cinema history at that time.