The film opens with a long shot of a crowded beach.
The shots gets closer and closer, framing the railings of a pedestrian way, on which people are walking in every direction. Lora (Lana Turner) majestically enters the frame from the right, as if on a grand stage. She leans down from the railings overlooking the beach calling out her daughter’s name.
All eyes are on Lora as she worriedly walks down the stairs and accidentally bumps into a photographer who has been taking shots of her. On her way up again, she passes by Annie (Juanita Moore) coming down the stairs, but does not notice her.
The camera now follows Annie taking the two hotdogs in her hand to the two kids on the beach, one of which is Lora’s. Eventually the mother and daughter are united and thus Annie and Lora meet.
This opening’s cinematic grandiosity is relevant to the film’s main narrative and works especially in contrast to the much discussed finale. There is a perpetual tension between up and down, black and white, and real and fake throughout the film and this tension is introduced right from the start. Lora is the star of her life; she acts it too well and owns it. What she never realizes is that her performances, including her own life, are a bit tacky at times and very uninformed. Douglas Sirk’s meticulous choices in this opening’s style emphasizes the film’s themes in many ways. Is there a better way to frame Lora than leaning over from the railings towards the crowds that are like audiences witnessing her much awaited entrance on stage? The two women’s crossing on the stairs foreshadows and summarizes the rest of the film. It starts out as a story about Lora and her ambitious climb up to wealth and fame as an actress, but turns around to focus on Annie’s life. Excessiveness, self-involvedness and ignorance are relevant to Lora’s character. But she is not cold and distant; on the contrary, she is a loving and caring mother and friend in her own right. Lana Turner’s acting in the opening scene, the way she transitions from worry to relief, the way she covers her surprise when she finds out Annie’s daughter is white, is exemplary of many other instances in the film.
What makes this film a masterpiece is the richness and the depth of the characters as much as the directing of the actors, which does not allow us to reduce them to one thing. The wealth and fame that Lora fights for during her lifetime is similar to the respect and mourning that Annie receives in her funeral. The film’s title, Imitation of Life, bears it all.