Imitation of Life
Imitation world of vaudeville

by Richard Henke

from Jump Cut, no. 39, June 1994, pp. 31-39
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1994, 2006

"The traditional gay male culture did…and does have political significance…Directly, traditional gay culture has the capacity to see the constructedness of gender identities, to feel the sensuousness of role play and sexual behavior, to respond to sensuousness and fun. We can also gain knowledge from it (if we pose the right questions of it) about…the elation between culture and gender and so on." (Richard Dyer)][1] [open notes in new window]


In the much discussed final scene of Douglas Sirk's IMITATION OF LIFE (1959), Sara Jane Johnson (Susan Kohner) breaks through the crowd watching an extravagant funeral procession, pushes aside a policeman, and pulls open the doors of a horse-drawn hearse, crying, "I have killed my mother." The pathos of this moment depends upon the fact that Sara Jane is now too late to he reconciled with her mother, entombed in a space that the daughter cannot reach. This image is powerful because it makes emblematic what the film has thematically explored: the ways women are imprisoned and alienated, both in terms of gender and race.

Sara Jane herself becomes the paramount example of this, as she challenges the limitations of' her identity. Refusing to he either a proper lady or a proper black, Sara Jane throughout the film enacts a series of "imitations," or what we might more generously call self-fashionings. For instance, her radically disparate impersonations of a rich WASP for her white boyfriend (Troy Donahue) and a sultry chanteuse for sleazy nightclub patrons may he interpreted as subversive parodies of the roles played less self-consciously by the other female characters in the film, the debutante, Susie (Sandra Dee) and the performer, Lora Meredith (Lana Turner).

But her most threatening kind of performance — both as a woman and a black — consists of Sara Jane's numerous public hysterics, as in this spectacle of the last scene. Here flagrantly disregarding the words of Mahalia Jackson who only moments before sang, "No more weepin' and wailin," Sara Jane openly weeps and wails in front of hundreds of watching peoplee until she is grabbed by Lora who hisses, "Sara Jane, don't!" Lora pulls Sara Jane into the less threatening private space of their limousine, where joining Susie they form a holy alliance of the nuclear family under the smiling patriarchal gaze of Steve Archer (John Gavin).

This concluding moment of IMITATION OF LIFE may seem just another instance of dominant cinema's compulsion to repress women who transgress sexual or racial boundaries. Steve's "policing" of Sara Jane as she is reinscrihed into the nuclear family works to relieve a central anxiety of the film: what to do about a woman and a black gone out of control. However, some viewers have found this conclusion hollow and unsatisfying. Sirk himself reassures us,

"You don't believe the happy end, and you're not really supposed to."[2]

Yet the issue should perhaps not be whether the ending is believable, but given the tensions of the movie, whether the ending can he conceived as a happy one at all. In other words, is there a viable space for race and gender identities outside the social constrictions which the concluding scene visualizes so vividly?

For the last two decades film theory has explored how melodramas attempt to contain and control women through rigid conceptions of femininity and race.[3] Yet as Marina Heung has suggested,

"Sirk's work has always had a special place in the debate over whether melodrama is an inherently conservative or subversive form."[4]

Critics contest Sirk's films' attitudes toward representation. Does IMITATION OF LIFE promote or challenge the genre's limiting constructions of race and gender? As one critic asks,

"Is Sirk's critique of white middle-class racism, dramatized through Lora Meredith/ Lana Turner's upwardly mobile career woman and her exploitation of her black maid, itself based on a reactionary ideological premise of the working woman as bad mother?[5]

Given the liveliness of the debates around IMITATION OF LIFE, such questions have proven difficult to answer. Perhaps a more fruitful response to the paradoxical values in this film is simply to acknowledge that the "real" IMITATION OF LIFE is always already a fake. An inquiry more attuned to the film's vision would be a self-conscious awareness of the imitation in Imitation (of gender, of race, and of representation).

Or to put it another way, the most rewarding way to view this ambiguous and often conflicted film is camp. Although camp has elsewhere seemed a "trivialization of taste,"[6] in this essay I shall defend camp as a complex epistemology. My following analysis focuses on two films, but the analysis' implications are broader than that, As I examine camp's very different manifestations in two Hollywood films, Sirk's IMITATION OF LIFE and Mark Robson's VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1967), I will suggest a general theory of camp spectatorship.

Calling IMITATION OF LIFE camp is nothing new; the film has long been acknowledged as a classic of the genre. Fassbinder wrote.

"Sirk has said: you can't make films about things, you can only make films with things; with people, with light, with flowers, with mirrors, with blood, in fact with all the fantastic things that make life worth living."[7]

In her "Notes on Camp," Susan Sontag makes an analogous claim:

"Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It's not a lamp, but a 'lamp'; not a woman, but a 'woman.' To perceive camp in objects is to understand Being-as-playing-a-role. It is the furthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater."[8]

In these terms, IMITATION OF LIFE seems an extended meditation on the aesthetics of camp. It is a film self-conscious about the artificiality of gender and race roles, with a central motif of life-as-theater manifest in the image of Lora Meredith-as-star and manipulated in the lighting, color and mise-en-scene.

However, to read IMITATION OF LIFE simply as an intentional work of camp falls into the same bind that has troubled feminist and neo-Marxist critics of Sirk, for such a reading locates the significance of the work solely in the film's deliberate, albeit "campy," representations of race and gender. Consequently, the interpretation fails to resolve its inherent ideological contradictions. The advantage of situating camp in a viewer's spectatorship is that, while focusing on these problems of representation, not only are contradictions embraced, but as we shall see, they no longer become contradictions at all.

When critics began to re-evaluate the films of Douglas Sirk in the early 1970s, they argued for a significance for IMITATION OF LIFE beyond as more camp, which was then its most avid form of acclaim, As Christine Gledhill puts it,

"Already subject to a camp following, Sirk was now constructed as a Brechtian director, who, constrained by the Hollywood studio system, had lighted on a popular genre — melodrama and with it the woman's film — for the access it gave to the neuralgic centre of Eisenhower's America, which through a range of 'distanciation' devices he exposed in a formal and ironic critique."[9]

While I do not wish to undermine the importance of ideological film theory for understanding Sirk and melodrama in general, I nonetheless want to reclaim the importance of "subjecting" IMITATION OF LIFE "to a camp following." In fact, I want to propose that, in its own unique way, camp spectatorship can be just as aware of ideology as feminist or neo-Marxist criticism.


At least before Sirk recently became championed by film theorists, the most devoted fans of IMITATION OF LIFE have been gay men. This may seem an odd phenomenon given that the film represents no overt instances of same sex desire, has minimal homoeroticism and small potential for bricolage.[10] Why would such a film interest gays? The answer, I believe, involves what has often seemed a contradiction of terms: the politics of camp.

Camp has become a familiar buzzword in recent critical theory, particularly in Lesbian and Gay Studies, but the term remains unclear. Among gay critics, camp has been variously defined as a celebration of effeminacy,[11] an integration of "gender with aesthetics,"[12] and "a relationship between activities, individuals, situations and gayness."[13] Yet the commonplace assumption that camp focuses on the dynamics of gender role-playing does not adequately account for why genres such as science fiction and horror often are camp while gangster films and westerns seldom are. Even Sontag's "ultimate camp statement: it's good because its awful" (119) fails to explain why certain "awful" works are camp while others remain, well, just plain awful.

Possibly more confusing than this is the ontological question of whether camp lies in the work or, as Thomas Hess puts it, "in the smirk of the beholder."[14] While most people might ostensibly agree with the latter, few actually follow this criterion when they talk about the intentional, campy affect of certain stars or of directors like Bette Davis or John Waters — or for that matter, in the street theater of drag. Camp has come to mean too many things for too many people, making a precise usage of the term elusive. Consequently critical discussions employing it have become muddled. Therefore, it is important to understand that here I refer to only one distinct type of camp: camp spectatorship, wherein the viewer transforms the meaning of the cinematic text through his/her subjective vision.

No matter how intensely it recently has been theorized, most often the word "camp" in casual discourse refers simply to the flattening out of some phenomenon's essential integrity into artifice for a humorous effect. While I do not essentially disagree with this description, I want to emphasize the epistemological profundity of such an enterprise. Too frequently examinations of spectatorship (such as by the Frankfurt School) have assumed the audience's rigidly passive role; this has been especially true in analyses of classic Hollywood cinema.

However, historically, gay male camp spectators have not been passive. Even in the most repressive times, camp has functioned as a means of gay resistance where it critiques specific cultural values and assumptions, many which are oppressive. This is not to say that camp reads a text's (overt or implicit) didactic meaning. Rather, camp is less concerned with intended meaning than with the production of meaning. Current critical theory has made much of "reading against the grain." Such reading has always been the praxis of camp spectatorship.

I believe that restrictive ideology precipitates a camp response. This restrictiveness may he about gender, but it can almost as easily be about race, technology, science or many of the other ways in which modern society is regulated. A camp reading disrupts rather than stabilizes a text which has inscribed these values. Deeply suspicious of traditional critical approaches to film, camp undermines the universalizing assumptions at which most analyses arrive. Often deemed anti-intellectual, camp only distrusts intellectual systems that totalize experience (which is most of them).

As with so many things endemic to gay culture, Oscar Wilde provides an early and particularly vivid manifestation of this sensibility. In his celebrated aphorisms, Wilde articulates the camp vision. The humor of the Wildean epigram almost always involves a turning of deeply held values of culture upon themselves. The first half of the epigram establishes some familiar social construction posing as natural; the second half exposes that construction as artifice. Wilde praises construction over essentialism, art over nature — but art that is not mimetic, that always presents a flagrant imitation of life. For example, consider the following epigram from "The Decay of Lying": "The more we study art, the less we care for Nature." The first half appears to be the traditional humanist defense of art as that mirror we hold up to nature, but the second half camps this conventional response by suggesting instead that Art undermines our appreciation of the "real" world.

Or take another epigram, this from Lady Windermere's Fan: "It's absurd to divide people into good and had. People are either charming or tedious." Here the first half insinuates that simplistic binary categories are inadequate to capture the complex essence of human nature, but the second half ironically replaces these categories with an even more superficial binary opposition, implying that if you circumvent one defining construction, you will only find another. The endless delight of Wilde may be his play of surfaces, but these are deep surfaces that critique specific totalizing ideas which order the modern world.

The now infamous dismissal of Wilde as "slight" is akin to "serious" criticism's rejection of camp as a mindless pleasure in "bad" movies or a willfully misreading of "good" films. However, more precisely what happens in camp is that once the spectator no longer can believe or refuses to believe in what is being depicted (because of distancing through time, style or value), s/he is free to examine the artifice in a given work. Like Brecht's distanciation, but much more playful, camp reads signs as signs, resisting being completely seduced by their significations. The spectator consequently can examine how ideology is inscribed in the work. Andrew Ross claims:

"If camp has a politics, it is one that proposes working with and through existing definitions and representations, and in this respect is opposed to the search for alternative, utopian, or essentialist identities…"[15]

Given that the inscription of ideology is infinitely variable, camp can offer no monolithic response, but rather it must be remarkably flexible in order to read adequately ideology's many modulations.

This impulse to read ideology points to the importance of the difference between unintentional and intentional camp such as John Waters' PINK FLAMINGOES or, more nihilistically, modern slasher movies such as I DISMEMBER MAMA where traditional humanistic values are often quite literally dismembered. Sontag says,

"One must distinguish between naive and deliberate Camp. Pure camp is always naive. Camp which know itself to be Camp ('camping') is usually less satisfying" (111).

Intentional camp is less satisfying because it has less resonance. Waters' film tells us no more than what one singular film thinks about (among other things) pink flamingoes. On the other hand, unintentional camp reveals insights about a whole society. Sontag believes that

"in naive, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails" (112).

When seriousness fails, it exposes the artifice of deeply held, often veiled social convictions. In other words, viewing naive camp, the spectator feels able to look directly into culture's dark subconscious.

In another sense, my description of camp as subversive subjectivity is misleading and may not apply to the way camp spectatorship operates even most of the time. If camp were merely solitary revisionism, we'd probably have no community of response, no camp classics, no midnight showings of REEFER MADNESS or PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. Arguably, camp is by definition a public aesthetic, which helps explain why such camp spectatorship becomes a more thrilling experience in a theater than watching television alone at home. Certain values (that can change over time or from group to group) tie an audience together in a community of camp. You might say that this is the way that camp moves from the private to the political. In the gay community, camp has long functioned as a medium to share beliefs and insights prompting a communal sensibility, which has the potential to instigate activism. Significantly the Stonewall riots began with the actions of those notorious purveyors of camp, drag queens.[16]

Political does not always mean resistance, however. In truth, camp often functions as a normative reading. For instance, 50s science fiction often seems to us as camp. Not only do we laugh at the faith people once had in technology, but at that outdated technology. Actually, EARTH VERSUS THE FLYING SAUCERS remains funny because we put more faith in science. That is, we find comfort in the security that we now can imagine much more about computers, rockets and space ships, which advancements in technology have made much more sophisticated than in 1956

Let me give another example: several years ago I saw a screening of Alfred Hitchcock's thriller about psychoanalysis, SPELLBOUND, in a audience of psychiatrists. They found the film hilarious. However, their response did not mean that they of all people rejected the oppressive science of psychoanalysis. What they found so camp in SPELLBOUND was the film's treatment of their profession. Precisely because they believed in psychiatry, the film gained more camp possibilities than it would have had for a non-specialized audience. This was because they had their solid faith in current psychoanalytic theory to counter the "dated" or "misunderstood" one depicted in the film.

Gay male camp spectatorship remains fundamentally different from this. Until recently, as sexual beings gays were permitted no role in dominant cinema either as subject or spectator. They had to deny their identity or assume a certain distant from the cinematic spectacle Unlike those psychiatrists watching SPELLBOUND, disenfranchised gay men could not use camp to regulate the values represented. Rather they were forced into a more radically dislocated subject position. Of course, gay men do not watch films solely through their sexual identity, and when they don't, they may be as conventional camp spectators as any other group. It is in considering sexuality and gender that gay men generally articulate their most radical insights through camp.


Insight into the constructedness of gender and sexuality helps explain why as universally reviled a film as VALLEY OF THE DOLLS is treasured by many gay men. Unlike IMITATION OF LIFE, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS has no critical reputation I am aware of. It is listed as "bomb" by the four-star system in Leonard Maltin's Movie and Video Guide (usually a good sign something interesting is going on in a film).[17] Yet the off-handed dismissal of VALLEY OF THE DOLLS by the Christian Science Monitor proves revealing:

"A skillfully deceptive imitation of a real drama…[O]n a closer look the characters turn out to he images that have almost nothing to do with people."[18]

Precisely what makes VALLEY OF THE DOLLS fascinating for the camp spectator are the ways that the film exposes the deception in drama, the "imitation" in people. Through a seemingly endless series of clichés about femininity and stardom, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS reveals ways that the naturalized concept of "woman" is actually a commodity, packaged and sold to a public. In its stilted and often inept use of techniques of Hollywood technologies, which consequently now appear obvious as techniques, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS exposes its own media's manipulations in the construction of gender and sexuality.

VALLEY OF THE DOLLS explicitly (although inadvertently) proclaims its own aesthetic of camp in a pre-credits voice-over "poem": "You've got to climb to the top of Mount Everest/ to reach the VALLEY OF THE DOLLS." A camp reading of this remarkably rich film focuses on the very discrepancy between the Mount Everest of its ideals and the valley of its doll-like representations. The Jacqueline Susann novel is essentially a roman a clef about what the private lives of Judy Garland or Marilyn Monroe might have been really like if they were metamorphosed into charaters like Neely O'Hara (Patty Duke) or Jennifer North (Sharon Tate). However, the movie is not psychological. VALLEY OF THE DOLLS does not depict characters' interiority (one might say humanity), but rather how images appear on film. In an influential analysis in which he explores how stars function in the cinematic text as signs, Richard Dyer insists that understanding the semiotics of stars is indispensable in discerning the significance of any Hollywood film.[19] Such an inquiry especially serves VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, whose very subject is stardom itself.

While the film depends upon some of the most resonate of all Hollywood stars, the actual performers of VALLEY OF THE DOLLS are greatly diminished versions of their prototypes. Unlike Garland or Monroe, who were products of the vast myth-making machinery of the studio system, almost all the film's actors are television personalities. Although television does construct its own galaxy of stars, the TV star system is quite distinct, based more on intimacy and familiarity than the amplification of image perfected by Hollywood publicity. This becomes apparent in Patty Duke's portrayal of Neely O'Hara, who is clearly based on the legend of Judy Garland. Duke's failure to fill Judy's ruby slippers produces an intensely ironic effect as Garland's unique and idiosyncratic image becomes banalized. Judy Garland's passionate voice is one of the greatest musical instruments of our century, but notwithstanding all the wowed looks of the audience in the film when Duke performs, her singing (to be charitable) is mediocre. However, Duke is not to blame; her voice is not her own: Duke's singing voice is dubbed. In other words, this singing becomes not only a travesty of Garland but of Duke's mutation of Garland.

The film's only actor who has some claim to Hollywood stardom is Susan Hayward. Interestingly, her role of Helen Lawson, a hard-bitten Broadway star, was first cast with Judy Garland herself. Garland was subsequently fired. At that point, Hayward inherited the characteristic beaded pantsuits obviously designed with Judy in mind. For years aficionados have been ferreting out Garland's "lost" screen tests and recordings of songs to find any souvenir of "the Garland touch." The film contains a histrionic portrayal (Duke) of a character (Neely O'Hara) based on a popular myth of a neurotic star (the Garland legend) that found much of its power by a contrast with a series of performances as the girl next door (Garland's early film work, particularly as Dorothy in THE WIZARD OF OZ) performed by a phenomenally talented young actress (Garland herself). The construction of stardom can be a complex enterprise.

The film exploits such an enterprise in a montage, which delineates Neely O'Hara's transformation from a simple if talented performer into a major star. We see Neely exercising, taking singing lessons, learning dance routines, and popping her first pills. This may be a fairly conventional example of an hackneyed Hollywood montage, here meant to convey no more than the old truism that the making of a star takes hard work and a lot of determination. However, we can also look at this montage in terms of what early Russian filmmakers envisioned as the revolutionary potential of cinematic montage. As David A. Cook explains, a group of Leninist avant-garde filmmakers and theorists put forth a series of radical manifestoes in the early 1920s denouncing conventional narrative cinema as "impotent" and demanding that it be replaced by a new cinema based on the organization of camera-recorded documentary material. They proclaimed

"both the absolute ability of the cinema apparatus to reproduce reality as it actually exists and the necessity of editing to arrange this reality into an expressive and persuasive whole."[20]

Cook also notes that Eisenstein, in a body of writings on the medium, developed his notion of

"montage as a process of editing as a way of looking at history according to the Marxist dialectic" (179).

Such an ideal has fallen far in Neely's montage. It is no reproduction of reality as it actually exists (whatever that might mean). But in VALLEY OF THE DOLLS montage becomes the very vehicle by which the illusion of stardom as a capitalist commodity becomes articulated. Instead of having the radical potential originally envisioned, montage here celebrates Hollywood's reifying machinery.

The consequences of this reifying machinery is played out in the most memorable sequence of VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. Neely O'Hara' has a fight with rival star Helen Lawson in the ladies' toilet. The powder room is by definition a rare space "for women only." Here something can be articulated that may be repressed in the male dominated world outside. But as spectators we spy on women who are deluded about their privacy; consequently, rather than being free from our scopophilic gaze, they remain all the more brutally under our scrutiny. The scene has as its premise Hollywood's familiar misogynist belief that strong women only can relate to each other caustically, often in a literal fight. As often happens, they here fight over a man.

Recently released from a sanitarium and about to star in a rival Broadway musical, O'Hara informs Lawson, "Hear you're having some trouble with the show, Helen." Lawson claims the play "just needs just a little doctoring." O'Hara tells her that she can have a part in O'Hara's own musical — as understudy for O'Hara's grandmother. But Lawson informs Neely that she turned down the part O'Hara is playing. Neely cries that Producer David Merrick is not that crazy, to which Helen only laughs: "You ought to know, since you just got out of a nut-house." She continues: "Look, they drummed you right out of Hollywood, and so you come crawling hack to Broadway, but Broadway doesn't go for booze and pills." Lawson then orders O'Hara to get out of her way because "I've got man waiting for me," but O'Hara snidely chuckles, "That's a switch from the fags you're usually stuck with." Lawson quickly retorts, "At least I never married one."[21]

Too angry for words, O'Hara physically attacks Lawson and resorts to one of the most familiar tactics of the all-girl cat fight, pulling hair. However, when she tugs on Lawson's, O'Hara rips it off her head, revealing Helen's white crewcut underneath. "It's a wig!" Neely screams in astonishment and wicked delight. O'Hara scurries across the room and locks herself in a stall where she unsuccessfully tries to flush the wig down the toilet. "It won't even go down the john," she mutters, as Lawson pounds on the door shrieking, "Give me back that wig!" Shrugging her shoulders, Neely calls out, "Here it comes — special delivery." As she throws Lawson's soaking wet hair across the room, it falls limp on the floor, completely drenched, a useless prop.

On the simplest level, this scene's camp depends on the discrepancy between two stars' elevated images and their vulgar actions. In various ways, the actresses' confrontation exposes the duplicity of appearances. It suggests that beneath their imperious personas, each is nothing but a "normal" woman, who worries about ordinary things like how to keep her man. A shifting conception of normalcy functions as the touchstone in their confrontation. Each star tries to label the other as deviant, whether as a "dope-head" or a "fag hag." The questioning of each's suitors' heterosexuality becomes an ontological riddle: what looks like a man but is no man? This scene also asks an analogous question: what looks like a star but is no star? For when O'Hara rips off Lawson's wig, (like the Red Cross Knight exposing Duessa) what is revealed is an image quite different from the one Lawson presents to the public. The glamorous actress becomes a feeble old woman. In fact, with her masculine crew cut, the exposed Lawson appears as not even a woman but rather an ominously perverse androgyne.

After Neely flees in victory, an attendant tries to comfort Helen: "What a terrible thing to do to a great star like you, Miss Lawson." However, the stripping of her star persona (and its near flushing down the toilet) proves to be a cathartic moment for Lawson. The attendant informs her that she can sneak out back to avoid the people in the restaurant, but the degraded actress proclaims, "No, I will go out the way I came in." Here she intimates that no longer does she need her image, but rather like the blinded Oedipus she is now able to accept herself without any illusions. Indeed, in her final remaining scene, Lawson's character seems thoroughly transformed. This once vicious harridan reveals herself now as a benevolent, if rather world-weary, sage.

The sentimental affirmation that there is a woman's essential reality obfuscated by Hollywood's construction of stardom, of course, does not come from the camp spectator's but from Hollywood itself, which is deeply invested in constructing and delimited roles for women. In contrast, the camp spectator's project is to question any version of woman claiming to he genuine, and to point out the strategies and implications of affirming "the real," "the natural" and "the feminine."


Douglas Sirk's IMITATION OF LIFE also reveals the strategies and implications in affirming the real. Nonetheless, a camp reading of IMITATION OF LIFE is more complex than one of VALLEY OF THE DOLLS for several reasons. IMITATION OF LIFE deals with the ways the interdependent, social constructions of gender and racial identities, and so it film articulates a more elaborate reification of woman. More important, IMITATION OF LIFE self-consciously induces a viewer simultaneously to become aware of the artifice of its representations and seduces him/her into subscribing to them, albeit uneasily. While a camp spectator may simply "read against the grain" as s/he did with VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, to do so would be to miss much of what is remarkable about Sirk's film. A more subtle camp reading of IMITATION OF LIFE should account for its complex relation to its representations. This means that the camp spectator must alternate through a series of changing subject positions, sometimes subscribing to the film's representations, sometimes resisting them.

To speak clearly about camp in IMITATION OF LIFE, it is important to clarify that there are different manifestations of camp to negotiate when analyzing the film. Each type implies a distinct relation between spectator and text. The easiest type of camp to recognize entails characters who "camp" in the diegesis of the film. An example in IMITATION OF LIFE is when Sara Jane serves canapés to Lora's guests. Irritated at being asked to play the maid, Sara Jane parodies the subservient black by balancing a tray on her head and proclaiming in an exaggerated Southern accent, "Here's a mess of crawfish fo'yo." When Lora responds with outrage: "Where did you learn that little trick?" Sara Jane replies, "I learned it from my Mammy, who l'arned it from her Massah, 'fore she belonged to you!" Sara Jane's actions are a deliberate performance by a character in the narrative in order to expose a racist conception of black identity to other characters in the story.

Another example that may be less blatant but is perhaps more significant because it emphasizes the theatricality of camp occurs when an unemployed Lora pretends to he a Hollywood star before a skeptical New York talent agent. Having him phone her house, then detecting his shock when a black woman answers the call, Lora grandly claims, "That must be my maid, Annie." Here Lora camps the persona of the grand star and exposes the inherent racist social hierarchy that is contingent on such a role, a performance that later ironically becomes a reality. In fact, with her histrionic gestures and overblown emotions, Lora's entire character verges on camp. Her frustrated daughter succinctly expresses this when she exclaims, "Oh Mama, stop acting  Stop trying to shift people around as if they were pawns on a stage…Please, don't play the martyr!" Yet if Lora may play the martyr, IMITATION OF LIFE is a film aware not only that its characters are constantly performing roles, but that they are deliberating exposing the artifice of those roles through camp.

A second type of camp employed in IMITATION OF LIFE entails the manipulation of stylistic and meta-narrative techniques in order to induce a particular sort of ironic distance from the diegesis. While akin to the use of montage in VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, the effects here are signaled as deliberate. Not surprisingly, this form of camp demands that the spectator have a sophisticated awareness of film conventions as well as an understanding of a film's own relation to them. Michael Stern points out as an example in IMITATION OF LIFE when

"Sirk depicts Lora's theatrical success in the film as a parabolic burlesque of success fantasies, complete with swirling covers of Time and Newsweek, boundless applause and bright lights."[22]

In making the audience conscious of its filmic conventions, this cinematic cliché reminds us that representation is not reality, an idea which supports the film's central thesis of the imitation of life.

In these first two types of camp, a spectator does not read against the grain of the text because each is deployed by the work in the production of a meaning. Yet just because a film uses camp intentionally does not automatically preclude a camp reading that resists the values inscribed in a scene. As I will explain in a moment in reference to the concluding scene of IMITATION OF LIFE, even if a text uses deliberate camp, the spectator may simultaneously focus on another aspect of this same instant. Or to make matters more complex, it is possible to camp an intentionally camped moment. For example, stars like Bette Davis in their late career may have camped their earlier film persona. Nonetheless, the spectator need not merely acknowledge the star's self-conscious awareness of the artifice of her screen image, but s/he may also see such a baroque performance (such as Davis in WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?) as extravagant evidence of the extent to which a performer will travesty an image just to stay in the limelight.

Camp spectatorship aids interpreting a film even one as self-consciously aware of its representations' artifice as IMITATION OF LIFE, because sometimes a film buys into the very notions it elsewhere challenges. Such a contradiction can be seen in the racial representation of Sarah Jane's mother, Annie. IMITATION OF LIFE may he "sympathetic" to Annie, but arguably its sympathy is based on stereotypes, which are attacked elsewhere in the film (mainly through the character of Sara Jane). Although the film criticizes Lora for not understanding her "maid," its own understanding of Annie is limited. The problem of the films racial representations becomes most obvious in Annie's deathbed scene.

With an "angel" chorus playing in the background, a woman denied centrality all her life gets her big scene. As people crowd around her dying figure, Annie doles out her meager worldly belongings. If the scene is deeply moving, that is precisely the point. As it skillfully deploys the force of sentimentality, it reifies both race and gender. Annie's largess in giving "a nice clean fifty dollar bill" to their kindly milkman underscores the fiction that we all get our moment as the center of attention (or of discourse). Here the film works to erase the dilemma of Annie's marginality. Although Annie finally has her moment of importance, she gets it by flamboyantly reinscribing a racist stereotype of the maudlin Mammy. It is here that a camp reading can redeem moments of blindness, which have long troubled critics of Sirk. Just as IMITATION OF LIFE itself elsewhere attacks constrictive definitions of race and gender, the camp spectator can laugh away this scene's limiting conception of the black woman, knowing full well it is only a feeble imitation of life.

Acknowledging the different forms of camp in film may be essential in understanding how camp functions in any given text, but it would be misleading to insist that the forms remain rigidly discrete phenomena. Sometimes the types merge into each other so fluidly that it becomes impossible to say precisely what a spectator is responding to. For example, part of the complexity of that final scene of IMITATION OF LIFE with which 1 opened this essay — and to some degree the difficulty that critics find in interpreting it — is that multiple types of camp are simultaneously applicable.

I am not insisting that camp is the only or even the best way to understand the film's conclusion, but a spectator may find much to read against the grain in the last moments of this film. The happy ending of Sara Jane restrained in Lora's limousine is camp because she is reentering the same oppressive hierarchy that she has tried to escape. According to the conventions of melodrama, this ending signifies Sara Jane's moment of truth when all illusions are shattered and she finally can see clearly and feel freely, heralding the demise of artifice in the triumph of real emotion. However, if IMITATION OF LIFE has taught us anything, it is to question if we should believe these emotions are true.

Sara Jane has proven herself a master role player. To insist that at last, as she cries on her mother's coffin, she is her essential self asks the audience to forget how Sara lane's character was previously constructed. Sara Jane has deliberately created shifting images of herself through a series of disguises and performances-or in other words, through camping identity. In acting out the role of the "weepin' and wailin" daughter, Sara Jane continues to play a part, if only for an audience of one. She tries to fool herself into subscribing to the veracity of her mimesis. But perhaps "fooling" is not the correct word, because no longer for her (or us?) does the difference between a role and the real thing remain clear or for that matter so terribly important.

As if to underscore such skepticism about integral identity, the film here emphasizes its representation's theatricality The mise-en-scene's extravagance in the final scene includes peculiar camera angles, a dislocating point of view through a shop window, repetition and extended duration of shots — all of which expose the stylization of cinematic discourse. Even Mahalia Jackson singing at Annie's funeral becomes disorientating. Heung believes Jackson's presence as herself gives the events a documentary feel, but I believe just the opposite occurs. The inclusion of "real life" Jackson reminds us that Susan Kohner is only pretending to be Sara Jane. Kohner is not even "really" black. This realization shatters the essential melodramatic illusion that the imitation is real, precisely at the moment when we most want to feel the veracity of our tears.

A spectator needs to recognize that several kinds of camp occur in the film's conclusion: 1) Sara Jane may be acting out a camp identity; 2) the cinematic text may he camping the artifice of representation; and 3) the spectator may still feel compelled to camp this inscription of sexism and racism. In other words, several manifestations of camp — with their radically different ontological relations to the cinematic text — coalesce here in one imitation of life.


Many recent critics acknowledge the importance of "imitation" in IMITATION OF LIFE. It is a remake of the 1934 John Stahl melodrama which was itself adapted from the 1933 Fanny Hurst novel-an imitation thrice removed. Sirk has claimed, "I would have made IMITATION OF LIFE, any case, for the title" (Halliday, 130). While this indicates his thinking was closely attuned to a camp epistemology, Sirk and most of his critics also insisted on the primacy of an essential reality behind the imitations. He has confessed,

"[T]he only interesting thing [about IMITATION OF LIFE] is the Negro angle: the Negro girl trying to escape her condition, sacrificing to her status her bonds of friendship, family, etc., and rather trying to vanish into the imitation world of vaudeville. The imitation of life is not real life." (Halliday, 130)

If Sirk privileges the real over the imitation, the camp spectator, in an important difference, remains content with the form of theater over which Sirk champions realism — vaudeville.

Vaudeville is a fruitful metaphor for camp. Not only does vaudeville indicate camp's favorite axiom that life is theater, but it indicates what type of theater it is — a music hail review which eschews linear narration and instead asks its audience to negotiate a series of unrelated acts of jugglers, comedians and singers. An ideal spectator must not expect theatrical consistency but rather be willing to try out a variety of responses to what is on the stage. With the mere change of the scene, s/he must be able to alternate from tears to irony. In much the same way, the ideal audience of a film like IMITATION OF LIFE must negotiate a series of attitudes in order to come to terms with the film's diverse representations.

I propose that what the camp spectator identifies with is not representation but rather the process of representation, the vaudeville of representation. Historically gay men have been the main proponents of camp for more reasons than I can account for, but I do believe that one explanation why films like VALLEY OF THE DOLLS and IMITATION OF LIFE speak to our experience is that denied any role in the cinema as spectator or subject, we have discovered that alternating through a series of roles at the movies (as in life) has become second nature. The gap between representation and what is represented, which films like IMITATION OF LIFE and VALLEY OF THE DOLLS make so apparent, is precisely the space — in one form or another — of the gay experience. The strategies by which these films make the illusion appear real is the story of living in a society that refuses to recognize difference. Through camp, that imitation work of vaudeville becomes our intimate story.


1. Richard Dyer, "The Politics of Gay Culture," in Homosexuality: Power and Politics, ed. Gay Left Collective (London: Allison and Busby, 980), 179.

2. Quoted in Jan Halliday's Sirk on Sirk: Interviews with Jon Halliday (New York: Viking Press, 1972), 132.

3. Important essays that discuss the relationship of representation and the construction of woman include Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, Leon S. Roudiez (NY: Columbia University, 1977): Jane Gallop, Feminism and Psychoanalysis: The Daughter's Seduction (Ithaca: Cornell University, 1982); Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis arid Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1988); Mary Anne Doane, "Woman's Stake: Filming the Female Body," October 17, (Summer 1981): 30; Linda Williams, "'Something Else Besides a Mother': STELLA DALLAS and the Maternal Melodrama," Cinema Journal 24, no. 1 (Fall 984): 2-27.

4. Marina Heung, "What's the Matter with Sara Jane?': Daughters and Mothers in Douglas Sirk's IMITATION OF LIFE," Cinema Journal 26, no. 3 (Spring 1987), 35.

5. John Fletcher, "Versions of Masquerade," Screen 29, No. 3 (Summer 1988), 46.

6. Jack Babuscio, "Camp and the Gay Sensibility," in Gays and Film, ed. Richard Dyer (London: BFI, 1980), 45.

7. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, "Fassbinder on Sirk," Film Comment 11 (Nov. 1975), 83.

8. Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp," in A Susan Sontag Reader (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1982), 109.

9. Christine Gledhill, "The Melodramatic Field; An Investigation," in Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Worn-cur Film, ed. Gledhill (London: BFI, 1987), 7.

10. For an analysis of how homosexuals use what Claude Lévi-Strauss has called "bricolage" as a means to transform dominant cinema into gay or lesbian representation, see Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet (New York: Harper and Row, 1981), especially 62-123.

11. Jeffrey Weeks, Sexuality and Its Discontents (London: Routledge, 1985), 170.

12. Jonathan Dollimore. Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991), 311.

13. Babuscio, 45. For a wider sampling of a variety of gay and lesbian approaches to camp, see the essays in The Politics and Poetics of Camp, ed. Morris Meyer (London: Routledge, 1993).

14. Thomas Hess, "J'Accuse Marcel Duchamp," Art News LXIII, no. 10 (1965), 53.

15. Andrew Ross, No Respect: Intellectuals & Popular Culture (New York: Routledge, 1989), 161.

16. See Martin Duberman, Stonewall (New York: Dutton, 1993), especially 167-213.

17. Leonard Maltin's Movie and Video Guide: 1992, ed. Leonard Maltin (New York: Signet Books, 1991), 1312.

18. Quoted in Halliwell's Film Guide, ed, Leslie Halliwell, 4th Edition (New York: Scribners, 1983), 867.

19. See Richard Dyer, Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986). This includes an analysis of Judy Garland which, as we shall see, has special significance in relation to VALLEY OF THE DOLLS.

20. David A. Cook, A History of Narrative Film, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 1990), 142.

21. Unlike in IMITATION OF LIFE, homosexuality does figure in VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. In fact, for its time, the film is rare (and supposedly adult) to the degree that homosexuality is spoken about. But it is a homosexuality that consistently is demonized and marginalized. Even camp is mentioned in the film — Neely describes a Saturday social at the sanitorium as "really camp" — but here the word is used in the simplistic sense as silly which my essay argues against. While these occurrences may account for some of the film's appeal for gay men — and I suspect they do — the way gay spectatorship can reverse discriminatory terms needs an inquiry of a different order than the one I am pursuing here.

22. Michael Stern, Douglas Sirk (Boston: Twayne, 1979), 185.