One of my resolutions for 2013 has been to read more books about film. I’ve done a pretty good job of keeping up with that goal, my latest conquest being Sam Staggs’ “Born to Be Hurt,” a book about Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life — one of my all-time favorite films. A beautiful introduction to the book has Staggs sharing his own personal connection with the film. He also sets up the framework for the book’s ongoing discussion of the film’s cultural significance in terms of how it deals with the subject matter of discrimination and racism. Staggs points out that a lot of people have been able to connect with the film — not only African American viewers, but viewers belonging to any minority group which has faced discrimination:
“It’s easier now not to be ashamed of what you are. But in those audiences of 1959, I wonder how many words like ‘gay’ or ‘Jewish,’ ‘Asian,’ ‘Hispanic,’ ‘poor’ or ‘disabled’ could have substituted for ‘white’ and ‘black’? It’s clear today [at an anniversary screening of the film] that the picture speaks to a global audience that’s boundlessly diverse.”
Staggs does more than just discuss Sirk’s adaptation of the film. He discusses the novel, the 1934 film version, the pre-production process of Sirk’s film, the casting process and on through the film’s release. Included are some disturbing facts about the film’s production, such as the fact that Susan Kohner was actually beat by Troy Donahue during their characters’ major fight scene. She had to miss a few days of work after the scene was filmed due to her injuries.
It’s clear that Staggs put an incredible amount of effort into researching this book. “Insider” information comes from interviews with those involved in the production, including the great Juanita Moore, who sounds like the coolest lady in the world from Staggs’ experience with her. Staggs got to know Moore pretty well through the extensive interview process, and he describes her as just about the polar opposite of her Imitation of Life character. She’s very outspoken and has a killer sense of humor, but encountered a lot of hurt throughout her life and career as well. She doesn’t shy away from shedding light on the worst aspects of being an African American actress in midcentury Hollywood. This perspective is a very valuable one to share, especially given the film’s racially charged subject matter. “Born to Be Hurt” is a book that I would very highly recommend to fans of Sirk’s Imitation of Life. This is the definition of an in-depth exploration of a film, and Staggs couldn’t have chosen a more fascinating film to explore. I look forward to reading the rest of his work, including his book on All About Eve!