Born to Be Hurt

By SAM STAGGS

I hope I’ll always retain a fan’s enthusiasm, Sam Staggs declares at the beginning of Born to Be Hurt, his love letter to director Douglas Sirk’s 1959 classic Imitation of Life. “Look what happens to those who don’t: Their writings convince you that movies are punishment.” Staggs, author of All About All About Eve, is nothing if not enthusiastic. Every page of his book is brimming with passionate devotion to the film that gave top billing to Lana Turner — who serves up a campy performance as actress Lora Meredith — but is remembered for the plot surrounding Lora’s African-American nanny, Annie, and her light-skinned daughter, Sarah Jane, who rejects her mother and passes for white. Staggs’ breathless interviews with Juanita Moore, who played Annie, and Susan Kohner, who played Sarah Jane, greatly enrich the book, but the author doesn’t stop there, turning up information on seemingly every other member of cast and crew. He also recounts the turbulence behind the scenes: The film was Turner’s first following the murder of her gangster boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, at the hands of her teenage daughter (a shaken Turner apparently became so hysterical filming Annie’s funeral that her on-set hairdresser slapped her and then hugged her, a scene that itself sounds straight out of a sudsy melodrama). In dissecting the cult favorite, which was reviled by reviewers upon its release but has since been reappraised, Staggs manages to bring in Thoreau, Nietzsche, and Shakespeare, making this infectious book as over-the-top as, well, a Douglas Sirk film.