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Imitation of Lana

above: the BUA versions; below right: the originals

Jimmy Janowski on Lana Turner and his camp aesthetic

[This week, BUA opens L’imitation of Life, a parody of the 1959 Hollywood film that starred Lana Turner. Naturally, Jimmy Janowski plays the starring role. Here, Jimmy shares the story of his real life meeting with the great star and his thoughts about playing great leading ladies for BUA. —Anthony Chase]

I have a Lana Turner story. Picture it: New York City, 1982. I’m working at Barnes & Noble Bookstore and Miss Turner has just published her autobiography titled…wait for it…LANA! She is coming to our Fifth Avenue store for a book signing!

Even though I am an employee of the store, I must stand along with hundreds of other Lana Turner fans in a line that seems to extend all the way to Rockefeller Center and wait for the screen icon to arrive. Finally, at the appointed hour of three o’clock, Lana makes her appearance.

She is all in white, almost ghostly: white hair, perfectly coiffed; white fur coat. She seems frail, but stunning—a movie star. A freakishly over-tanned gentleman with a head of hair like a brother Gibb assists her, guiding her from her car and seating her at a table that’s been arranged for this event.

The signing is supposed to go from three until five o’clock, but after just 20 minutes, Lana is already beginning to wilt. She seems disinterested. She’s slowing down and seems to be getting smaller in her chair. Anticipating the inevitable crash, my boss presses 10 copies of the book into my arms and urgently tells me, “Lana’s not going to make it. We need these signed for VIPs!”

I understand my charge. Good thing I’m now near the front of the line! Wondering how I’m going to explain 11 copies of her book—including my own—I approach the table where Lana and her strangely tanned and wrinkle-free friend are seated. I can see that Lana is a bit glazed over, not really all there. Inspiration comes. Cheerfully and respectfully, I drop the books on the table and declare, “Miss Turner, I had to get a copy of your book for every member of my family, because we all adore Imitation of Life!”

She smiles at me with a doll-like stare, not moving. There is an awkward pause. Her companion, who now begins to remind me of puppeteer Wayland Flowers with Madame at his side, yells to the screen legend as if she were deaf: “Imitation of Life, Lana. He adores Imitation of Life!”

Like a Disney animatronic figure from some gay Magic Kingdom, Miss Turner springs to life and parrots his words, “Imitation of Life! Yes!”

Jimmy Janowski, fabulously embodying Lana Turner.

Then, as her arm jerks into action, she proceeds to sign all 11 books with robotic precision, one right after the other. I am aghast, but relieved that she’s signing the boss’s copies before her batteries have run down.

All I can think is, “How ironic! She is an imitation of life!”

Wouldn’t it be scholarly of me to say that I adore Imitation of Life because it communicates a message of early gay liberation encoded in the plight of young Sarah Jane, the light-skinned black girl who longs to be white? Being different isn’t easy. “It’s a sin to be ashamed of what you are,” her saintly mother tells her.

But that would be a bunch of bull. I love any movie that has a separate title card that reads “Gowns by…” The gowns for Imitation of Life were by Jean Louis.

I keep searching for the reason certain movies affect certain groups so powerfully, and why we at BUA love deconstructing them. Imitation of Life, the ultimate story of “mother-love” and its consequences, is the last of the great Hollywood melodramas directed by the brilliant Danish-German filmmaker Douglas Sirk after he fled Nazi Germany. In her book, Melodrama and Meaning: History, Culture and the Films of Douglas Sirk, Barbara Klinger writes: “

Camp resurrects past artifacts, not to reconstruct their original meaning in some archaeological sense, but to thoroughly reconstitute them through theatrical sensibility that modifies them by focusing on their artifice.”

Doesn’t that just clarify everything! (What?)

Some suggest that what we do with our camp parodies of classic movies at BUA is not real theater, and that our reverence for popular or mass culture is trivial. Well, Sirk himself was criticized for his films when they were first released. The Hollywood studios tossed him scripts that critics of the 1950s thought were trite because they focused on the unimportant concerns of women. The larger-than-life emotions in his films and his lush visual style were considered over-the-top and unrealistic.

It took subsequent viewers, many of them women and gay men, to recognize the genius of Sirk and the wry social commentaries embedded in his melodramas with their eye-popping cinematography.

Ultimately, at BUA we wish to reflect on those cultural signposts that shaped us, and to create characters that illustrate the foolishness of the human condition. In that respect, a film like Imitation of Life is a cultural lightning rod for us.

Of course our primary goal, not unlike Shakespeare’s, is to entertain. Our stories are the same tales of “boy meets girl,” except in our versions the girl is also a boy. Hey, wait a minute! I think Shakespeare’s girls were boys, too!

Anyway, L’imitation of Life, our camp journey down the yellow-brick road to the world of Douglas Sirk, opens Friday, under the direction of Todd Warfield. I will play the aspiring star once embodied by Lana Turner, with Bebe Bvlgari, Maria Droz, Timothy Patrick Finnegan, Luther Nelson, Michael Sietz, and Christopher Standart in roles once played by a litany of Hollywood stars in two film versions of the Fanny Hurst novel. The production continues, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm in the BUA Theater (119 West Chippewa) through April 6. Call 886-9239 for tickets to see us!