Close Encounters of the Celebrity Kind...
Sam Staggs, Film Archeologist and His Latest "Find"
Expanded Edition of March 2009 WCT/Chicago Tribune Interviews
by Richard Knight, Jr.
Author Sam Staggs, his latest book, a fascinating indepth look at Imitation of Life, wooden hunk John Gavin and Lana Turner in a
still from the 1959 film
There are film historians and then, at least with regard to four films – All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard, A Streetcar Named Desire, and
Imitation of Life – there’s Sam Staggs. Staggs is the author of “making of” books about not just these films but literally everything
to do with their creation and afterlife (including remakes and hybrids). His books are filled with copious amounts of research,
jammed with all manner of juicy trivia connected with the film in question, and salted with his sometimes scathing, sometimes
hilarious and always insightful observations. After reading this quartet one might term Staggs not just a film historian but a bona
fide film archeologist.
These four film classics rank high on the list of many a gay man’s favorite films and openly gay writer Sam Staggs knows that and
Born to Be Hurt: The Untold Story of Imitation of Life his latest is sure to find curry favor with the same audience. The
recently released book coincides with the 50th anniversary of the 1959 film that stars Lana Turner as a fabulous stage star, Sandra
Dee as her attention starved daughter, John Gavin as the tall, dark hunk they both fall for, Juanita Moore as Turner’s kindly black
housekeeper Annie Johnson and Susan Kohner as Moore’s light skinned, troubled daughter Sarah Jane who decides to pass for
white, rejecting her mother’s love in the process. A vibrantly acted tearjerker, the film, overseen by closeted producer Ross Hunter
and bi-sexual studio mogul Ed Muhl was a huge hit, resonating deeply with black audiences and with its emphasis on “passing,” gay
Directed by Douglas Sirk whose other 1950s films are also gay favorites, Imitation was also helped to success by the notoriety
surrounding Turner whose daughter Cheryl Crane had been acquitted in the accidental stabbing death of Turner’s gangster lover just
prior to filming. Crane (who later came out of the closet) wrote that the film relationship between Turner and Dee was much closer
than the one she enjoyed in real life with her mother. Staggs details all this and much more in his fabu-lush book. Droll and funny,
the author, who hails from Dallas, offers his slam dunk opinions and incites with a gentle Texan’s drawl. Excerpts from his interview:
KNIGHT AT THE MOVIES (KATM): How ironic is it that 50 years after Imitation of Life was in theatres that we’ve elected our first bi-
SAM STAGGS (SS): I love that and here’s something that might interest you. I’ve become good friends with Juanita Moore and
Susan Kohner and so on election night after Obama was declared the winner I called Juanita and she said such a lovely thing. She
said, “I’m so glad God let me live this long. I just hope he’ll give me a few more years to see what Obama does.” Isn’t that lovely?
KATM: It really is. You mention that film historian Foster Hirsch called Imitation of Life the greatest film ever made. Would you
agree with that assertion?
SS: I could never, ever single out one movie or one book or one person or anything else as the “greatest ever.” I think Imitation of
Life, perhaps, is the best movie ever made about the roiling conflicts between parents and children and especially between mothers
and their children. But it’s a damn good movie in so many ways I think.
KATM: It’s inevitable that someday someone’s going to remake it. Who would you cast in the principal roles?
SS: If they are so foolish as to do that I think they should cast the worst possible people. Now, let’s see, who would that be? The
nightmare cast would be Nicole Kidman in the Lana Turner role. Queen Latifah in the Juanita Moore role. Beyonce as the daughter,
the Susan Kohner role and why not be a little bit gaga about the whole thing and cast Jennifer Hudson as Sandra Dee? And in the
John Gavin role to make it truly nightmarish, Jack Black.
KATM: (laughing) So it could be a little bit wacky, a little bit serious and 100% insane. Who would dare step into Douglas Sirk’s
shoes to direct?
SS: Of course somebody who’s never directed before. Maybe Tyra Banks to add to the nightmare quality (laughs).
KATM: It’s hard to talk about Imitation of Life and Lana Turner without touching on the Stompanato scandal (Turner’s daughter
Cheryl Crane was acquitted of any wrongdoing in the accidental stabbing death of Turner’s gangster lover Johnny Stompanato just
before filming commenced in 1985). In the book you write that you believe that Lana is the one who held the knife that killed him.
Do you think we’ll ever have definitive proof?
SS: I doubt it. I think everybody has told the same story so many times that it has become reality. The familiar story may well be
how it happened. I think there are unanswered questions but as with all Hollywood scandals, probably you only know maybe 50% at
most of the real truth. Unless Cheryl Crane as a very old lady on her death bed or something decides that she’s going to tell a
different version, we’ll never know anything different.
KATM: Did you try to talk to her for the book?
SS: I did. I sent her an email but I understand why she would not want to talk about Imitation of Life. It was perhaps the very
worst period she ever went through, she was still in the custody of her grandmother. Her fate was still being decided by the courts;
she was very resentful, she did visit Lana on the set and her rather snarky description of it is in her own book. She ends her visit to
the location by saying, “Sandra Dee really seemed more like my mother’s daughter than I did.”
KATM: Imitation of Life has such an impact on gay men of a “certain age,” which you write about in the book but what about the
younger generation of gays? Do they still get it?
SS: I don’t think most of them get it because we live in such a different world and you know, one of the many tragedies about AIDS
is that a whole generation of gay men died before they could pass on – let’s call it gay culture or gay interests – to the next
generation. It is so rare to find a gay man in his 20s or 30s who has any interest in opera or anything like that. I think if that
generation of men had not been wiped out by AIDS certain cultural assumptions and predilections would have been passed on,
handed down to the next generation. But instead, the next generation thinks that the pinnacle of music is Whitney Houston or
Celine Dion or whoever the fuck they think it may be. It’s very depressing. And then of course, now everybody under 40 or 50 is so
busy sending stupid text messages and talking endlessly on their cell phones that they don’t know that there’s a world around
them. They seem not to realize that pop culture is disposable and let’s say high culture, or even the better reaches of pop culture
are the things we want to keep around and think about and talk about. There are, of course, exceptions.
KATM: I couldn’t agree more. I love that juicy bit of dirt in the book about Rock Hudson being serviced by Universal studio
executive Ed Muhl – wow!
SS: Yeah, how about that?
KATM: I want you to write the Randolph Scott-Cary Grant biography, you wouldn’t be afraid to tell it like it was.
SS: I had not planned to put in anything about the Rock Hudson-Ed Muhl affair because it had already been written about. Then I
became very curious and I’m convinced that the Muhl family – the children or whoever – must have been horribly embarrassed by
their father’s bisexuality and so it seems – this is speculation on my part – that they decided to make him a non-person. But he
really is the unknown mogul.
KATM: That was a very eye opening section of the book. Talk about the closet being forced on somebody after they’re gone.
SS: Yeah, yeah.
KATM: There have got to be many, many of these unknown stories out there to unearth. It’s very interesting that you mention that
an entire generation of gay men aren’t here to pass on the “lore” as it well – I’m finding that very touching.
SS: Well I mentioned opera but it’s also true for Hollywood. There are so many younger gay men and younger lesbians who don’t
know that there is a vast treasure house of movies from the silent era right up through the 50s and 60s. They just seem not to
realize that there were any movies made before color, for example or Tom Cruise or whoever the star du jour happens to be.
KATM: It’s true in music as well. The jazz/cabaret singer Blossom Dearie recently passed and this was noted in a beautiful piece in
the New York Times – that her small, exquisite voice would have a hard time getting a hearing today. Imagine a voice like that
trying to make a career today in the “American Idol” age.
SS: Or really any expressive voice. Once again, there are plenty of good singers around but there are no good songwriters or very
few. I think Norah Jones, for example, has a wonderful voice and when she sings standards or country songs I love to listen to her
but then she writes her own material and it’s crap and the same with k.d. lang – one of the great voices of our generation – but she
doesn’t sing good stuff. Who knows where she gets some of those dreary songs. There’s no around her with taste to say, “No,
that's awful, it’s not worthy of your voice. Find something else.”
KATM: (laughing) I think you’ve got to become a record producer, Sam.
SS: Well…if you print some of what I’ve just said…they’re going to be throwing rocks through my windows I suppose (laughs).
KATM: I didn’t know until I read your book why Susan Kohner left the screen after giving that tremendous Oscar nominated
performance coming out of nowhere. Did she ever voice any regrets to you about leaving Hollywood and giving up the acting career?
SS: No and I don’t think she has a single regret. She told an interviewer at the LA Times in 2004 when we were out there for the
45th anniversary screening at the Egyptian Theatre something like “I had other passions, I wanted to get married and have
children.” She’s never indicated to me by any syllable that she regretted it. She did say one time, referring to Imitation of Life, “It’s
good to know that you have one good thing on your resume.” Something like that. I think she’s very pleased to have done that
and been nominated but I think she got it out of her system. And of course, you know, she had grown up in Hollywood and that
makes all the difference.
KATM: It’s hard for people to understand, I think, walking away from stardom. How could you give up all those goodies?
SS: Until you know a little bit more about the backside of show business and how very stressful and heartbreaking it can be and
then I think it’s easier for us to understand how sane people want to keep their sanity and sometimes the only way to do that is to
leave and do something else.
KATM: I loved finding out that Chris and Paul Weitz, those brother producer, writer, directors of movies like American Pie, The Golden
Compass and others are the sons of Susan Kohner.
SS: Yes and I always forget which one of the boys did what because they’ve both been involved in so many movies.
KATM: Right and Chris acts in that offbeat gay indie Chuck & Buck. He’s so good in that. So, what other surprising things will people
find out when they read the book?
SS: I hope that people are going to read my chapters about Juanita Moore and her battles against racism in Hollywood and what I
consider her ultimate triumph – bringing her acting talent and her humanity to virtually every role she ever played no matter how
small. I hope people will read this and take it to heart and realize this is a woman who is extremely important in African-American
history and African-American movie history and movie history in general. I hope people also will learn – if they don’t know it already
– that Douglas Sirk was a meticulous craftsman. Do you remember what I write about that early scene between Lana and Juanita
KATM: It’s like a love scene.
SS: Yes – although no lesbianism is implied but it is really filmed like a love scene and he gives visual parity to Lana and to
Juanita. I counted up the seconds – each woman gets a medium shot and all that; Lana does not get any more time or any more
camera advantage than Juanita. It’s like a little sonnet there on the screen.
KATM: You write about Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven being the only Sirk movie homage that really gets it.
SS: I think so.
KATM: I’m also a big fan of the Ozon film 8 Women because I love all those actresses.
SS: I do, too. One of my very favorite actresses is Fanny Ardant and anything she does to me is well worth watching. She’s a
pleasure to watch and her line to Catherine Deneuve, “Fine, melodramatic acting” I just thought was wonderful (laughs). I’m not a
big fan of Catherine Deneuve. That face doesn’t move a whole lot more than Nicole Kidman. I like actors who act with their faces
and their eyes as well as their bodies and their voices and so many don’t these days. Susan Sarandon is one who doesn’t act with
her face. Sigourney Weaver is another one. It’s as if somebody said, “Now keep your face perfectly still and do it all with your arms
and your feet” or something.
KATM: We’re in that era of less is more acting kind of thing.
SS: Oh yes but quite often, though, more is more.
KATM: Well maybe that’s why this term “melodrama” is used nowadays to dismiss things because these over the top performances
– rare as they are now – seem like they’re overacted. But there is something so delicious in seeing those big emotions on the
SS: Well, yes. You know people like this horrendous Janet Maslin in the New York Times and all kinds of bad critics in that paper
and elsewhere they use the word “melodrama” as though you needed to pick it up with a Kleenex and put it in the garbage or
something. I think Ross Hunter had a very good comeback to them – he said, “Any movie that has romance in it is called a
KATM: It’s so touching that he and Jacques Mapes are together for eternity but how sad that he couldn’t really be out in his lifetime.
SS: Yes but remember this was decades before Stonewall. I don’t think they had much choice. Looking back now, yes, it is sad but
at least they stayed together for 50 years and lived happily despite the deceptions and all that. The sad part is that this country and
the world have been so very homophobic and so repressive. I think there is a story of triumph in Ross and Jacques that they
actually did make a life together despite all the prejudices that they encountered. Now, of course, they were luckier than many.
They were well known and wealthy and so they were in a privileged position compared to many people.
KATM: Do you think we’ll ever get to a point in Hollywood where gay actors won’t have to “pass” as Sarah Jane did? Will they ever
be able to come out and still get roles?
SS: I think it’s encouraging that gay men and lesbians are more and more out. Wanda Sykes, for example, and now she’s going to
be at the White House in a couple of months. She said, “I made sure I paid all my taxes” in an interview recently referring to that
KATM: But what about the men? That’s the last holdout. Is one of these guys ever going to pass up Scientology and come out
SS: If they’re a Scientologist they’re hopeless anyway so don’t wait for that. But there are some out young actors, aren’t there?
KATM: Yes but no A-list stars – no big male stars. Or lesbian ones either – not in film anyway. Jodie Foster certainly hasn’t
officially come out by any stretch of the imagination. I just hope that in my lifetime that changes.
SS: Well, do you think we’ll ever have a gay President?
KATM: Yes I do.
SS: I think that’s entirely possible. Going back 50 years ago who would have imagined a black President or even something like
the Windy City Times, a gay newspaper? Who would have thought that?