Juanita Moore (1914-2014):
”How do you tell a child that she was born to be hurt?”
Juanita Moore as Annie in Imitation Of Life
Douglas Sirk (1897 – 1987) has only one Hollywood screenwriting credit, but there is a thematic thread and that runs through all his work. Most Sirk stories are based on other writers’ screenplays and novels, yet he still manages to work as a modern classicist inspired by mythology, but with suburbanites, vaudevillians, and pioneers standing in for warriors, queens and gods.
Sirk’s films have a look and feel that makes them so stylistically special, that if not for the pressures of censorship, I am certain he would have made gay-themed films. With his dependence on euphemism, along with the gay sensibility brought by Ross Hunter, Sirk’s queer producer, who said: “Douglas, I want 500 handkerchiefs to come out right here!”, his stories depended on the pain, passion, pride, and prejudice of having to hide who you truly are.
Imitation Of Life (1958), like so many of his films, is about the life lessons learned from the heavy toll taken by living a lie while society demands and provides the melodrama.
Sexual transgression is a frequent theme in Sirk’s flicks. The male characters are always cheating on their wives, impregnating secretaries, raping stepchildren, and discovering that their kids are not their own. The Hayes Code censors and The Catholic League Of Decency guaranteed that nothing could be explicit in the era’s films, and that is what gives the Sirk movies their special charm.
John Waters names Sirk as his major influence. Polyester (1981) and Serial Mom (1994) would not exist without Sirk’s hyperbolic, overwrought emotion, camp, and syrupy scores.
In 1958, when Lana Turner was living her own lurid Sirk-like melodrama after her mobster boyfriend Johnny Stompanato was stabbed to death by her 13-year-old daughter, Cheryl Crane, she had to experience the humiliation of seeing her sexually explicit love notes printed in the tabloids. Instead of hiding away, she chose to make Imitation Of Life for Sirk, playing a rich woman indifferent to her teenage daughter’s high-strung problems.
It’s a brilliant, brazen film about identity-shifting, in which a young black woman played by Susan Kohner passes for white and disavows her mother, played by Moore, whose skin color is darker. Imitation Of Life ends with a heartbreaking scene of saying goodbye. It is also filled with anger about the inequities in American society.
From its earliest days, Hollywood limited the roles of black actors to stock, wide-eyed cowards, simpletons or servants, often referred to as “uncles” and “mammies”. Talented Juanita Moore suffered from this limitation by having to play maids throughout most of her long career. Moore could have had a career like Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American actor to win an Academy Award, who said:
“Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one.”
McDaniel played Mammy, Scarlett O’Hara’s sassy slave in Gone With The Wind (1939). The apotheosis of that sort of black maid, is Moore’s portrayal of Annie Johnson, housekeeper to the glamorous Broadway star Lora Meredith (Turner) in Imitation Of Life. Hers was a much more substantial, progressive and sympathetic version.
The plot of this version of Imitation Of Life has numerous major changes from those of the original book and the 1934 film version. In the original story, the “Lora” character becomes successful by commercial production of her maid’s family waffle recipe, and Lora becomes rich. Her maid is offered 20% of the profits, but declines and chooses to remain Laura’s dutiful servant.
Sirk and screenwriters Eleanore Griffin and Allan Scott felt that the original story would not be cool during the Civil Rights Movement after milestones, such as the Brown v. Board of Education case and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but racial discrimination and inequities are still part of the plot. In this version, Lora becomes a big Broadway star with her own talents, with the maid character assisting her by serving as a nanny for Lora’s child.
Producer Hunter, cannily aware that the plot changes would have Turner in an array of couture dresses and real jewels, something that would appeal to the female audience at that time. Turner’s wardrobe for Imitation Of Life cost over two million dollars, making it one of the most expensive in Hollywood history at that time.
Many actors, most of them white, were screen-tested for the daughter role in the 1959 remake. Kohner, daughter of actor Lupita Tovar, born in Mexico, and Paul Kohner, a Czech Jewish immigrant, was given the role. Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson received a “presenting” billing for her one scene, performing a version of Trouble Of The World at Annie’s funeral service.
Moore was only the fifth African-American actor Oscar nominee, male or female. Although Hollywood was still projecting a largely conservative, white, middle-class view of the world, the far superior melodrama Imitation Of Life dared to deal with racism. Despite rigidly knowing their places, Annie and Lora are close friends, each having trouble with their daughters. Annie’s light-skinned daughter rejects her mother to try and pass. Moore wrote:
“My husband’s mother was Caucasian and so I was living that kind of thing with my husband prior to Imitation Of Life: one family black, one family white.”
Moore brings warmth, charm and sensitivity to the part of the saintly, self-sacrificing Annie. Moore:
“I think my part was the greatest dramatic role ever given to an actress of my race and I was determined to do it justice.”
She is simply astonishing in a scene where she painfully stands by as Sarah Jane, working in a nightclub, introduces her mother to her white colleagues as her old nanny. On her deathbed, Annie forgives her daughter, saying: “Tell her I know I was selfish – and if I loved her too much, I’m sorry – but I didn’t mean to cause her any trouble. She was all I had.” Moore delivers it with a sucker punch to my heart.
Moore said that Sirk was patient with her:
“There were times I was so nervous the muscles were jumping in my face. One day I cried all day long, yet he didn’t fire me. During my dying scene, Sirk said: ‘Juanita, you got to remember you are dying not crying‘.”
She was grateful for the role of her life. Moore:
“They auditioned a lot of people before casting me in the part. Pearl Bailey was their first choice. But producer Ross Hunter really wanted me. I have been in a lot of pictures. However, most of them consisted of my opening doors for white people.”