October 19, 1914 – Juanita Moore:
”How do you tell a child that she was born to be hurt?”
Juanita Moore as Annie in Imitation Of Life
Douglas Sirk 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 hyperbole, 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 servant 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.
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 superior melodrama of 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.”
Born in Los Angeles, Moore started her career in her teens, dancing at the Cotton Club in Harlem, the London Palladium and the Moulin Rouge in Paris. She then returned to Hollywood, taking a job working in a chicken restaurant frequented by Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper who became her friends, and encouraged her to take acting classes.
She got jobs as a film extra, and you can spot her as a chorus girl in the Sharp As A Tack number in Star Spangled Rhythm (1942), Paramount’s all-star variety act flick, and in the gorgeous all-black-cast musical Cabin In The Sky (1943), Directed by Vincente Minnelli, with stars Ethel Waters, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and Lena Horne. Moore began to get a few small speaking parts, including playing nurse in Elia Kazan‘s Pinky (1949), which tells a story similar to Imitation Of Life, but with gritty realism instead of heightened melodrama.
Moore became a member of the Ebony Showcase Theatre in Los Angeles, which provided a venue for black performers to play the types of roles they were denied everywhere else.
In films, it was back to stereotypes for Moore, alternating between the African jungle and the leading lady’s boudoir: a native girl in Tarzan And The Jungle Queen (1951); a maid to a southern belle played by Virginia Mayo in The Iron Mistress (1952). Finally, in Affair In Trinidad (1952), Moore gets a major role, although she is way down in the credits, as Rita Hayworth‘s intuitive maid, who gets to say: “It is the prerogative of a faithful and loyal servant to be impertinent.” She didn’t have to play a servant when she was a patient in a psychiatric hospital to where Barbara Stanwyck has been committed in Witness To Murder (1954). As a convict called ”Polyclinic Jones”, she lets us know that she was “named after the hospital where I was born” in Women’s Prison (1955), first seen scrubbing floors and singing Swing Low Sweet Chariot.
After her triumph in Imitation Of Life, Moore’s film and television roles were only somewhat bigger and better. Moore:
“I think I made less money after that, to tell you the truth, because I thought I was going to make more money with better parts and things like that but found myself right back making minimum.”
She played sweet Sister Mary in The Singing Nun (1966), a feisty mother in Up Tight! (1968), with black acting royalty Raymond St. Jacques, Ruby Dee, and Roscoe Lee Browne.
Moore received rave reviews for her role as the strong and devoted matriarch in gay writer Lorraine Hansberry‘s A Raisin In The Sun, which ran for a year in London in 1959. On Broadway, she played Sister Boxer in James Baldwin‘s The Amen Corner (1965). Moore was friends with Brando and Baldwin, and she asked Brando to lend money to Baldwin to write the play after the success of his Go Tell It On The Mountain (1953).
In the 1970s, Moore found work in blaxploitation movies, mostly playing long-suffering mothers. In The Mack (1973), she plays the mother of a pimp (Max Julien) who she demands lead a respectable life. She was in Thomasine And Bushrod (1974), loosely based on Bonnie And Clyde; and Abby, a knock off of The Exorcist (Warner Bros. sued) where a young girl is possessed by an African sex spirit.
Moore continued to appear in films and television until 2001. Her final role was as a wise grandmother in the Disney time-travel film The Kid (2000).
Moore was nominated for a Golden Globe for the Sirk movie, and she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.
Her grandson is actor/producer Kirk E. Kelleykahn, who is President of Cambridge Players, a theatre production company whose founding members included Moore, Esther Rolle, Isabel Sanford, and Maya Angelou.
Moore died at her home on New Year 2014, at 99 years old.