Tuesday, January 7

RIP Juanita Moore

Most unfortunately this dear lady will be unknown to most people unless one is very familiar with the 1959 Imitation of Life.  In that case, you know exactly who she is.  Although she worked for a decade before the film and would work many years afterwards, she never again gathered such praise and fame as she did playing Annie Johnson in Imitation of Life.  Moore died on New Year's Day in  Los Angeles, where she lived most of her life.  She was 99.

She was old enough to be my mother when I saw her in Imitation and I was so drawn to her in the mother role, sensing strongly that the sweet, caring, loving, forgiving woman I saw on the screen was exactly the same in real life.  If anyone knows any differently, I don't want to know it.  Any time I saw her in films before her triumphant role, I sensed that same goodness and so must have director Douglas Sirk who would cast her in the role.  And after the film and forever moore she would represent for me a loving decency in a human being.  Oh, what the rest of the world could have learned from this remarkable human being.

I am not aware of much of her early life except that she was born in Mississippi and knew from an early age that she wanted to be an actress.  Despite having moved as a child to Los Angeles, by the time she could do anything about pursuing her goal, she decided to move to New York.  What she did at first was to dance in the chorus lines of numerous clubs including the famous Cotton Club.  She would get dancing gigs in London and Paris but would return to New York where she enrolled in the Ebony Showcase Theater to polish that acting talent she knew she had.

She would move back to Los Angeles and attend classes at the Actor's Laboratory Theater in Hollywood and through various contacts was able to work as an extra in films.  Some of these early, uncredited parts were in films such as Cabin in the Sky, Pinky, Skirts Ahoy and Lydia Bailey.   

Most all of her roles would be as maids or occasionally African tribeswomen.  In the early 1950s, there weren't many roles for black actors, certainly not to be prominently featured, unless they also sang or danced, and Moore was a dramatic actress.  But the harsher truth is, with the exception of one film and an Oscar nomination to accompany it, no less, Moore, like a lot of blacks, was never given much of a chance to show what she could do.  What can you do? she once said.  They're not going to pay me a lot of money to carry a tray.  That's all we did in movies at the time.

I first saw her in 1952s Affair in Trinidad as Rita Hayworth's outspoken maid and friend.  The part was fairly substantial, certainly in terms of what she had been doing, and it offered a spunky side to Moore's acting portfolio, something we didn't often see.  She would show up in quite a number of movies in the 50s, but if not a maid, then she was in a crowd scene, as a hospital patient, a powder room attendant or other extra work and mainly uncredited.  Some of these films are The Iron Mistress, Witness to Murder, The Gambler from Natchez, Women's Prison, Not As a Stranger, Queen Bee, The Opposite Sex, Something of Value and Band of Angels.

Then came 1959 and Imitation of Life.  It was considered little more than a glossy soap opera at the time.  On initial release it wasn't even that successful, although word of mouth certainly changed that.  It would go on to become the highest grosser in Universal's history, a spot it would maintain until toppled by Airport in 1970.  It was a remake (although not exactly) of a 1934 film of the same title.

I promise you that anyone who saw it held Juanita Moore in the same high standing that I did.  Based on a Fanny Hurst tear-jerker, Moore played a friend of Lana Turner's (the contrasts between these two actresses goes way beyond skin color) and they both are single women raising daughters.  Ultimately Turner hits the big time as an actress and she hires Moore as a caretaker/companion and it is Moore's Annie Johnson who is responsible for raising both girls.

If Moore could have a funeral similar to the one Annie Johnson had, it would be something to behold.  Unless one had one's tear ducts removed, it would be a rare person who wasn't crying at some level watching six white horses pull a wagon with Annie Johnson.  The tears start when shortly before Annie dies in bed and end when the credits come on.  It is heightened at the time actress Susan Kohner, playing Annie's light-skinned daughter, who has shunned her beloved mother in an effort to pass as white, runs sobbing to her mother's casket, having missed the actual funeral.

Moore and Susan Kohner

Both Moore and Kohner were both nominated for best supporting actress Oscars and although neither won, they certainly snatched top acting honors from a cast that included John Gavin and Sandra Dee, along with Turner.

Despite the prominence that Moore was afforded after such a blockbuster film seen by millions, her movie career would take on more roles as domestics and in one instance, the Burt Lancaster-Judy Garland-starrer, A Child Is Waiting (1963), she went back to an uncredited part.  An Oscar nominee back to an uncredited part?   The year before she had two scenes of no importance as a maid in a brothel in my beloved Walk on the Wild Side.  She would have a slightly larger role in The Singing Nun (1966).

This lovely lady never really stood a chance in the movies.  Bless her heart, she kept at it, but the fact is she did a lot better in guest roles on countless TV series and was featured quite prominently on Broadway a couple of times.  She worked in some manner well into old age.

She had one of those voices that was soothing and the face of an angel.  She had grace and an inherent kindness.   Heaven is lucky to have her.  RIP dear lady.

Review of August: Osage County

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