Rest in Peace: Juanita Moore, a Classic American Actress

4 Jan
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In an interview featured on the Imitation of Life DVD, actress Juanita Moore (above) reveals that in spite of her Best Supporting Actress nomination for 1959’s Imitation of Life, she scarcely worked for two years after the film’s release.

Oh my gosh, how shocked am I to learn just this morning that Oscar nominated actress Juanita Moore passed away earlier this week. Her lone Oscar nod came for 1959’s lavish Ross Hunter/Douglas Sirk remake of Fannie Hurst’s tearjerker Imitation of Life, a story about two single mothers, one white and one black, raising daughters during trying times.

Moore’s character loves her daughter dearly though friction mars the relationship. The daughter is a light-skinned African American who “passes” for white, and Moore’s Annie Johnson wishes her daughter would just be happy with–and proud of–who she is instead of being plagued by doubt and confusion. At the same time,  Annie is willing to make a tremendous sacrifice to ensure that her daughter finds all the peace and happiness she so desperately seeks.

This is one of the grandest and weepiest of all Hollywood melodramas, and much of its success can be attributed to Moore’s radiant performance. Yes, on one hand, for a woman who seems to have settled for second-best most of her life, Annie Johnson seems too good to be true, too happy to be a supporting player (or less ) in the lives of her friend and employer, a glamorous if high strung actress played by Lana Turner, and, again, that headstrong daughter. On the other hand, Moore invests the character with great dignity and hard earned strength, and that’s what makes her so compelling. Oh sure, she’s still playing a domestic–the help, as it were–and, yes, she probably  has as much screen time as Turner, calling into question that supporting player status; however, Moore’s  Annie is more polished and less simple-minded than the equivalent character enacted by Louise Beavers in the 1934 adaptation, a portrayal marked by even more subservience and a thick–stereotypical–dialect as noted  in the DVD featurette. (Meanwhile, any movie that depicts two single mothers raising their children under one roof begs for a queer analysis.)

Though Moore is best remembered for Imitation of Life, she appeared in dozens and dozens of movies and TV shows, including Tammy Tell Me True and The Singing Nun starring Sandra Dee and Debbie Reynolds, respectively. Both of them, like Imitation of Life, childhood favorites that I still watch today if given the chance. Actually, I have plenty of chances to watch Imitation of Life, the DVD of which prominently features Moore in an accompanying documentary. She was still acting as recently as the year 2000, in which she appeared in Disney’s The Kid, starring Bruce Willis.

An article  in the Huffington Post hails Moore as only the fifth African-American to be nominated for an Oscar, but that’s a bit misleading. Of course, she follows on the heels of Hattie McDaniel (1939’s Best Supporting Actress winner for Gone with the Wind), Ethel Waters (Best Supporting Actress for  Pinky, 1948), and Dorothy Dandridge (a Best Actress nominee for 1954’s Carmen Jones), but that would put her fourth on the list not fifth. My guess is the writer of the Huffington Post notice also means to include James Baskett, who actually won an honorary Oscar for his portrayal of Uncle Remus in Disney’s Song of the South (1946), a movie that has not aged well though Baskett’s breakthrough is not to be discounted. Incidentally, Moore’s daughter in the film was played by two actresses: as a youngster by Karin Dicker, and as a teenager by Susan Kohner, who also earned an Oscar nomination (though, to clarify, Kohner was not of African-American descent).  Also, the Huffington piece indicates that Moore was 99 though adds that reports of her age vary. Indeed, on the IMDb, Moore’s birth year is listed as 1922, making her 91 at the time of her death.

Coincidentally, Moore worked with Dee in both Tammy Tell Me True and Imitation of Life as the latter portrayed Turner’s high-spirited daughter. Additionally, the IMDb shows that Moore appears uncredited in Waters’s Pinky, in which Jeanne Crane–one of the whitest actresses on the planet–earned her sole Best Actress nod for playing, again, a black woman who “passes” for white.  Hmmmmm…..more to add on this subject, but not today.

Rest in peace, dear Juanita.

Thanks for your consideration…

Juanita Moore Huffington Post obituary: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/02/juanita-moore-dead_n_4529541.html?utm_hp_ref=mostpopular

Juanita Moore at the Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0601428/

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2 Responses to “Rest in Peace: Juanita Moore, a Classic American Actress”

  1. K.S. 12 January 2014 at 6:10 pm #

    The Turner-Moore remake of “Imitation of Life” is probably in the top 5 of my favorite movies (I will admit, I have not seen the original), and any time I come across it on television I have a tendency to stop and watch it. RIP, Ms. Moore.

    • listen2uraunt 12 January 2014 at 7:38 pm #

      I’m with you Kenny. I will stop and watch Lana, Juanita, and company whenever I get the chance. I have the original because it came in a two DVD set, but I have only watched a portion or two of it even though it’s actually in the National Film Registry. For me, the original is actually painful. I’ll take the remake any day.

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