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Juanita Moore

9 of January 2014

The Times


Juanita Moore, actress, was born on October 19, 1914. She died on January 1, 2014, aged 99


“I have been in a lot of pictures," Juanita Moore once said. “However, most of them consisted of my opening doors for white people." Only the fifth African-American to be nominated for an Oscar, Moore played the hard-working housekeeper Annie Johnson in Douglas Sirk’s 1959 box-office hit, the melodrama Imitation of Life.

Sirk cast her because he liked her face and told her that her performance, much more than that of the leading lady, Lana Turner, would determine whether the film succeeded. “If you’re not good, the picture is not going to be any good," she remembered him saying. “That was a heck of a weight to place on me." Encouraged by Sirk and Turner, Moore gave an extraordinarily moving performance.

In Born to Be Hurt, a book about the film, author Sam Staggs wrote: “A half-century later, everyone remembers the tears they shed for her as she suffered and died. Yet many recall no more than that, making her a household emotion more than a household name."

Juanita Moore was born in Greenwood, Missouri, in 1914, and grew up in South Los Angeles. She was encouraged by a teacher to consider an acting career. When a black theatre company from New York, the Lafayette Players, visited, she collected the money for tickets. “I was enthralled. I had never seen live black actors before. That was one of my inspirations that told me I wanted to be an actress."

She briefly attended Los Angeles City College, but then travelled to New York where she joined the chorus line at a Harlem nightclub. She only ever danced in one Hollywood musical, Star Spangled Rhythm (1942), but she appeared as a nightclub patron in the all-black musical Cabin in the Sky (1943).

Told that she needed to study acting if she wanted to pursue her acting ambitions, she attended classes at the Actors Lab, a theatre group that was known for its liberal-left associations.

In between menial jobs, her first screen roles were as an extra for around $10 or $12 a day. While making Streetcar Named Desire (1951) at Warner Brothers she befriended Marlon Brando.

Moore’s first husband, Nyas Berry, whom she had married in 1943, died in 1951, and that same year she married Charles Burris, a Los Angeles bus driver after a chance encounter. Crossing the street to a local bar, she stepped out in front of his bus. “You got to be careful, lady," he said. They married within a few weeks and remained together until his death in 2001.

Her first proper role was as a nurse in Elia Kazan’s drama Pinky (1949). There followed a long series of uncredited roles, as native or “tribal" women, prison inmate, mental patient, and various maids, until she was cast (ahead of Pearl Bailey) in only her third credited role, as Annie Johnson in Imitation of Life. Again, the character was a servile one, as a housekeeper to Turner’s Broadway star Lora Meredith, but Moore owned the movie. In it, her pale-skinned daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) is desperate to pass as white and rejects her mother until the final, heart-rending funeral scene.

Moore was a prisoner of her times, but also of her age. The choice of substantial roles for all women, not just African-Americans, diminished in middle age. She did not work for a year until Ross Hunter hired her again for a part in a Sandra Dee movie Tammy Tell Me True (1961), and she had a decent role in The Singing Nun (1965), but she never obtained a role that was comparable to Annie Johnson. Although she confessed to having felt bitter at the time, she later reflected: “What can you do? They’re not going to pay me a lot of money for carrying a tray. That’s all we did at the time in movies."

Rather than wait for a substantial film role, she embraced theatre, playing Mama Lena in A Raisin in the Sun at the Adelphi Theatre in London in 1959, and Sister Boxter in the 1965 Broadway production of The Amen Corner.

By the time blaxploitation movies came along, Moore was too old to play the sort of leading roles that were being cast and instead had to be content playing mothers in such films as Uptight (1968), The Mack (1973) and Abby (1974). That same year she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.

She dropped out of acting in the late 1980s for a dozen years until one day she accompanied her step-grandson, an aspiring actor, to visit an agent.

The agent had no idea who she was but immediately liked her warm demeanour and declared he could find her work. The result was that she was cast as a grandmother in a Bruce Willis family film called The Kid (2000) as well as in TV shows ER and Judging Amy.




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