Thursday, January 2, 2014

Thank You, Juanita Moore

She passed away this week at the reported age of 99.  Juanita Moore made Hollywood history as the fourth black woman to be nominated for an Academy Award.  She was a Best Supporting Actress nominee for playing Annie Johnson, the heartbroken single working mother whose reckless and light-skinned daughter tries to pass for white in Imitation of Life, the 1959 remake of the same-titled 1934 classic.  Actress Susan Kohner played Sarah Jane, the young woman who will always be reminded that she's black -- and an outsider.  Annie works as the maid for a Broadway star played by Lana Turner.  The star is also a single working mother who is having her own mama drama.

Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner was both nominees in the same Oscar category for their mother and daughter performances.
In a way, 1959's Imitation of Life is in a category with the 2013 release, 12 Years a Slave.  How?  It is a movie about racism in America, a movie that touched the hearts and minds of millions, and it was directed by a foreigner.  Imitation of Life director, Douglas Sirk, was a German.  12 Years a Slave director, Steven McQueen, is British.

There is a lot of love for the Douglas Sirk remake.  I love it too.  I feel the the original made a stronger statement about race in America because of its casting and the opportunities for the black actresses that came after their excellent performances.  Click onto my October 2013 posts to read my Imitation of Life blog piece.  Ms. Moore followed the groundbreaking Hattie McDaniel (Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner, 1939's Gone With The Wind), Ethel Waters (Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee, 1949's Pinky) and Dorothy Dandridge (Best Actress Oscar nominee, 1954's Carmen Jones) as a black woman who broke through the color barrier to be in the running for some Hollywood gold.  She deserved that nomination.  Her Annie is the heart of the film.  Moore and Kohner got the nominations that the actresses in the 1934 version should've gotten for originally playing the black mother and daughter.  The Best Supporting Actress Academy Award category didn't exist then.

More so than Hattie McDaniel, Ethel Waters and Dorothy Dandridge, Ms. Moore really benefited from the Civil Rights movement and changing social attitudes that Hollywood was forced to acknowledge and accept.  Oscar winner Lou Gossett told me that Imitation of Life star, Lana Turner, secretly dated a black actor in the early 1950s.  Not only was he a mighty fine actor but, as handsome as he was, he  should've been a movie star.  But Hollywood executives didn't approve of his interracial dating.   That limited his 1950s film career.  It breaks my heart to see Hattie McDaniel playing thankless maid roles that are practically bit parts in 1940s movies like The Male Animal, Disney's Song of the South and Margie when she was the only actor in the cast who'd won an Academy Award.  Look at gorgeous Dorothy Dandridge burn  up the screen with talent and star quality as Carmen Jones.  That fact that her next big screen Hollywood opportunity didn't come until 1957's Island in the Sun is a sin and a shame.  Look at her talent, star quality and glamour in that movie co-starring Joan Fontaine, James Mason and Harry Belafonte.  Her next and last major role was in 1959's Porgy and Bess co-starring Sidney Poitier.  Her bright talent and star quality beamed through the stereotyped black images in that major musical.  You can't take your eyes off her.

Let's just face it:  Ethnic actresses have had a hard time getting Hollywood respect and attention even after they've proven themselves.  I do not mean this as a slam of a very good actress but ...think about it.  Amy Adams has four Oscar nominations to her credit.  Her first came for 2005's Junebug.  Hattie McDaniel, Ethel Waters, Dorothy Dandridge, Juanita Moore, Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll, Diana Ross, Alfre Woodard, Angela Bassett and Rita Moreno have one each.  Jennifer Hudson won her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 2006's Dreamgirls.  Her next film role was in 2008's Sex and the City: The Movie.  She played the assistant to Sarah Jessica Parker's privileged character.  It was basically a "tote 'n' fetch" supporting role in the film version of a hit TV series about four upscale female friends in Manhattan -- an entertaining series but one about and shot in New York City with no black actors in its cast of regulars.  It didn't have the diversity of, say, ABC's Ugly Betty.  The Sex and the City movie was a comedy, yes.  But, like 1959's Imitation of Life, it presented a New York City in which we do not see a black woman as socially upscale or the equal of privileged white women in swell apartments and the latest fashions.  Hudson starred in 2011's Winnie Mandela, playing Nelson Mandela's wife in the big screen biopic.  Terrence Howard co-starred as the incarcerated South African civil rights icon.  The biopic was screened at film festivals but got little promotion and never received a wide national theatrical release.  It seems like Amy Adams had more good movie script opportunities and support following her first nomination than most minority actresses got following their Oscar nominations.  The same goes for My Cousin Vinny Oscar winner and 3-time Best Supporting Actress nominee, Marisa Tomei.  Not one black actress has more than two Oscar nominations to her credit.

Juanita Moore, like Hattie McDaniel and Ethel Waters and future Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, would get her nomination for playing a maid -- but she did not play maids for the rest of her film and TV career.  She worked a lot too.  What I loved about seeing Juanita Moore on the big and small screen was that she reflected the real world around me.  I loved her in 1966's The Singing Nun with Debbie Reynolds.  I grew up Catholic.  I went to Catholic schools in L.A. for years.  When I got to college in Milwaukee in the 1970s, a Wisconsin native in my dorm seriously said, "I thought all black people were Baptists."  Wrong.

There are black Catholic priests and black Catholic nuns.  Juanita Moore as Sister Mary reflected my world...the world I knew.  My world growing up in South Central Los Angeles.

Juanita Moore and Rita Hayworth had a nice chemistry in 1952's Affair in Trinidad.  I loved her small role in 1963's A Child Is Waiting starring Judy Garland and Burt Lancaster.  That film focuses on special needs children.  We had children like that in our community.  Kids with developmental disabilities were very important to our mother.  She regularly made contributions to the Special Olympics organization.  Juanita Moore played the mother of a young black son with special needs.  The son will get educational help from the characters played by Garland and Lancaster.

In Rosie!, a 1967 comedy/drama starring Rosalind Russell as Rosie, the lady in her AARP years, there's Juanita Moore as a nurse.  She was dressed exactly the same way our mother, a registered nurse, dressed to go work.  I could relate to her to Rosie! supporting character.  Decades later, in my adult years, I landed a job on network television as a film reviewer on a Lifetime Television show.  This was in 2000.  One of the movies I had to see was the Disney comedy, The Kid, starring Bruce Willis and Lily Tomlin.  Who else was in it?  Juanita Moore!  I was so proud.

A couple of years ago, I saw the Oscar-nominated actress in special guest segments on Turner Classic Movies from its TCM Film Festival in Hollywood.  She looked fabulous.  When I read in the Variety report on her death that her grandson gave her age as 99, I was stunned.  On TCM, she was so attractive, so delightfully vibrant and so funny that I thought she was 70-something.  Juanita Moore made the 90s look good.

Chatting with TCM's Robert Osborne, Ms. Moore reunited with her Imitation of Life co-star, Susan Kohner.  (By the way, Kohner's mother is the Mexican actress Lupita Tovar.  Tovar starred in the 1930s Spanish version of Dracula, shot on the same set where the Bela Lugosi version was shot.  Lupita Tovar is now 103.)

Thank you, Juanita Moore for breaking through show business color barriers with your golden acting skills.  And thank you for leaving us with some wonderful Hollywood history.

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