Veteran actress Juanita Moore passed away January 1, 2014, at age 99. One of the more underappreciated trailblazers in African-American cinema, Moore had a career that spanned more than 50 years including over 30 films and countless television appearances, but she is best known for her Academy Award-nominated performance as Annie Johnson in Douglas Sirk’s, Imitation of Life (1959).
Moore, a former chorus girl at New York’s legendary Cotton Club, began her film career making uncredited appearances as a dancer in Star Spangled Rhythm (1942) and Vincente Minnelli’s Cabin in the Sky (1943). She made her official debut playing a nurse in Elia Kazan’s Pinky (1949), a film whose “race” theme of a light-skinned African-American passing for Caucasian, not only echoed that of the first screen adaptation of Fanny Hurst’s Imitation of Life (1934), but served as a clue to why the Lana Turner / Juanita Moore 1959 remake felt to many at the time like a step backward in the depiction of race relations on the screen, not forward.
Although Moore had an active and diverse career in Los Angeles theater (principally in black-owned theater groups like The Ebony Showcase Theatre and The Cambridge Players), onscreen, per the times, she was cast almost exclusively as maids, nannies, or domestics. Projecting a regal, ladylike poise and an exotic bone structure that always made you wish she had more screen time than she was given, Moore may have been glimpsed briefly in films like, The Girl Can’t Help It (maid) or The Opposite Sex (powder room attendant), but always memorably. Her well-deserved Best Supporting Actress nomination for playing the selfless and long-suffering friend of Lana Turner in Imitation of Life gave Juanita Moore the notoriety she merited, but unfortunately the honor didn’t yield huge career benefits. In a Los Angeles Times interview from 1967, Moore commented on how she felt the resultant perception of her as a “star” may have kept producers from considering her for smaller roles. "The Oscar prestige was fine,” she said. “But I worked more before I was nominated."
But Juanita Moore did continue to work. The stardom that should have been hers was first hindered by the dearth of roles for African-Americans in the 60s, and later, come the 70s and opportunities presented by the black film revolution, her onscreen association with a more compliant image of black America was an ill-fit for a more militant age. Happily, time has shown that actresses like Juanita Moore were the real militants and trailblazers in the early days of African-American cinema. At a time when the limited screen images available for blacks were one-dimensional stereotypes, Moore, with her almost regal dignity and carriage, served as a strong role model ... a poised figure of refined self-possession.
She may have played maids and housekeepers, but in spite of their life circumstances, Moore imbued her characters with a sense of knowing their own value and worth. Surely something that had to have come from the lady herself. And that's what Juanita Moore remained throughout her entire career, a real lady.
Read about more classic films on my blog: Dreams Are What Le Cinema Is For