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Juanita Moore: ‘Imitation of Life’ Oscar-Nominated Actress

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Juanita Moore
Juanita Moore: Imitation of Life 1959 Oscar-nominated actress.

Oscar-nominated ‘Imitation of Life’ actress Juanita Moore has died

Ramon Novarro Beyond Paradise

Juanita Moore, Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nominee for the 1959 blockbuster Imitation of Life, died on New Year’s Day 2014 at her home in Los Angeles. According to various online sources, Juanita Moore (born on Oct. 19, 1922) was 91; her step-grandson, actor Kirk Kahn, said she was 99. (See also: Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner photos at the 50th anniversary screening of Imitation of Life at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.)

Juanita Moore movies

The Los Angeles-born Juanita Moore began her show business career as a chorus girl at New York City’s Cotton Club. According to the IMDb, Moore was an extra/bit player in a trio of films of the 1940s, including Vincente Minnelli’s all-black musical Cabin in the Sky (1942) and Elia Kazan’s socially conscious melodrama Pinky (1949), in which Jeanne Crain plays a (very, very, very) light-skinned part-black woman passing for white.

Frequently unbilled, Juanita Moore remained steadily employed in motion pictures of the ’50s, among them Tarzan’s Peril (1951), playing a native woman; Skirts Ahoy! (1952), as a drill team member; and the Barbara Stanwyck thriller Witness to Murder (1954), as a mental patient.

At that time, Moore also played a whole assortment of maids and attendants, including those in the Joan Crawford melodrama Queen Bee (1955); the biopic The Helen Morgan Story (1957), starring Ann Blyth; and the military-set melo Bombers B-52 (1957), with Natalie Wood and Karl Malden.

‘Imitation of Life’

In Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life, Juanita Moore delivered a beautifully nuanced performance as Lana Turner’s hardworking housekeeper, whose troubled, self-centered daughter tries to pass for white. Based on Fannie Hurst’s novel, the 1959 Imitation of Life was a more bombastic, somewhat less progressive – and much more entertaining – effort than the 1934 version directed by John M. Stahl, and starring Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers as the two suffering Moms. (In the 1934 movie, Colbert and Beavers are actually business partners.)

A Universal Pictures release, Sirk’s Imitation of Life became not only one of the year’s biggest hits, but also one of the biggest blockbusters in the history of Universal. Both Moore and ungrateful (later hysterically remorseful) daughter Susan Kohner were nominated for Best Supporting Actress Oscars, but they lost to Shelley Winters for George StevensThe Diary of Anne Frank. (Susan Kohner is the daughter of agent/producer Paul Kohner and actress Lupita Tovar, and the mother of filmmakers Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz; Fredi Washington, who was actually part-black, had Kohner’s role in the 1934 movie.)

Despite her Oscar nomination and the commercial success of Imitation of Life, Juanita Moore’s film career never quite took off, even though she would continue to act in films – almost invariably in minor supporting roles – all the way to the year 2000, when she was featured in the Disney release The Kid, starring Bruce Willis.

In the last half century, other notable films featuring Juanita Moore include Edward Dmytryk’s risqué melodrama A Walk on the Wild Side (1961), starring Laurence Harvey and Capucine; the Debbie Reynolds’ star vehicle The Singing Nun (1966), in which Moore plays a (non-singing) nun; and the Rosalind Russell-Sandra Dee comedy Rosie! (1967), with Moore as a nurse.

As found in Moore’s Variety obit, Kirk Kahn said his grandmother, a founding member of the Cambridge Players, “was still running lines with him recently,” as she had planned to take part in an upcoming reading at the Saban Theater in Beverly Hills.

Juanita Moore death

Juanita Moore is the latest notable film personality to pass away in the last month or so. Other recent deaths include those of actor Paul Walker (Fast & Furious 6), multitasker Tom Laughlin (Billy Jack), singer-actress Marta Eggerth (For Me and My Gal), and actresses Rossana Podesta (Helen of Troy), Jean Kent (The Browning Version), and Audrey Totter (Lady in the Lake).

In addition to the following Oscar winners/nominees: actor Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia, Becket, The Lion in Winter, Goodbye Mr. Chips, The Ruling Class, The Stunt Man, My Favorite Year, Venus), filmmaker Edouard Molinaro (La Cage aux Folles), and actresses Joan Fontaine (Rebecca, Suspicion, The Constant Nymph) and Eleanor Parker (Caged, Detective Story, and Interrupted Melody).

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Felicia Bryant -

Wrap your soul in all the peace, joy, love and many other attributes which are the embodiment of all your illustrious labors. You have fought and won the right to your new found freedom. I wish I could have known you off screen but the truth of your identity was always in plain view. We who were blessed to observe you working your craft have been forever blessed by your sincerety of heart.
I pray now for your immediate family. I am sure they realize the jewel they must now bury will not lose it’s luster even in death. Amazingly Juanita Moore will now be transformed to a state of immortality. Those of us like myself have forever been rejuvenated by the knowlege and prescence of this one miraculous life. All praise to God for using this quiet spirit to enrich and loudly display the many attributes of the souls of many women who just happen to be in the form and fashion of Black women.
At this moment I am filled with “Gratefulness!”

joelnox -

A wonderful underutilized actress. Others could have played her role in Imitation of Life but it’s hard to imagine anyone doing it better. She made that character, that in lesser hands would have been a doormat, into a heartbreakingly real and sympathetic woman.

It has been a rough month, we have lost an unusually high number of performers. It’s some comfort that all with the exception of the unfortunate Paul Walker seemed to have live long, in some cases very long, and happy lives.

sansradio -

RIP Ms. Moore; her presence in film was always a comforting, luminescent one. P.S.: Fredi Washington had two African-American parents and identified herself as a Black woman; the “part-black” reference to her is therefore misleading.


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