I hate to open a collection of remembrances with trivialities, but one discrepancy among them isn’t entirely insignificant. If Juanita Moore, whose most famous role was Annie Johnson in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959), died at the age of 99 on Tuesday, as Paul Vitello has it in the New York Times, that’d be December 31, meaning she’d have passed away in 2013. Most reports, though, date her passing on Wednesday, New Year’s Day.
We have another set of numbers to consider as well; no discrepancies here, but you have to watch the count carefully here. Moore was, as Steve Chawkins reports in the Los Angeles Times, “only the third African American nominated for a supporting-actress Oscar,” and “only the fourth black Oscar nominee, male or female, in the 20 years since [Hattie] McDaniel’s victory,” as Ronald Bergan notes in the Guardian (emphasis mine), making her nomination for her performance in Imitation “only the fifth time an African-American performer had been nominated for an Oscar.” Overall, that is, the way Vitello’s decided to frame it.
At any rate, more from Vitello: “The last movie that the filmmaker Douglas Sirk directed in Hollywood, Imitation of Life was widely dismissed at the time as campy melodrama. Its treatment of the intense suffering caused by racial bias, including a subplot in which Annie’s light-skinned daughter renounces her mother to live as a white person, was seen as unbelievable…. But the film has since been re-evaluated and given high marks by many film historians and critics for the subtlety of its social criticism and psychological insight.”
“For a year after her 1960 nomination, she didn’t work,” notes Chawkins. “After her success, casting directors assumed she’d never play servants again. ‘What can you do?’ she asked. ‘They’re not going to pay me a lot of money for carrying a tray. That’s all we did in movies at the time.'”
“She was grateful for the role of her life,” notes Bergan, but afterwards, “it was back to stereotypes, tending to shift between the African jungle and the boudoir: a native girl in Tarzan and the Jungle Queen (1951); maid to a southern belle played by Virginia Mayo in The Iron Mistress (1952). In Affair in Trinidad (1952), Moore had a key role—though way down the credits—as Rita Hayworth’s intuitive maid, Dominique, who says: ‘It is the prerogative of a faithful and loyal servant to be impertinent.’ In slight contrast, she was a patient in a psychiatric hospital to which Barbara Stanwyck has been committed in Witness to Murder (1954) and a convict called Polyclinic Jones—’named after the hospital where she was born’—in Women’s Prison (1955), first seen scrubbing floors and singing ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot.’ … In the 70s, Moore profited somewhat from the wave of blaxploitation movies, mostly in long-suffering maternal roles.”
An absolutely marvelous appreciation, laced with clips and photos, comes from—no surprise here—Farran Nehme. “[W]ith facts gleaned primarily from Sam Staggs’s Born to Be Hurt: The Untold Story of Imitation of Life, the Siren would like to fill you in on some of Moore’s life outside her one Oscar-nominated triumph. Anyone who reveres Moore, or this film, needs Staggs’ book, which is a monument to loving, obsessive completism. It encompasses everything, from costumer Jean Louis to a detailed view of John Stahl’s 1934 version of Fannie Hurst’s novel, even an interview with the anonymous ghostwriter of Lana Turner’s autobiography. Staggs apparently knew Moore well, and she told him a lot about her background, her friends, her times.”