Juanita Moore: the Oscar nominee who fought stereotypes and racism

“I went through a hell of a lot, you know? Being black and all. And beautiful!” Interviewed on the TV at the age of 92, Juanita Moore may have been laughing but she was telling a painful truth about her career in Hollywood. Despite being Oscar-nominated for a truly great performance in one of Hollywood’s most powerful melodramas, her career was a struggle: for recognition, for roles worthy of her talents, and her own fight for better opportunities for her Black peers in the entertainment industry.

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A new documentary, which premiered this weekend in Los Angeles and will be screening until 10 November, tells the life story of this remarkable actor. It also tells the story of racism in 20th-century Hollywood: as seen through the eyes of a woman of remarkable talent and integrity. It’s a fairly low-key film, but it contains some compelling footage, not least Moore telling truth to power on a news bulletin, but also interviews with recently departed stars Sidney Poitier and Louise Fletcher, and clips from the full length of Moore’s long career. She was born in 1914 and died aged 99, on New Year’s Eve 2013. She started out in showbiz as a chorus girl in the Cotton Club in the 1930s, became a member of the Screen Actors’ Guild in 1937 and was working right up until 2001. She appeared in more than 70 films, but most of her performances went uncredited. Her greatest success came in 1959, when she was nominated for an Oscar for her astonishing performance in one of the greatest American films, Imitation of Life.

The film, titled Juanita Moore: A Star Without a Star, has changed Moore’s posthumous history. As a result of the film’s prominence on the festival circuit, the campaign to get Moore a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame has finally succeeded, after failed applications in 1998, 2019 and 2020. Next year, Moore will receive long-overdue recognition for her pivotal role in Hollywood, and her undeniable talent.

Hollywood is in the business of evoking big feelings, but few US melodramas have the emotional heft of Imitation of Life, the mother-daughter drama directed by Douglas Sirk in 1959. Moore starred in that film opposite Lana Turner. Both women play single mothers of daughters: Moore is Annie and Turner plays Lora. Annie comes to work as a housekeeper for Lora, who soon becomes a great success on Broadway, and their children grow up together. Annie’s daughter Sarah Jane is fair-skinned, and passes for white, which breaks her mother’s heart, and eventually her own.

The film culminates in a funeral, at which Mahalia Jackson sings Trouble of the World, and there has rarely been a dry eye in the house. For all that Imitation of Life, passed on a 1933 novel by Fannie Hurst, is frank about racism, Sarah Jane was played by a white actor, Susan Kohner – a sign if you anyone needed it, that Hollywood was not always as progressive as the stories it liked to tell. Kohner was also Oscar-nominated alongside Moore in the best supporting actress category, but they both lost to Shelley Winters in The Diary of Anne Frank. As late as 2011, Moore was giving interviews in which she interpreted the film as a warning to an increasingly fractured America. It is a sentimental film, but one with a clear ring of truth. “There was nothing fictional about Imitation of Life,” says Moore in the documentary. “I live it every day.”

The Universal executives were not initially keen to cast Moore in the film – they wanted a famous name, even though Moore was clearly a strong candidate: she had been training at the Actors’ Lab alongside Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. Producer Ross Hunter insisted that Moore, with her sweetness-and-light face, was perfect for Annie. Incidentally, a couple of times in the film Moore appears bewildered by descriptions of her “kind” eyes or face. Most likely because she was a beauty with a heart-shaped face and high cheekbones – she had leading lady looks, it was just the colour of her skin that relegated her to supporting roles. Nevertheless, she was told to remove a birthmark from her forehead before shooting Imitation of Life (she looked “too Indian” apparently) and was billed just seventh in the credits. Pointedly, she was not invited to the film’s premiere.

Lana Turner and Juanita Moore in Imitation of Life
Lana Turner and Juanita Moore in Imitation of Life Photograph: Photos 12/Alamy

Moore had been nervous about playing such a big role, but she says in the documentary that she modelled Annie after one of her sisters, a woman with a strong maternal instinct. Moore had six sisters, and five of them were in domestic service, although unlike her they held college degrees. The documentary underlines this point with a montage of Moore repeatedly playing domestic roles in films, a depressing failure of Hollywood’s imagination. After Imitation of Life, Moore expected to get more substantial parts, but when all she was offered was more maids, she refused: “I’m not bringing the trays in any more.”

Moore had started out in the film business after travelling to Europe with the Cotton Club dancers, where she found France a refreshing change from segregated America. “They loved me in Paris,” she recalls. “I had Paris underneath my feet, because I was high-kicking!” Back in America, her debut appearances on film were as uncredited dancers in musicals including Star Spangled Rhythm in 1942 and Cabin in the Sky in 1943, but her first speaking part was as a nurse (uncredited) in the race drama Pinky, another passing story starring a white actor. Moore calls these “the fighting days”, saying she had her “fists up”, trying to make it in an industry that was hostile to Black talent, and Black stories. In the time of Hollywood’s Red Scare, Moore and other Black actors in the industry had to sign papers daily declaring that they weren’t Communist. Still, in the 1950s, she appeared in a few well-remembered films, including Affair in Trinidad in 1952 and The Girl Can’t Help It in 1956, before landing the Sirk film.

In the 1960s, Moore did a lot of TV, including a handful of appearances on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and she later dabbled briefly in the Blaxploitation pictures of the 1970s. Alongside screen work she was also appearing in theatre, such as the first London production of A Raisin in the Sun. At her suggestion, her old theatre school friend Brando had lent James Baldwin the money he needed to write The Amen Corner, which she also appeared in. This was where she could more consistently find roles that offered her more to do than “just to bring the dishes in and cry over somebody”.

Moore’s experiences in the film industry made her deeply sceptical of the business and she talks candidly, but also with humour, in the documentary about her experiences of agents and auditions. Still, she continued to work long after other people would have retired, last appearing on screen in Disney’s The Kid in 2000, opposite Bruce Willis. Anyone who has ever seen her performance as Annie in Imitation of Life will remember her fondly. And next year finally, a woman who paved the way for so many others will be memorialised at the heart of Hollywood, where she was for too long made to feel like an outsider. Hers is a sad story, but an instructive one. “I’m thankful for Imitation of Life,” she says in the documentary. “I’m happy that I made it. And happy that I made it through.”

  • Juanita Moore: A Star Without a Star is showing at the Lumiere Music Hall in Los Angeles until 10 November and will be released at a later date