In praise of Juanita Moore’s heartbreaking performance in Imitation of Life

Only the third performance by an African-American to be nominated for the Oscar for best supporting actress, Juanita Moore’s portrayal of the self-sacrificing housekeeper in Douglas Sirk’s peerless melodrama Imitation of Life is one for the ages.

Amy Simmons

Imitation of Life (1959)

Imitation of Life (1959)

A former chorus girl at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club, Juanita Moore began her career as a film extra, later honing her craft in local stage productions at the Ebony Showcase Theatre in LA. In 1949, she made her feature film debut in a minor role, playing a nurse in Elia Kazan’s Pinky (1949).

Moore then spent the better part of the next decade trapped in mostly stereotypical roles as domestics, until landing the breakthrough part of Annie Johnson, the generous and warm-hearted housekeeper to Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) in Douglas Sirk’s glossy remake of Imitation of Life – a story originally directed by John M. Stahl in 1934 and starring Claudette Colbert.

Based on Fannie Hurst’s 1933 novel of the same name, the film involves the story of two single mothers and their daughters, torn apart by materialist ambition and racial tension. Here, Moore excels as Annie, whose fierce devotion to her light-skinned daughter’s happiness – who attempts to deny her roots throughout the film – impels incredible self-sacrifice. Following her standout performance, Moore was the third African American to be Oscar nominated in the supporting actress category, following winner Hattie McDaniel, for Gone with the Wind in 1939, and nominee Ethel Waters, for Pinky.

Imitation of Life (1959)

Imitation of Life (1959)

Imitation of Life centres on widow and aspiring thespian Lora, whose daughter Susie (portrayed as a child by Terry Burnham) goes missing at Coney Island beach, and is found by Annie, there with her own mixed-race daughter, Sarah Jane (portrayed as a child by Karin Dicker). Here, in one of the film’s many ironic turns, the children play together without any sense of difference. It is the closest they will ever be.

Annie is desperate for a place to live and offers to work as Lora’s maid for food and lodging. In what will be become a life-transforming gesture, Lora invites Annie and Sarah Jane to stay with them in their cold-water Brooklyn flat. Meanwhile, Lora has set her sights on becoming a Broadway star, and soon becomes a stranger to her home and daughter, as she lives a life of photo shoots, auditions, agents and parties.

Imitation of Life (1959)

Imitation of Life (1959)

As the years pass, Lora’s fierce ambition and Sarah Jane’s (now played by fellow Oscar nominee Susan Kohner) determination to ‘pass for white’ only becomes more problematic, resulting in devastating repercussions for all involved. The impassable gulf between the now teenaged Susie’s (Sandra Dee) privileged existence and Sarah Jane’s desperate attempts to distance herself from her race, and her own mother, fulfils the crux of the story.

Throughout, Moore’s performance scores the emotional steps deftly, between the polarities of enthusiastic support to silent anguish, without ever concealing her defining commitment to the one thing that truly matters: cultivating her daughter’s pride in who she is. All this builds up to an emotionally wrenching, operatic finale – a masterclass in three-hanky audience manipulation – where the gap between mother and daughter can only be bridged in death.

On closer inspection, Imitation of Life reveals itself as a dexterous example of covert subversive filmmaking, since it contains a powerful anti-racist message, at a time when racial segregation was still very much alive in the USA.

Imitation of Life (1959)

Imitation of Life (1959)

As so often with Sirk (whose films include the hugely popular Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows, both of which were dismissed as ‘women’s weepies’), his pointedly social commentary is purposefully disguised by narrative sleight-of-hand, lavish costumes, a symphony of music and a vivid spectrum of dazzling colours. The seduction is perfect.

Critical opinion about Sirk has since dramatically changed and he is now recognised as one of the great masters of Hollywood cinema. He has also proven to be a key inspiration for the likes of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Pedro Almodóvar and John Waters. Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven (2002) is an acknowledged love letter to Sirk’s melodramas.

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