By Deardra Shuler
On October 19th Juanita Moore celebrated her birthday. Suffice it to say the actress has lived a full life. Many will remember the African American actress for her remarkable performance as Annie Johnson. Ms. Moore co-starred with Lana Turner (Lora Meredith) who wears no less than 34 glamorous outfits in the 1959 film version of "Imitation of Life," a classic film that will go down in the annals of motion picture history as one of the best films ever made. It is the story of 4 women during a time period when, at least for African Americans, race relations were difficult at best.
Imitation of Life was made twice. Its story demonstrates what happens when racist attitudes and otherwise, force people to become an imitation of self, rather than be accepted for who they truly are. The 1934 version starred Claudette Colbert as Bea Pullman, Louise Beavers as Delilah Johnson and fair hued actress Freddie Washington as Peola. Outside of the name changes, the 1934 version portrayed the two women as business partners and friends. In the 1959 version, Annie Johnson was housekeeper to Lora Meredith. It seems the 1934 version was more progressive while the 1959 version was more heart rendering and unforgettable.
Producer Ross Hunter and Director Douglas Sirk’s "Imitation of Life" is a melodrama depicting two mothers who have a chance meeting during a period when their lives are in turmoil. Widowed, Lora is struggling to survive with her daughter Susie (Sandra Dee). Her attempts to forge a career in New York City as a model/actress, is not going well. Annie’s very fair skinned husband abandoned her and it is difficult for her to find work as a Domestic because she refuses to leave her equally fair skinned daughter behind. Lora and Annie strike up a bargain to aid one another. Annie comes to live with Lora. Initially Annie agrees to work only for room and board, caring for Lora’s home and child while Lora goes on auditions. Annie gives Lora a degree of status which eventually brings about Lora’s first big break. The women become lifelong friends. Annie also becomes a substitute mother to Susie as Lora continues to achieve fame. Lora eventually realizes fame is a mere imitation compared to what really matters in life. Unfortunately, Annie is not having success mothering her own child, Sara Jane, who denies her mother and becomes obsessed with passing herself off as white.
Though not Black, Susan Kohner portrayed Sarah Jane. Kohners mother was Mexican actress Lupita Tovar and father Czech producer/agent Paul Kohner. Both Susan Kohner and Juanita Moore won an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress in the movie. The picture is especially poignant and heart rendering due in large part to the great performances given by Moore and Kohner whose strained relationship is a pivotal part of the movie. Turner and Dee also have momentary tension between them when they both fall in love with the same man played by John Gavin. There is no doubt that Sarah Jane loves her mother but becomes desperate to escape her imitation life. It is very difficult for her to be a light skinned black person perceived as white by the majority of the world. Sarah Jane is aware of the inequality between living White and living Black. She wants a life unrestrained by color distinctions and prohibitions.
Recently the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored both actresses with a luncheon coordinated by Events Director Patrick Harrison. A screening of Imitation of Life was held October 17th in tribute to the two stars at the Academy Theater at Lighthouse International. The screening was moderated by author and Brooklyn College film professor Foster Hirsch. The screening was part of the Academy’s ongoing Monday Film Series "Monday Nights with Oscar." Call 888-778-7575 for info on future Academy screenings.
Mr. Hirsch regaled the film, discussing many important scenes within the movie. In one scene, Sarah Jane sneaks to meet her white boyfriend, played by Troy Donohue, who beats her upon discovering she is black. "Troy actually hits me in that scene," recalled Kohner. "Troy didn’t realize how hard he hit me. I ended up with bruises. The director sent me yellow roses that night with a note that said he hoped I was feeling better because he needed to re-shoot the scene," grimaced Susan. "While Mr. Sirk was often patient and gentle with Juanita, with me, he could be a great forceful, didactic Prussian man. I was afraid of him. I understand he needed to be forceful in order to get the angry emotions from me he needed for the scene," recalled Kohner whose Oscar nomination never did boost her career.
"I never had qualms about playing a black character because prior to my Imitation role, I played other ethnic characters. Juanita and I have remained friends since the picture, but during the making of it, we were not close. My character was unhappy and often mean to her mother. Thus, I didn’t dare get too friendly in order to keep the integrity of the character" explained Susan.
"We purposely didn’t get chummy because Susan was passing," chuckled Juanita. Asked whether she thought passing is still going on, Juanita grinned and stated that she didn’t know about black folks passing because in California Jews were passing, Hispanics were passing, et al., but she didn’t know what was going on in New York. "They auditioned a lot of people before casting me in the part. Pearl Bailey was their first choice. But producer Ross Hunter really wanted me. They considered Margaret O’Brian for Susan’s role. But Ross was a genius and knew what he needed for the film" remarked the outspoken actress. Imitation of Life was a courageous film for that time period. Had the film failed, it could have damaged the careers of both the producer and director. "Sirk was patient with me," stated Juanita. "There were times I was so nervous the muscles were jumping in my face. One day I cried all day long, yet he didn’t fire me. During my dying scene, Sirk said: "Juanita, you got to remember you are dying not crying," recounted Moore. "I cried a lot in the making of this movie because it was real easy for me to cry. I had a lot to cry about. Conditions for black actors were unbelievable back then. Very few black actors got the opportunity to hone their craft in the same way white actors did" she remarked.
Juanita fashioned her role after her sister. "Annie was nothing like me. She was like my sister. So I took what I needed from my sister’s personality to create Annie," continued Juanita. "You know Annie was a good role for me. I have been in a lot of pictures. However, most of them consisted of my opening doors for white people" recalled Ms. Moore. Although Moore has performed in close to 43 films, even her academy nomination did not bring about change in terms of acquiring more dignified and meatier roles. Susan Kohner only appeared in 10 films before leaving the industry. However she’s proud of her sons, screenwriters Chris and Paul Weitz who wrote the animated flick "Antz" and made their directorial debut with American Pie and also wrote Nutty Professor II: The Klumps and About a Boy which starred Hugh Grant.
The most memorable scene in "Imitation of Life" is the funeral scene depicting a distraught Kohner running after the funeral procession, weeping bitterly alongside her mother’s coffin, contrite over her treatment of her mother. "That was a hard scene. So much emotion went into it"" said Susan ""I literally broke down and was off the set for 3 days." Indeed, there was hardly a dry eye amongst the screening audience.
There is no doubt that "Imitation of Life" holds within it many metaphors that allude to the genius of Sirk and his actors; classic and memorable scenes in which both Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner demonstrate their considerable acting chops. Today, both ladies are in semi-retirement, Juanita in California, Susan in New York. I say semi because after all, what is the profession of acting about if not about mimicking life. Thus, I believe were the right role to present itself, these two venerate actresses wouldn’t hesitate to once again give an outstanding imitation of life.
All rights reserved.
-back to top-