Juanita Moore dies at 99; ‘Imitation of Life’ actress earned Oscar nod
When Juanita Moore became only the third African American nominated for a supporting-actress Oscar, she made headlines and history — but that’s about it.
For a year after her 1960 nomination, she didn’t work. She never again appeared in a movie as big as “Imitation of Life,” or had a role as big as that of Annie Johnson, a black maid whose light-skinned daughter abandons her and renounces her black roots.
The nomination made Moore’s name long before Oscar-caliber black actresses were given many challenging roles. And that was just the trouble, she told The Times in 2000: 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.”
Moore, who danced in chorus lines at swanky clubs in New York and Paris before throwing herself into her film career, died Wednesday after collapsing in her Los Angeles home. She was 99, according to her grandson Kirk Kelleykahn.
Whatever the case, she was an imposing presence — “a large, handsome woman who in her later years might have played Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey,” wrote author Sam Staggs in “Born to Be Hurt,” a 2009 book about “Imitation of Life.”
In the film, Moore moves in with a character played by Lana Turner as the women, both single, raise teenage daughters.
Criticized as over-the-top melodrama, “Imitation of Life” nevertheless moved audiences affected by the brutal rejection that Moore’s character endured before she died. At one point, her daughter, played by fellow Oscar nominee Susan Kohner, tells the well-meaning housekeeper: “If, by accident, we should ever pass on the street, please don’t recognize me.”
That moment outlived Moore’s brush with the Academy Awards, Staggs wrote: “A half-century later, everyone remembers the tears they shed for her as she suffered and died. Yet many recall no more than that, making her a household emotion more than a household name.”
Moore was born in Greenwood, Miss., on Oct. 19, 1914. Many sources, including public records, give conflicting birth dates, and Kelleykahn said she occasionally trimmed her real age.
Moore grew up in South Los Angeles and was entranced with show business.
After briefly attending Los Angeles City College, she moved to New York and joined the chorus line at Small’s Paradise, a nightclub in Harlem. She also danced at the Cafe Zanzibar and, later, at the London Palladium and the Moulin Rouge in Paris.
As World War II started, Moore returned to Los Angeles and danced at the Cotton Club in Culver City.
With her dance career fading, she took classes at the Actor’s Laboratory Theatre in Hollywood and made ends meet at a chicken restaurant that was a hangout for young actors. She also earned $10 or $12 a day as a movie extra; Marlon Brando, a customer and friend, got her a spot in a crowd scene in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
For years, Moore played a succession of stereotypical roles, mostly maids and African tribeswomen. After “Imitation of Life,” she had minor parts on TV dramas and in a number of films, including “Walk on the Wild Side” and “The Singing Nun.”
Moore also was active in theater, performing with the Ebony Showcase Theatre and the Los Angeles-based Cambridge Players. She appeared on Broadway in “The Amen Corner” in 1965 and in a London production of “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Moore’s first husband, dancer Nyas Berry, died in 1951. Her second husband, Los Angeles bus driver Charles Burris, died in 2001. In addition to her grandson, she is survived by nephews Arnett Moore and Jimmy Nelson.
In an interview, Kelleykahn, an actor and dancer, said that just hours before his grandmother died, she was drilling him on his lines for an upcoming part.
“That’s horrible!” she told him in a phone conversation. “They’re going to boo you out of the theater!”
After he tried it again, she relented.
“Ah, that gives me chills,” she said. “And I don’t have to see your expression: I’m Juanita Moore, and I know what I hear.”
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