Juanita Moore, a 1959 Academy Award nominee who blazed a trail for African-American actresses in Hollywood, died on New Year’s Day at her Los Angeles home, 10 months shy of her 100th birthday.
Born on October 14, 1914, Moore was 99 but still eager to act, according to her step-grandson, actor Kirk Kahn. Though Juanita Moore had not appeared in a film since 2000, she was planning on taking part in a dramatic reading in Los Angeles in just a few weeks, and had been practicing her lines with him in preparation, Kahn told the entertainment trade publication Variety.
Receiving an Oscar nomination for her role in the racially-themed melodrama Imitation of Life, the honor actually damaged Juanita Moore’s career, the actress long believed. At the time, African-American actresses were rarely cast as characters who were not maids or servants of some kind. The nomination, she believed, created the perception that she was too good for such roles — but there were few other parts available for African-American women.
“The Oscar prestige was fine, but I worked more before I was nominated,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 1967, quoted today by CBS News. “Casting directors think an Oscar nominee is suddenly in another category. They couldn’t possibly ask you to do one or two days’ work. You wouldn’t accept it. And I’m sure I would.”
Though she appeared in 48 films and episodes of 30 TV shows, according to her Internet Movie Database profile, from 1953 until her final appearance in a 2001 episode of Judging Amy, Juanita Moore’s legacy is stamped by her signature performance as Annie Johnson, an earnest black houekeeper struggling as a single mother with a daughter who craves Hollywood fame.
Believing she’s better than her upbringing, the daughter pretends to be white and rejects her hurting mother.
The film co-stars Lana Turner as a white actress and also a single mother who befriends Moore’s character as they each deal with the issues of raising teen daughters.
The film was largely dismissed as an over-the-top tearjerker at first, but has since gained a following as a moving and memorable drama that tackles sensitive racial issues at a time when the civil rights movement was still in its infancy.
In one particularly painful moment, the daughter of Juanita Moore’s character admonishes her, “If, by accident, we should ever pass on the street, please don’t recognize me.”
Moore was born in Greenwood, Mississippi but was raised in South Los Angeles. She attended Los Angeles City College, according to the Los Angeles Times, before moving to New York where she began her career as a chorus line dancer in a Harlem nightclub.
According to her grandson, Juanita Moore never fell out of touch with her background and strove to pass the benefit of her experience on to future generations.
“She gave back to the community in so many ways,” said Kahn. “Wherever we went she stopped and told black boys and girls they could do anything with their lives.”