TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL 2010: IMITATION OF LIFE (1959): Onstage Conversation With Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner

TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL 2010: IMITATION OF LIFE (1959): Onstage Conversation With Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner

Ben Mankiewicz, TCM's weekend daytime host, introduced the screening of a new print of Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life (1959) in Hollywood's Egyptian Theatre. He emphasized that the film dealt with race in a way that few other films did in that era or--to be honest--even 51 years later, examining points of view about race not only from the inside--how African Americans perceived themselves--but how White Americans viewed that self-perception. Douglas Sirk's final film remains challenging to watch even aside from the fact that--despite its weighty issues--Sirk will make you cry.

Reciting from TCM's notes on the film, Mankiewicz noted that--according to an article in Daily Variety at the time--Universal-International encountered some resistance to the promotion of the film and tailored its advertising campaign for the South, where, as one studio representative explained, "White southerners avoid films that are advertised as dealing with the race problem." Hardly a surprise, to some extent those concerns cut both ways. On February 2, 1959, Hollywood Reporter reprinted the following wire sent by LA Tribune editor Almena Lomac to numerous white publications: "Imitation of Life ... is a libel on the Negro race. It libels our children and the Negro mother [and] should be banned in the interest of national unity, harmony, peace, decency and inter-racial respect." Lomac's opposition underscores that Imitation of Life was a bold and controversial film for its time and remains totally relevant for us to see and think about today.

Earlier in the day, Lana Turner's daughter Cheryl Crane told Mankiewicz that she felt Sandra Dee--who plays Lana's daughter in Imitation of Life--looked more like Lana's daughter than she did and admitted she was even a little jealous of Dee's relationship with her mother. Mankiewicz offered that anyone could acknowledge that it would be difficult to have Lana Turner as a mother, even though she was a great mother. About six months before her death in 2005, Sandra Dee phoned Crane to tell her how much Lana meant to her. "That probably bothered you," Dee conceded, "and I'm sorry that bothered you. But your mother wasn't just an inspiration to me from a career point of view, she was like a mother to me and she made me feel good and cared for and loved." Dee wanted Crane to know that and Crane said it meant an enormous amount to her to hear this from Dee. It eased some of her concerns that she had back when she was a kid. Though Sandra Dee planned to visit Cheryl Crane, she unfortunately passed away before that could happen.

As TCM synopsizes Imitation of Life at the festival's website: "Critics dismissed this film, a remake of a 1934 Claudette Colbert vehicle, on its original release--derisively labeling it a 'soap opera' and reserving praise primarily for the performances of Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner as a black housekeeper and her daughter who is trying to pass for white. Audiences ignored the critics however, making it Universal-International's top-grossing film to that time. Part of that success was the result of astute marketing. Realizing that African Americans accounted for 30 percent of the film-going public, Universal released the film simultaneously to white and black theatres in the segregated South, an unheard of distribution pattern at the time. In 1968, critic Andrew Sarris's influential The American Cinema listed Douglas Sirk among the second rank of film directors, launching a reappraisal of his work that has elevated Imitation of Life and his filmography. As in most of his romantic melodramas, Sirk undermines genre expectations. Although the plot stays true to the women's picture, rags-to-riches formula by making Turner pay for her success on the stage, her career is ultimately unbelievable as anything but an excuse for an increasingly sumptuous wardrobe. Instead, Moore and Kohner become the film's emotional center, with Sirk going for the jugular in powerful mother-daughter confrontations and a truly horrifying scene in which a white boyfriend (Troy Donahue) beats up Kohner after learning she's black. The result is a fascinating commentary on racial attitudes in the pre-Civil Rights era and a persuasive example of film as a director's medium."

I have watched Imitation of Life countless times and have wept my way through several boxes of tissues. It was one of my mother's favorite mid-afternoon melodramas and paved the way for my heightened appreciation of my generation's inflection of the story: Diana Ross and the Supremes' Motown hit "I'm Living In Shame." To this day, I view Imitation of Life with equal amounts of discomfort and fascination, still wincing each time at the scene where Annie (Juanita Moore) relays her plans for her own funeral, how she wants all her friends to come, and Lana as Lora Meredith responds incredulously, "Annie, I didn't know you had any friends!" The entitlement of her race and her class glitters in the jewels coiled around her throat and wrists and in her Jean Louis gowns (let alone her insouciant resistance to John Gavin's considerable charms).

Following the film, TCM host Robert Osborne took to the stage, calling out to Cheryl Crane in the audience; but--as hearsay later indicated--watching the movie upset Crane and she had already left the theater (which mercifully proved for the best). Osborne recommended Crane's 2008 book Lana Turner: The Memories, the Myths, the Movies, co-authored by Cindy De La Hoz before inviting Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner to join him for an onstage conversation.

Osborne began the conversation by wrly recommending to Susan Kohner that she tell Juanita Moore she loved her: "She can hear you now." [Referencing, of course, Imitation of Life's final scene where Sarah Jane (Kohner) interrupts her mother's funeral cortege to throw herself sobbing onto her mother's coffin.] Moore mentioned that she and Kohner have remained friends all these years since making the film. Osborne asked if either of them had any idea when they made Imitation of Life that people would be admiring the film in 2010? Moore responded by joking, "Everyone is dead who saw the film 50 years ago!"

Asked if producer Ross Hunter advised either of them to see the original 1934 version of Imitation of Life (directed by John Stahl and starring Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers), Moore answered, "I didn't see it. He didn't want me to see it."

Osborne asked Kohner to relate how she came to the part of Sarah Jane? Kohner remembered exactly how it happened: she had been doing a play in New York called Love Me Little, which--she joked--summed up the critical response. Luckily, Ross Hunter happened to be in the audience and came backstage to ask her to test for the role in Los Angeles. She tested with Moore. Quite a few other young women were up for the role--including some strange choices, like Margaret O'Brien--but, as far as she knew, no girls of color were tested.

When Moore tested with Kohner, she didn't already have the part. In fact, Moore was convinced the studio execs didn't really want her. Originally, they wanted Ethel Waters for the role and the project was being conceived as a musical; but, Hunter chose Moore. He felt she had the talent and he won out.

Noting that the film's subject of "passing" was quite daring, particularly back in 1934 and even so in 1959, Osborne mentioned that previous films had dealt somewhat with the same subject--such as Lost Boundaries and Pinky, both from 1949--and though both left their mark, neither of those films had the influence of Imitation of Life. He wondered if either of them had felt going into the project that the film would be breaking ground? "I didn't realize it," Kohner admitted, "I wasn't even aware of segregation as such at the time, not until we went on the road to publicize the film. I just saw Pinky the other day, as a matter of fact." Moore knew the film was breaking ground at the time. "You see, my husband's mother was Caucasian and so I was living that kind of thing with my husband prior to Imitation of Life: one family Black, one family White. C'mon!"

As to whether their performances in Imitation of Life strengthened their careers and secured them better parts, Moore decried, "No, they were no better. I can't say that. I think I made less money after that, to tell you the truth, because I thought I was going to make more money with better parts and things like that but found myself right back making minimum. Eventually it paid off because I got other things from it. I got to go to London and Paris. So it paid off, it really did."

Osborne asked Moore if it had been tough for her working in the movie industry at that time? Had she felt any segregation as an actress? "You mean worse than it is now?" Moore volleyed. "Yes," Osborne answered. Moore leaned back and eyed Osborne incredulously. "Yes, of course. I wasn't Black enough. At the time you had to be black in color and all that sort of jive. So I was limited and that's why I moved to the stage. I got some great things to do on the stage. That educated me more and I traveled more and that was wonderful."

Kohner commented that her performance didn't really have much effect on her career. "I never got another role that was quite as good as this one. I know I didn't. I kept on playing, y'know, ethnic roles. I played an Italian, an American Indian. I did a few films where I played an American girl but this role was quite special. I was never offered another role like this again." After 10 films, Kohner pretty much gave up her career and married German novelist and fashion designer John Weitz, raising her two sons Chris and Paul Weitz.

Enhancing Imitation's theme of motherly pride, Osborne asked Kohner to talk about the directorial careers of her two sons. "They started with a film called American Pie. That was their first directing job. They had never directed anything before. Then things got a little more serious and upscale with About A Boy [2002, which earned them an OscarĀ® nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay]. Then they started doing their own material; Chris with The Golden Compass [2007] and Twilight: New Moon [2009], and he's now about to start a small-budget feature about a Mexican gardener called The Gardener. Paul is editing a film that he made with Robert DeNiro and Barbra Streisand, part of the Meet the Fockers franchise. He's got a play that's going to be done on Broadway starting in July."

Osborne pursued whether receiving OscarĀ® nominations for both their performances impacted their careers in any way? Again, Kohner replied no. "It didn't prove anything one way or the other," Moore added. Kohner continued, "We canceled each other out, being nominated for the same film." Shelley Winters won the honor that year for her performance in The Diary of Anne Frank.

Another interesting aspect about Imitation of Life for Osborne was that filming began four months after Lana Turner had become involved with the big tragedy and scandal in her life: the 1958 murder of her gangster lover Johnny Stompanato by her daughter Cheryl Crane. Osborne wondered what was it like to make a movie with Lana Turner at that time? No one knew what was going to happen with her daughter. Did they feel any tension regarding the scandal on the set? Did they feel any tension from Lana Turner?

"There was a lot of tension because she was so very upset," Kohner answered. "She was very emotional. Her crying in those scenes was real crying. She was very fragile and I think Juanita would know more about that because she actually saw her through a lot."

"Oh yes, she cried," Moore added. "We cried together. She had nobody to turn to. Her daughter was out there and she loved her daughter; but, her daughter was kind of on the wild side. Lana was so upset with her. She had no one to talk to except me, I guess, and she would talk to me about her daughter who was into some wild things at that time. So many young kids were doing that kind of thing, y'know, they were on the heavy stuff. They started out with marijuana and before they knew it they were on the heavy stuff. That's what happened."

Osborne commented that Lana and her daughter became very close as the years went on. "Not that close," Moore countered dismissively.

Osborne: Her daughter would probably disagree with that.

Moore: Her daughter was tall....

Osborne: Still is....

Moore: ...and Lana was the opposite, y'know? She was so petite. I know that her daughter was very displeased with the way she looked, because we talked about it. She said she looked like a man and I said, "C'mon, you don't look like any man I know."

Osborne: She's a beautiful girl today.

Moore: She is?!

Osborne: Yes, she is. She was supposed to be with us today. She was with us this morning for the screening of The Bad and the Beautiful. She's beautiful, Cheryl Crane.

Moore: Oh! I'd like to see her. She's big and beautiful?

Osborne: No, she's just beautiful.

Moore: Not fat?

Osborne: No, she's tall and quite beautiful.

Moore: I wish Lana could have lived to see that.

Osborne: She did.

Moore: No, she didn't!

Osborne: I would never argue with you about anything.

Moore: I saw Lana three days before she died so I know she didn't live to see her daughter beautiful like that. I'm still living and I haven't seen her beautiful like that, though I hope to God she is.

At this amusingly uncomfortable juncture, I was grateful that Cheryl Crane had already left the theater. Osborne, likewise, opted to shift the subject to Kohner's current activities. Kohner advised that she lives in New York City where she loves the cultural life and the city's many challenges. Osborne found this of interest recalling that Kohner had grown up in Hollywood before moving to New York. "Your father was the famous agent/manager Paul Kohner and your mother is Lupita Tovar, who's still with us." Kohner boasted her mother is going on 100. She related that she moved to New York to study under Sandy Meisner, did some theater, met her husband, married and settled down. She's lived in New York for over 40 years now, though she often returns to Los Angeles to visit her sons and her three grandchildren.

Juanita Moore's grandson--actor/producer Kirk Kelley-Kahn, the CEO/President of Cambridge Players: Next Generation--was present in the audience so Osborne invited him to the stage to introduce himself and to talk about the documentary he is making on his grandmother due out in December. "It's an educational documentary that is mostly going to be introducing people who don't know Juanita Moore and her legacy, and the way she's paved the way for others."

"Tell us something about your grandmother that she wouldn't say about herself," Osborne encouraged Kelley-Kahn, "Something that you admire about her."

He answered: "She always wanted me to work hard and earn everything on merit. That I appreciate. She's also helped me to remain positive because--when you're in show business--it's not so easy. The one thing I admire about her is that she's always kept on me to stay focused; but, it's not always easy listening to her. What can I say?"

"You might want to finish that documentary first," Osborne quipped.

"Some of the things she says might hurt you but you come back the next day and smile."

With that, Osborne thanked Kohner and Moore for taking the time to attend TCM's first Classic Film Festival.

Moore: I'm happy to be here. I'm happy to be anywhere.

Osborne: We're happy to have you.

Moore: Look at me, I'm old. Everybody knows that.

Osborne: Will you tell us your age?

Moore: [After a pause.] 94!

Cross-published on The Evening Class.
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