It's unclear why Waters was replaced. Hunter's next candidate, however, would have attacked the part with a brassy clang. He would not let her go. Then Hunter had two new ideas, each one a bit odd. After pondering Marian Anderson for the role of Annie Johnson, he picked Mahalia Jackson, who commanded the devotion of millions for her gospel singing. He also thought fleetingly of Anderson as the soloist in the funeral sequence.
Mahalia had never acted, nor did she have any interest in taking it up. Ross Hunter persuaded her at least to listen to his pitch, and she auditioned for the role. We don't know how that audition came off, but according to Juanita Moore, a friend of Mahalia's, it was the singer herself who declined. But let me tell you somebody who is. Honey, I want you to go call her up right now.
My friend Juanita Moore. The process may or may not have played out so directly.
Born to Be Hurt : The Untold Story of Imitation of Life
According to a studio press release in , "After interviewing several hundred aspirants, producer Hunter and director Sirk settled on Juanita Moore. I recently put the question to actor Robert Hooks, who arrived in town from the New York stage not long after. But there were a lot of African-American actors in Hollywood, most of them out of work. So I could understand that for certain roles there might be a call for a hundred fifty to two hundred actors.
Whether or not that many actually read for the part, the studio's statement suggests unease about the role and about the picture.
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A "safe" actress was essential, someone palatable to the conservative — and, yes, racist — American public. Such corporate nervousness was not misplaced in Here was a picture trying to "pass" as a Lana Turner vehicle, replete with fashions and jewels and shiny interior decor, but which, in reality, addressed one of that era's hot-button topics: race. No one at Universal failed to grasp the implications of a story about discrimination, passing, and that oblique glance at interracial love, however camouflaged. In the oral history cited above, Ross Hunter recalls how he met Juanita Moore.
I said, 'Would you come to my office tomorrow at eleven to test for a movie? There's something about your face that was like a magnet. I've been watching you sitting here waiting for the bus. What a pretty story! Why, it almost resembles a meet-cute scene from a Ross Hunter picture.
Fragments of Life by Al Staggs.
And not at all true, according to Juanita Moore. He made me up, fixed my hair, he did everything for me," she declared. More on Joel Fluellen later. For now, however, the focus is Juanita Moore, who, along with Susan Kohner, turned Imitation of Life into a masterpiece. If Hunter had indeed spotted Juanita waiting for a bus, surely Universal's publicity department would have pumped up the story for a press release.
How nicely it would have rhymed with Lana Turner's "discovery" at Schwab's. But they didn't. It is true, however, that once Hunter spoke with Juanita Moore, he would consider no one else to play Annie Johnson. According to Juanita, when she tested for the role, she lacked the necessary Southern accent and mannerisms that the studio bosses wanted and that Mahalia Jackson had Juanita was born in Mississippi but moved with her family to Los Angeles soon after. The Jew Store.
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