Bet You Didn’t Know: Secrets Behind The Making Of “Imitation Of Life”

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Everybody knows Imitation of Life. It’s the movie plenty of Black families reference when they speak about the original tearjerkers. When you think about it, it’s amazing that a movie that handled subjects such as race and class in such a real way was released during the beginning of the Civil Rights era. And surprisingly the version most of us know and love, the one with Mahalia Jackson, is a remake of a remake. Check out some of the little known facts behind the making of this classic film. 

1934 vs 1959 Versions

The 1959 version of Imitation of Life that we all know and love is actually a remake of the 1934 classic, based on the 1933 book by Fannie Hurst. There were several differences between the 1934 version and the 1959. In the original book, Lora–played by Lana Turner–only became famous because Delilah (Annie in the ’59 version)–played by Juanita Moore– gave her a waffle recipe. In the first movie adaptation Lora offers Delilah, her maid, 20 percent of the profits from the waffle recipe, but she refuses the money and decides to stay on as her maid.

In an interview with Turner Classic Movies (TCM), Juanita Moore said that Blacks did not like the first movie because Delilah’s character was so subservient. In fact, she said producer Ross Hunter, wouldn’t even let Juanita see it. Good decision.

In the ’59 version though, on the cusp of the Civil Right’s Movement, screenwriters decided to play up the genuine friendship between Lora and Annie. And in the second film adaptation, Lora becomes famous because of her own merits.

Fredi Washington

Fredi Washington was the young actress who played a nineteen-year-old Peola Johnson (Sarah Jane Johnson in the ’59 version.) They approached her to play the older version of Sarah Jane in the 1959 remake but she declined because she didn’t want to only be known as the black actress who was always passing for white.

Washington, whose parents were both biracial, had very fair skin and green eyes but she was adamant about the fact that she identified as black. She told the Chicago Defender,

You see I’m a mighty proud gal and I can’t for the life of me, find any valid reason why anyone should lie about their origin or anything else for that matter. Frankly, I do not ascribe to the stupid theory of white supremacy and to try to hide the fact that I am a Negro for economic or any other reasons, if I do I would be agreeing to be a Negro makes me inferior and that I have swallowed whole hog all of the propaganda dished out by our fascist-minded white citizens.”

Washington eventually left acting because she was only offered roles where she had to play the tragic mulatto. And while she was fair and maybe appeared White to others, she was not allowed to star alongside White male leads because she was so vocal about her African heritage.

Sarah Jane

Although many African American actresses were tested, eventually, the role of Sarah Jane went to Susan Kohner, who was of Mexican and Czech-Jewish descent.

Lana Turner And The Scandal

At the heart of the movie, it’s about two strained mother-daughter relationships. And just as Lora and her daughter Susie can’t seem to get along while her mother is skyrocketing to fame, there was scandal between Lana and her own daughter Cheryl Crane that made things tense between them as well. The year before Imitation of Life was filmed, Crane stabbed and killed Turner’s boyfriend Johnny Stompanato. Stompanato was a known bodyguard for mobster Mickey Cohen. According to Crane, he had been beating Turner and because of this, Crane’s stabbing was ruled a justifiable homicide. But the scandal was so great that it affected Turner’s career and her ability to find work, and thus negatively affected the relationship she had with her daughter.

In that same TCM interview, Juanita said that the incident kind of took her spirit away. She noted that she and her daughter weren’t very loving toward one another but Turner did bring Cheryl on the set so she could see what her mother was doing.

Moore also said that during the first day of shooting, they filmed the scene where Annie is dying. In that scene, Turner has to say “Don’t leave me Annie…” During that emotional scene Turner started crying and didn’t stop for three days.

Moore said, “She wasn’t crying about the scene. I don’t think. I think she was crying about frustration, what had happened to her all this time. How hard she had worked to attain what she had attained and it was all going for naught.”

Moore recalled that Turner cried so much during those three days that her face was too swollen to continue filming and the directors sent her home to collect herself.

Lana Turner’s Wardrobe 

It’s reported that the film had a $2 million budget but it’s also reported that  $1.078 million was spent on Lana Turner’s wardrobe, making it one of the most expensive in cinema history.


Though critics slammed Imitation for what they called a strained chemistry between Turner and Moore, audiences, both Black and White, loved it. Imitation of Life ended up being the fourth highest grossing movie of 1959 and remained Universal’s highest grossing film until 1967. It wasn’t until years later, when critics reviewed it later that they admitted that it was a classic.

Juanita Moore on Lana Turner

Though critics said Turner and Moore appeared to lack chemistry, they couldn’t have been more wrong. Not only did Turner and Moore develop a rapport on set, they remained close long after the film wrapped. In the TCM interview, Moore said:

Oh, she was so sweet. She was such a nice person. And she gave me every opportunity, which they don’t–stars–don’t do that too often. I’ve worked with several stars but Lana was and is a star. She was just beautiful from the time she walked on the set until the day she left. You wouldn’t want to work with a nicer person than Lana. She was just great. And we maintained our friendship, we really did, until she died.


How Juanita Got The Part

For the character Annie, they tested everyone, including Pearl Bailey and they may have even asked Mahalia Jackson to star in the film, but she knew she was a singer. And that was the only role she would take for this project.

In another interview, Juanita recalls how she got the role of her career:

“Ross Hunter, he said, when I went out to see him, he said he looked at my face and he said ‘I know this is the one.’ I hadn’t done anything comparable because that was a task, believe me. I lost weight and I was constantly losing the weight and they were constantly putting the weight back on me overnight because I was so nervous. My nerves you know because Ross said to me, ‘If you’re no good Juanita, the picture’s not going to be any good.’ Now that’s a hell of a responsibility to put on somebody…He said to me, ‘I’m sticking my neck out for your Juanita.’ And he did stick his neck out for me.”


And it turns out Hunter was right. Moore and Kohner, who were said to have stolen the film from Turner, were both nominated for Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actress.


The Aftermath 

When Juanita Moore passed earlier this year, we pulled quotes from an interview she conducted with the Los Angeles Times in 1967. She said that while the Oscar nomination was nice, it actually ended up working to her disadvantage.

“The Oscar prestige was fine, but I worked more before I was nominated. 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.”

After the film, she went back to Broadway and appeared in James Baldwin’s play “The Amen Corner” in 1965. And then she appeared in a London production of “Raisin in the Sun,” which Moore said was the most treasured role of her entire career. 

Imitation in Song

In 1969, Diana Ross and The Supremes recorded a song called “Livin’ In Shame.” It’s based on the movie, about a woman who has been ashamed of her mother for as long as she can remember and when she leaves home, she tells her friends that her mother died traveling in Spain. And when she really does pass away, she regrets denying and ignoring her for the last few years of her life.

Imitation in Real Life

During that TCM interview I’ve referenced several times throughout, the interviewer insinuates that the story line was a little dramatic and not something that was really happening in real life. But Moore had to let her know that these stories were not uncommon. In another interview, she said she had two friends, a brother and sister who were from Mississippi, both biracial. And unfortunately, Juanita said they both took their lives because of color and identity issues.

And during the TCM sit down she told this story:

Life is just like that, even more so. When I was doing that movie, my neighbor lived downstairs, her name was Blanche, wonderful woman, helped me with my lines and would cry all the time. Every time I turn around Blanche was crying because she had a daughter–she’s from New York, Puerto Rican and Black. Now the daughter ended up blonde, almost like Lana. So the aunt took the daughter. Blanche lived in California out there, downstairs from me. Now when Blanche would go back to see her daughter, you know she’d have to go through the back door. They didn’t want them to know her mother was black. So that was during when I was making The Imitation of Life. Blanche would read the lines with me and cry and everything because the same thing was happening at that time.

You can watch this portion of the interview, in the video above and the rest of it here and here.

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