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CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD

'Imitation of Life' anniversary screening at Samuel Goldwyn Theater

Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner will be on hand to discuss the 1959 Douglas Sirk-Ross Hunter production that earned them Oscar nominations.

August 19, 2009|SUSAN KING

The glossy, uber-melodramatic films of director Douglas Sirk and producer Ross Hunter, which were so popular in the 1950s, are deceptively simple. The glitz, glamour, Dior necklaces and Russell Metty's florid cinematography are a kind of ruse that allowed Sirk to explore such serious issues as sexual mores, class structure and racism.

Todd Haynes was significantly influenced by Sirk, especially his 1955 "All That Heaven Allows," in his acclaimed 2002 drama, "Far From Heaven." Directors including the late Rainer Werner Fassbinder and "Inglourious Basterds' " Quentin Tarantino have also tipped their hat to Sirk.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences celebrates the 50th anniversary of the final Sirk/Hunter collaboration, "Imitation of Life," Friday at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater.

Based on the 1933 Fannie Hurst novel and a remake of the 1934 film, "Imitation of Life" revolves around two women: an ambitious actress (Lana Turner), who has no time for her teenage daughter (Sandra Dee), and her longtime housekeeper (Juanita Moore), whose light-skinned daughter (Susan Kohner) attempts to pass for white.

Both Kohner and Moore earned supporting actress Oscar nominations; the film became Universal's biggest moneymaker at the time. Film critic Stephen Farber hosts the event, which features a new print of the film. Kohner and Moore will also discuss the film with Kohner's filmmaker sons Chris and Paul Weitz ("American Pie," "About a Boy").

Farber points out that in the 1934 original, Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers were equal partners in business. "In this one, the black woman is just the maid," he says. "That's interesting that this version reflected some of the more conventional ideas that were in the 1950s, as opposed to the 1930s. The one thing that's interesting about this, and I think that's true with a lot of Douglas Sirk movies, is that it did deal with a woman -- Lana Turner's character -- who is more interested in her career than getting married. For a '50s movie that was pretty unusual."

Still, says Farber, "in a way, this movie probably got more people to think about the whole racial issue because it was sort of couched in a form of glossy woman's melodrama than more overtly conscious movies about race relationships that probably didn't have as big an audience as this one did."

Kohner, the daughter of agent Paul Kohner and actress Lupita Tovar of the Spanish-language version of 1931's "Dracula," admits she's a bit nervous about being interviewed by her sons.

"I have no idea on the kind of questions they'll ask or whether they are going to be kind to me or not," she says. "As young boys they would sort of tease me -- they would do a take-off of one of the dance numbers."

As much as Paul Weitz is excited to talk to his 72-year-old mother about her famed role, he is even more thrilled that he's sitting down with Moore, "who is so wonderful in the film. I have met her and I'm friendly with her nephew. I am interested in how styles of acting have changed. And in terms of Juanita, I am interested in her experiences of being an incredibly talented black actress in the Hollywood system and the struggles and travails of that. I have also heard a few stories of Douglas Sirk being tyrannical. . . ." Especially from his mother -- Kohner didn't have a good relationship with Sirk.

"He was a very stern taskmaster," she says. "I don't know why, maybe knowing I was a young woman from a very sheltered upbringing and that I was extremely shy, maybe he felt he had to whip me into shape. Whatever he did certainly brought out the feistiness of my character. He probably wouldn't have gotten that if he had been nice and cozy."

Moore, however, adored Sirk. "He was right there to help me," says Moore, who danced at the Cotton Club and was a singer.

"He'd talk to me and said 'you have such a wonderful face.' If he could see it now!"

Many black actresses in Hollywood wanted the role. The studio was high on Mahalia Jackson, who sings in the film. She turned it down, telling them she wasn't an actress. Pearl Bailey was also a contender.

"They wanted everybody but me," says Moore, who describes herself as "older than God now. Only the director and Ross Hunter liked me."

Moore, who is a producer at the Los Angeles theater company the Cambridge Players, bonded with Turner, who was still reeling from the trial in which her teenage daughter Cheryl Crane was accused of murdering her gangster lover Johnny Stompanato.

"You know she was having trouble at that time and she cried a lot," recalls Moore. "She would just come into my room and say 'I hope I'm not bothering you.' We would talk and she would cry."

Moore and Kohner have remained close over the last half-century. "I call her on her birthday and every few months to see how she is," says the New York-based Kohner.

"She's like my daughter," Moore says.

For more information, go to www.oscars.org.

Elsewhere

After the Mamas and Papas broke up, Mama Cass headlined the 1969 ABC variety special "The Mama Cass Television Program," arriving this week on DVD. When Cass and guests Mary Travers, Joni Mitchell and John Sebastian sing, the show soars. But you may want to fast forward during the comedy bits with Buddy Hackett, Martin Landau and Barbara Bain.

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susan.king@latimes.com

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