May 13, 2019

Remembering Doris Day

Hal Rubenstein Forbes | Link to Article

Legendary Hollywood actress and singer Doris Day passed away earlier today at the age of 97.

For those who pay zero attention to anything cultural before you ever showed up, or consider Destiny’s Child vintage R’n’B, I’ll state this cleanly and simply: Doris Day was a bigger star than Julia Roberts, George Clooney and Sandra Bullock put together. She was the No. 1 box office draw in America four times during the ‘60s and one of the top 10 box office draws for 10 years in a row. No Hollywood actor—or Bollywood star, for that matter—has ever matched this achievement. She made 40 movies in roughly 20 years. Yup, many of them sucked, but haven’t you seen more than one of Julia’s, George’s and Sandra’s clunkers?

Day’s death today at 97 should have been a much bigger deal than the press has made it out to be. (She was below Peggy Lipton, are you kidding?) With rare exception, (The New York Times is one) her passing was sweet, if slightly dismissive. True, she hadn’t made a movie in five decades—yet, in this era where the hashtag #MeToo is a phrase used more often than “excuse me,” Doris Day should be regarded as an icon, a standard bearer, a totem. To those TV and print folk whose obits focused on the otherwise esteemed film critic Pauline Kael’s mislabeling of Day as America’s “middle-aged virgin,” you either have a short, or no memory of the groundbreaking level of this singer-actress’ career.

Before there was Ms. Magazine (1972), before Steinem, bra-burning, The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77), Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) or even Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl (1962), there was only woman who established her premier cinematic status playing a successful, self-employed, working woman, with a smashing apartment and wardrobe to match, living alone and happy to do so. During the same era that most professional working women in America were getting their butts pinched (as depicted in Mad Men), Doris Day’s Jan Morrow was the essence of flourishing independence in Pillow Talk (1959).

Though it won Day her only Academy Award nomination, most Kael-referencing obits blithely brush by the smash hit romp as a “sex comedy,” and then proceed to denigrate the term, underscoring no understanding of what the term meant at the time. But then #MeToo, as well as most current movements, are never overly concerned with putting past events, actions and terminology in context.

The irony of Pillow Talk, and the scores of “sex comedies” that followed to satiate a rabid audience is that almost no one in one is “getting any.” So, if skin wasn’t what made these films popular, what made Talk notable enough for Stanley Shapiro to win an Oscar for Best Screenplay? The replicate-worthy foundation of the film is that Doris Day’s Jan Morrow and Rock Hudson’s Brad Allen were equally matched hate-you-now-will-love-you-later combatants. (Day and Hudson also had extraordinary chemistry, unmatched by that of any onscreen couple today.)

Day had already shown sweet grit in her portrayal of both Calamity Jane (1953) and an even harder edge in her Oscar-nod-overlooked performance as singer Ruth Etting in Love Me or Leave Me (1955) where she went shot for shot with James Cagney, the toughest tough guy of them all. Even Alfred Hitchcock was intrigued enough by Day to add her to the list of blondes he psychologically tormented while cinematically celebrating when he cast her in his underrated The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), where Day acquired her signature song, Que Será, Será.

In fact, up until the ‘60s, Day’s deserved trademark was her Hit Parade topping voice, which boasted an unmistakably lilting, crystal clarity delivered with a soothing velvety edge that the country first fell in love with in 1944, when her first million selling record, Sentimental Journey, became a warm, hopeful anthem for those waiting to bring the boys back home.

However, the brash and crass but very successful Hollywood glossy film producer Ross Hunter saw Doris Day as his mission. Despite her protestations that her fans saw her, rightly or wrongly, as the “peanut butter girl next door,” Hunter was determined to expose her latent sex appeal and what he cited as “one of the wildest asses in Hollywood.” He vowed to give her a makeover so that “every secretary and housewife would say, “Look at that—look what Doris has done to herself. Maybe I can do the same thing.”

Hunter’s masterstroke, in Pillow Talk, even more than Day’s character’s willful independence, is the role she plays in this romantic farce. Because Hudson’s Allen pretends to be shy with women and possibly “you know, that way” (insert irony here), so that his temporary adversary will try to change him (context, remember!), Doris Day becomes the sexual aggressor. To do so, Hunter has the now ravishing girl next door taking charge, giving as good as she’s getting, and going through the film in a manner so urbane and assured, one can detect a through line between Day’s character and the steadfast stance of the velvet whisperer who would soon become First Lady in the Kennedy White House.

Too many others spent too much time chronicling Day’s unfortunate marriages and retreat from the cinema. What they ignored is that just prior to the rebirth of the Women’s Movement in the late ‘60s, here was Day, in film after film—from Love Come Back to The Thrill of It All, That Touch of Mink and Send Me No Flowers—portraying women who were either thriving on their own or happily married in a relationship where the wife was an equal partner. And when she did, there wasn’t an actor in Hollywood or an audience across this country who didn’t shine brighter than when in Doris Day’s presence.

So young ladies and gentlemen, hit search, if only this once, to discover this singular someone who lived sometime between Game of Thrones and tomorrow. Though she sang Que Será, Será, often, it’s doubtful Doris Day knew “what will be, will be”—but then none of us ever do. Still, her subtle, deserved-to-be-venerated career altered the way our culture presented women. So take off your headphones and put your smartphone down for just a moment. The spirit of a special lady has just passed by.