Tribute: Doris Day

Posted on May 14, 2019 at 11:56 am

We mourn the loss of one of Hollywood’s brightest lights, Doris Day. Sometimes dismissed as the perpetually virginal star of silly comedies, Day was in fact one of the most versatile performers in history.  Like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, she  was at the top of her field in music, comedy, and drama.  More important, even in the late 50’s to early 60’s, one of the most repressive times in American history for women just before the explosion of the feminist movement, she consistently played independent professional women who stood up for themselves and others, even in her frothiest comedies. And she was really quite sexy. Of the three movies she made with Rock Hudson that made their pairing iconic (and their friendship enduring), in one of them she was interrupted just as she was about to seduce him, in another she actually slept with him and became pregnant (when intoxicated), and in the third they were married throughout the film. As A.O. Scott wrote in the New York Times,

Photo by Universal/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5883819i)
Doris Day, Rock Hudson
Pillow Talk – 1959
Director: Michael Gordon

The truth, hidden in plain sight in so many of her movies and musical performances, is that Doris Day was a sex goddess….The color schemes and production designs in the Hudson-Day comedies pulsate with whimsy. The atmosphere is pure camp, of the zany rather than the melodramatic variety. Every line sounds like a double-entendre. Every encounter is full of implication and innuendo, every character a collection of mixed signals.

These movies are naughty beyond imagining, and as clean as a whistle. In “Pillow Talk” — in effect the first movie about the pleasures and consequences of phone sex — Hudson and Day take a bath together. It’s a split-screen shot, but still.

NOTE: “Pillow Talk” was directed by the grandfather of Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

In “Pillow Talk” and “Lover Come Back” Day played exceptionally capable professional women (a decorator and an advertising executive) who persisted despite despicable treatment from the men around her (in “Lover Come Back” Hudson plays a rival ad-man who gets clients by getting them drunk and getting them girls). In “Calamity Jane” she played the legendary sharp-shooter and in “Pajama Game” she was a factory worker and union steward fighting for the rights of the workers while falling in love with the executive played by John Raitt. Okay, in “The Thrill of it All” she plays a stay at home mother who puts her marriage to a handsome OB-GYN (James Garner) at risk by accepting a job as spokesmodel for a soap company and gives it all up after she witnesses her husband assisting at the miracle of birth, and in “Move Over Darling” she plays a housewife who returns home after being shipwrecked while her predecessor in the original version had been on a scientific expedition, but it was the early 60’s and now you get the idea of what life was like before the women’s movement.

Her comic performances were as good as any that have ever been put on film. No one gets funny-angry better than Doris Day.

She originally wanted to be a dancer but after she shattered her leg in an accident, she taught herself how to sing, and her singing was not just tuneful but exquisitely phrased and expressive. She had a number of hits including “It’s Magic” from her first film appearance, “Romance on the High Seas.” She stole the film from its immensely talented established stars.

Here is my favorite Day song, “Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps” on the soundtrack of “Strictly Ballroom.”

Her dramatic performances were also outstanding, not just her performance as singer Ruth Etting in “Love Me or Leave Me,” but also her neurotic wife (significantly, a one-time singer who gave up her career to be married) in Hitchcock’s remake of his own The Man Who Knew too Much.

We will miss Doris Day. May her memory be a blessing always.

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