Bowing Out: Doris Day (1922-2019)

| May 14, 2019

It is difficult to look at Doris Day’s three-foot smile and middle-American pretty face and reflect that here was a woman that was just as vilified as she was glorified.  There are millions who love her for her work in film, television and in her music career, but just as many who despise her for her radical activism on behalf of the ethical treatment of animals.  However, you feel about her, there is no doubt about the impact that she leaves behind.

Doris Day’s activism is a point of contention, but what I am going to take with me are the songs and the films, the declaration of a frilly pink world of chaste sex, designer gowns, Burt Bacharach albums and the full co-ax of apartments designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  Those are the memories that I have, and the ones that I treasure.

Admittedly, I am not the first person to run to a Doris Day movie, but I can observe that if you watch enough, you start to notice something underneath, a subtext that makes her film work more than just silly romantic programmers.  There was something going on underneath her romantic fantasies, something sexy that the credo of Hollywood could only push so far.  Movies of the 60s were a strange ironic conundrum, especially romantic comedies.  America, at the time, was in the middle of the free love movement, but Hollywood was still in the chastity of the 1950s.  The difference was that you could suggest it heavily but you couldn’t show it.

In a lot of ways Doris Day, who died Monday at the age of 97, patented an on-screen image that was so perfectly indicative of the free love generation that it was almost deceptive.  She is so fixed in our minds as the perfect white, cornfed middle-American girl of the 1960s that it is almost a tease that her characters seemed to live a life of sexual frivolity that was abundantly evident, but took place exclusively off-screen.  In her romantic comedies, she defied the convention of television that required women to be the homemaker and housewife and lived her own version of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Manifesto.  She loved men, was attracted to them, wanted them, and probably got them.

Day made three films with Rock Hudson, Pillow Talk (1959), Lover Come Back (1961) and Send Me No Flowers (1964) and in all three you never had a single doubt that her characters had sex – or at least were perfectly schooled in what that word meant.  She had a libido, she knew it, and she was very aware of the level that it was vibrating on.  But it was always under the surface; the production code was still in force during her heyday on screen in the 1960s but the times being what they were, she could suggest everything and show nothing.  Maybe that’s what made her comedies so tasty – they were a tease rather than a show.

If subtext was the norm, my personal favorite was Calamity Jane (1953), a musical fantasy in which she plays a tomboy version of the famous wild west sharpshooter who develops a loving relationship with Wild Bill Hickock.  But it’s the not-so-well disguised lesbian suggestions that make the film a great deal of fun, particularly when she a showgirl up and down and declares “You’re the purdiest thing I ever seen.” Then looking too close at the fullness of her bosom questions “How do you hold that dress up there.”  Added to that, the Academy Award winning song “Secret Love” and you’ve got a lesbian perennial for the ages.

No matter what she sang, there was something much deeper in the performance that just a glorious voice belting out Top 40 songs.  Doris Day is that rare singer who could embody a character through song in a way that few could.  Sinatra could do this.  Judy Garland too.  But from Doris, there was something of an embodying quality to her contralto voice that took us inside of the soul of the song.  One of my favorites is her version of “When I Fall in Love,” a rapturous and hopeful ode to the promise of true love, she sings with great delight the inevitability that she will find love, but listen carefully and just underneath you’ll hear a sense of melancholy that true love hasn’t happened yet.  Another is “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” in which I am never sure if she has fallen in love with someone or if it is a faraway crush.  Whatever the case, listen to the tambour of her voice and you can feel the emotions of someone whose mind is completely enraptured by the person that she has fallen in love with.

I could write a thousand more words on what a great star she was.  I know that she was one of those performers whose entire body became part of the act.  She was bright, sunny and cheery.  The kind of person that you gravitate to.  You saw her name in print and you immediately conjured up a feeling of sunshine and happiness with a sense that underneath it all lay a person whose heart was an open book.  How many people give you that?  I’ll never see anyone like her again.

Que sera sera.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
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