Remembering Doris Day

Doris Day in 1950. Bettmann/Getty Images

Remembering some of the artists, innovators and thinkers we lost in the past year, here is an excerpt from an article by

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She was an actress with subversive potential — who became a symbol of a generation’s sexual hypocrisy.

The first movie my mother ever took me to was “Young at Heart,” a 1954 melodrama starring Doris Day and Frank Sinatra. Toward the end, Sinatra, in despair over the ways he has disappointed his long-suffering wife, played by Day, turns off his windshield wipers during an ice storm and crashes. I was 4 when I saw that movie; the scene gave me nightmares. But I never held it against my mother. I’d like to think that I intuited then what I know now: a son’s nightmares were a fair trade-off for the essential information that Doris Day was delivering to women like my mother in the 1950s.

Day made 22 movies in that decade, most of them frothy musical entertainments designed to show off her lush band singer’s voice. But in her three most important dramatic movies — “Young at Heart,” “Love Me or Leave Me” (1955) and Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956) — she managed to transcend that image, sending out a very different message to the housewives who then composed her fan base.

Her characteristic expression in those films is a pinched, disappointed but stoic assessment of the man she’s saddled with, whether it’s the depressive Sinatra, the violent James Cagney in “Love Me or Leave Me” or the hopelessly naïve Jimmy Stewart in “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” It’s a subversive look that cut against the sunny lessons Day had been peddling in her lighter fare. She seemed to be saying: These are the unheroic boys we have to partner and raise children with. It’s not an option to leave; we need to shoulder them, to look hard and unromantically at them and to summon the strength to carry on. James Cagney got it right when he appraised Day’s ability: “The touchstone is simplicity, the simple line of performance, directly to you, uncluttered.”

But Day’s potential as the kind of actress she might have become was blunted by the next turn in her career. Always curiously passive about her film choices (“I’ve never been fixed on a career,” she says in “Doris Day: Her Own Story”), she allowed her nogoodnik third husband and manager, Martin Melcher, to make most of them for her. It was the producer Ross Hunter, though, who decided, in the late 1950s, that the time had come for Doris Day to emerge as a sex symbol. (He cited her underappreciated “wild fanny” as his inspiration.) The result was “Pillow Talk” and then two other blockbuster comedies — “Lover Come Back” and “That Touch of Mink.” They traded in a winking sexual sophistication and a hypermodern populuxe look that has allowed for their growing critical reputation. Their primary effect in their own time was to cement a younger generation’s image of her. “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin” was Oscar Levant’s oft-quoted wisecrack. But for most of us who grew up in those years, it became the only way we knew her.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Anthony Giardina is a writer whose recent play is “Dan Cody’s Yacht.”


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