When Doris Day died last week at age 97, the outpouring of worldwide affection would have surprised only one person: Doris herself.
Yet for her fans throughout the world, it all seemed a just and fitting tribute for one of the top female box-office attractions in Hollywood history, and one of the few entertainers to triumph in movies, radio, recordings and a weekly television series.
That worldwide success reached far beyond the wildest imaginings of Doris herself, yet also brought forth a misreading of her film persona that persists. Oscar Levant may have wisecracked, “I knew Doris Day before she became a virgin,” but the truth reveals a far more complicated — and forward-looking — film persona.
After a seven-year contract with Warner Bros. Studio, and brilliant triumphs with James Cagney in “Love Me or Leave Me” and James Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” Day reinvented herself onscreen with a string of frothy sex comedies co-starring Rock Hudson (“Pillow Talk,” “Lover Come Back”) and James Garner (“The Thrill of It All”), movies that had made her the most popular film star in the world.
Was she playing a virgin onscreen? Maybe. But rather than protecting her virginity for the sake of virginity in these films, Day was simply determined not to succumb to the lies she had been told by men eager to bed her.
In reality, looking at these films some 60 years after their initial releases, one fact leaps out at even the most casual viewer: In these movies, Day was always playing a successful career woman. Whether an interior decorator (“Pillow Talk”) or advertising executive (“Lover Come Back”), she reveled in her job, sported a killer wardrobe, lived the high life in a football-stadium-size New York City apartment, and pointed the way forward for women who dreamed of their own careers.
Women wanted to be her, and men wanted to both sleep with her and take her home to meet Mom. Said Garner, her two-time co-star: “She exuded sex but made you smile about it.”
At her best, just as critic Molly Haskell suggested, Day really did embody a “home-grown existential female lifted into the modern world.” During an era in which workplace opportunities for women were severely limited, she functioned as a role model through whom thousands of women worldwide lived vicariously.
So astonishing was her status as the world’s biggest movie star that it tended to overshadow her brilliant achievements as a vocalist. Revered by singers as diverse as Paul McCartney, Sarah Vaughan and Tony Bennett, no style except rock ‘n’ roll was beyond her reach: pop, jazz, ballads, big band, you name it and she sang it, often brilliantly.
Over the course of 600-plus recordings, particularly the 16 concept albums she recorded for Columbia Records, such as “Show Time,” “Day By Night” and “Duet” (with André Previn), she explored the traditional American popular songbook with a breadth and depth surpassed only by Ella Fitzgerald.
In her very complexity — the tomboyish self-assertion combined with complete femininity, the optimistic paeans to “Que Será, Será” placed alongside the extraordinarily intimate and heartfelt recordings of lost love and future possibilities — Doris Day embodied the all-encompassing, post-World War II American will to happiness.
Forthright, independent and aggressive — yet utterly feminine — and blessed with a beautiful, indeed soulful, singing voice that could deliver a total characterization in three minutes of song, she stands tall as a uniquely American icon, a symbol of the optimistic and idealized America that was to be the world’s “good guy.”
The likes of Day, and that America, will never be seen again.
Tom Santopietro is the author of 2007’s “Considering Doris Day.”