Doris Day died today. I read a slightly different version of this piece a little more than a month ago, at the Tuesday Funk reading series in Chicago, on April 2, 2019, the day before her birthday. It was for a general audience, not knowing how much they’d know about Doris and thus covering basic ground. Go listen to her version of "Stardust" or "April in Paris."
Just talking about her leaving us feels like I’m tempting fate. I have thought about Doris Day every day of my adult life, and most every one of those days imagined and worried what the world would look like without her in it, and that is what I’m here to talk about. To wrestle with her hold on me and try to convey at least some of the subtleties of appreciation she deserves.
Doris worship has predictable extremes. Many times on her birthday I have, like the character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High who stays home from school on Ritchie Blackmore’s birthday to listen to Deep Purple all day, stayed in on April 3 for wall-to-wall Doris movie marathons. One time I was watching Deadwood with friends, in which Calamity Jane is a character, of course, and insisted we all stop to watch the opening sequence of Doris’ 1953 musical Calamity Jane, with blonde Doris singing on top of the Deadwood Stage (it didn’t go over well). When I went to see A.E. Hotchner, the coauthor of Doris’s best-selling 1975 autobiography, at the premiere of a film about his childhood, I approached him afterward and yelled nicely with no introduction as I shook his hand, “I LOVE YOUR BOOK WITH DORIS DAY!” To his credit, Mr. Hotchner gave it a beat, said, “She’s a great lady,” and left it at that.
I have tried unsuccessfully to write about her, many times. I know way too much about her—always part of the problem. I once had enthusiastic clearance to write an article defending Doris’s legacy for a well-regarded website, but even with that happy nudge and Doris-evangelizing burning within, I couldn’t do it. 30 years of obsession wasn’t enough time. Pervy old John Updike was a huge Doris fan too, who spoke and wrote about her well (despite also once publishing a pretty embarrassing poem about her), and he shared the struggle, once saying, "I'm always looking for insights into the real Doris Day because I'm stuck with this infatuation and need to explain it to myself.”
Every piece of information I take on—about her work, about her life—keeps the boat moving, even if it keeps changing course slightly. It’s not just that it’s impossible to know too much, it’s that I find her impossible to figure out, to finally reconcile. She is a koan, a paradox, a mystery, an amazing artist living on in great art and terrible art, a containment of contradictions, not just hers, but ours.
I don’t know how much you know about Doris Day, but she was and remains incredibly popular. She was a big band singer, movie star, recording artist, and TV star. She is still holds the record as the number one female box-office star of all-time. She’s apparently turned down the Kennedy Center Honors several times because of her distaste for travel; ditto the honorary Oscar. She is also extremely talented. James Cagney said that she was one of the three actresses (including Laurette Taylor) who he knew had “it” the first time he saw them. Sarah Vaughan famously named her as one of her favorite singers (“I dig Doris Day!”), and opera star Anna Moffo said Doris was “her favorite singer of all time.” Doris recorded the Oscar-winning song “Secret Love," which she introduced in Calamity Jane, in one 15-minute take after riding her bike to the studio.
I also, and mainly, just like her. You either believe certain movie stars when they speak, or you don’t. You like their smile, or you don’t. Her movie star alchemy works on me. I resent when she doesn’t get more screen time. (I hate Ray Bolger for eating up all the time by himself in April in Paris. Ditto Carol Haney in Pajama Game.) I love her singing voice, even when there is a tiny catch or turn that makes it a little smarmy, and I love her speaking voice, also occasionally a little smarmy, but astonishingly responsive and musical, with endless categories of expression. (Her word is marvelous. "Marrrrr-ve-lous!” —with the emphasis in her throaty, modulated, but still spontaneous-sounding delivery on the drawn-out first syllable.) She learned, legendarily, from her voice teacher in Cincinnati, to sell a song by imagining singing it to just one person.
As important as her success and popularity is the fact for most of my lifetime she was considered a joke. By dint of sheer longevity, the scorn traditionally heaped on her has mellowed, but I certainly never heard her spoken of as anything else growing up. By the end of her career (her last film was in 1968, her TV show ended in 1973) she was slogging through some terrible films, the first burst of which were terribly popular, and knitted together—this is the dominant Day critique—they offered the unconvincing persona of a woman pushing 40 indignantly defending her virginity even the (as people said) filters on the camera grew thicker and thicker. (I think it’s much more complicated than that, but there is no time to fully discuss that at the moment.)
For Doris scorn we must, as in all things, blame the Baby Boomers. They grew up with her, then found her insufferable as the world changed and she, they said, didn’t. Cranky film critic John Simon (kind of a cheat to quote him, but it’s representative enough) called her films “sickening” and her affect “absolutely sanitary; her personality untouched by human emotions, her brow unclouded by human thought.” The word “antiseptic” comes up a lot about her in later reviews. In the popular 1995 book, Where the Girls Are, an analysis of the effects of mass-media on women, Susan Douglas mentions Doris a few times only in passing, saying her voice “seemed as innocent of sexual or emotional angst as a Chatty Cathy doll.” As Updike wrote, “The words ‘Doris Day’ get a reaction, often adverse.” The most famous critical quote about Doris, which is funny but crystalizes the contempt heaped on her superannuated virgin persona, is from Oscar Levant, who starred with her in early Warner Brothers musicals, before both her best period of movie-making in the mid-1950s and before the 60s “sex comedies.” Levant’s words—“I knew her before she was a virgin”—will be in her obituary.
Thank god for film critic Molly Haskell. It was Haskell who began to challenge in her writing the wholesale dismissal of Doris Day as an empty, chirpy, blindly sunny and sexless star, eventually calling her “the most underrated, underappreciated actress that has ever come out of Hollywood,” even interviewing her for Ms Magazine in the 1970s. Haskell wrote:
Appreciating the proto-feminist boldness of some of her working-girl characters, I became suspicious of the quickness with which most people dismissed her. Why the refusal to take her seriously? What was so threatening about her? Was it that her all-American wholesomeness in the anti-Amerika sixties had become an embarrassment? Her cheery optimism and determination were not only qualities we had lost but ones we felt ashamed of having entertained in the first place. Or was it that she was too close (for many of us) to something we had been or wanted to be in the fifties and now were running from for our lives?
I think the first film of Doris’s I watched was That Touch of Mink, a 1962 film with Cary Grant that even thoughtful Doris defenders and diehard fans have problems with because it’s the one film where the plot is actually overtly concerned with virginity. I was young enough to not engage with that so much as with the pull of this close, almost claustrophobic, designed film, where women’s coats matched their dresses and lunch was obtained through tiny adorable chrome windows at an automat. I loved that, but I also loved that in the middle of it all, we found Doris, a vital spark, a blinding life force, who was both of that world and too big to be contained by it. She did not seem blandly perky, she seemed real. Immediate. (She still does.) Who was this person? I ultimately came to see her as absurdly talented, a raw actor who happened into the center of the film universe, capable of being as good as any script required, such as Love Me or Leave Me, and proving she was everything straight up and not coy her haters said she wasn’t, as in The Pajama Game (maybe her two best films).
I think I’m also obsessed with her because some of her films are bad. And honestly sometimes she makes them worse being good in them, a great star in the middle of terrible decision-making. That alone, in a film career now frozen in time fifty years later, is a recipe to keep you obsessed with a star forever. Gloria Steinem wrote of our culture’s rescue fantasies about Marilyn Monroe, which I get, but I also want to rescue Doris from her career conundrums and public misunderstanding. Perky, self-sufficient, bootstraps Doris.
As long as we’re talking about the fantasy of rescuing people from bad situations, Doris’s third husband Marty Melcher, also her manager, was responsible for much of the terrible career decision making, especially after her studio contract expired. He crucially shaped the Doris image, criminally mismanaged her money, forbade her from singing ballads (insisting she stick to upbeat songs and novelty tunes), and referred to her in meetings as “Doris Day,” like a kind of dishwasher soap. In a 1968 interview with Melcher about her planned TV show he said, revealing what I think is the actual problem with her film persona: “Don’t forget she is always the victim. She has an inner morality which prevents her doing anything wrong knowingly." [emph. mine]
One of the interesting questions being a Doris apologist raises (you can learn a lot of things being an apologist) is the idea of who pays for the wrongs of old films. Victimhood, outdated or offensive ideals, racism, jingoism, unconvincing plot twists, all kinds of cinematic failings and misunderstood bygone conventions: for audiences and critics, who is the ultimate author? Individual literacy with old films aside, who do we blame for what’s dated badly? Doris, with her absolute lack of guile, was and is often held overly responsible for the sins of her era. People are really sure she’s not in on the joke. The fact that Doris hit her dingers and hung 'em up—she has devoted herself to animal welfare since the 1970s—both exacerbates this and at this point relieves her of a little of the burden. It also means we’re left with less context to understand her as someone who has not instigated reputational rebirths staying in the public eye.
Perhaps this is why I worry about her dying. Which doesn't make sense. Aside from understandable grief, and aside from her status as one of the oldest living movie stars (such small things), what will change? I don’t plan on sedately stalking her at her home in Carmel anymore (that was a plan with a friend at one point), I don’t know her. Perhaps her continued presence reassures me her ambiguousness can stand. When she goes, the deluge of professional and amateur eulogizing will inundate us with phrases like “girl next-door”—“perennial virgin”—“post war optimism.” None of them will be quite right, but neither will be the language of wholesale defense. And at that point she’ll start to disappear for good.
It’s late at night, and there’s no one here to fight me, so I’m just going to say it: I think Doris Day is an auteur. People know exactly what they mean when they say “oh that’s a Doris Day film,” even though her films varied wildly over the course of her career. Several of her costars, like James Garner and Jack Lemmon, said she was someone you had to “act up to,” try to keep up with. She wholly shaped her films. Her one film with Hitchcock—a definitive auteur, if we're going to use that term—The Man Who Knew Too Much, suffers from the fact that he couldn’t prune her intense presence into a cool Hitchcock blonde. I’m not sure he knew what to do with her.
I love lots of old movie stars, including ones who embodied everything Doris wasn’t, stars who in 2019 we can see winking ironically at us from the screen. But I really love Doris Day, a giant talent hiding in plain sight all the way.