The leading men in her movies, with a macho come-on baked into their characters, never noticed how smoothly she slashed them with her razor-like femininity. Oscar Levant, whose bitter wit was unique in Hollywood, said he "knew Doris Day before she was a virgin." Her timid bedroom scenes were once considered shocking, but innocent and playful coupling on the screen was quickly vulgarized, politicized or rendered absurd. And the days and nights for romantic comedy, as the critic Wesley Morris observed in The New York Times magazine, were over.
A decade ago, seven of the 50 highest-grossing films in America were romantic comedy, and last year none were. Gone, too, were ordinary people — "no capes, no spaceships, no infinite sequels" — trying to figure out how to deal meaningfully with another human being and make it funny.
She never became the icon that male superstar singers of the '50s and '60s, such as Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, were, but she was up there with her box-office successes, captivating audiences.
Mean-spirited feminists who thought only a conventional rebel with roaring rhetoric could show independence, Doris Day at her best did it with a comedic confidence, a flash of fashion and "a touch of mink." In her book "From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies," film critic Molly Haskell infuriated radical feminists in 1974 when she scolded them for their narrow perceptions of Miss Day and other popular female movie stars of an earlier era, by looking through a reductive ideological lens that misses the formidable challenges they surmounted as working women in a different time and place. It's an arrogant mistake most prevalent today, to apply contemporary standards of judgment to sensibilities rooted in the past.
Stereotypical roles for women in those old movies were often brilliantly stretched by stars with illuminating talent who infused them with comic nuance, making a recessive role sparkle with song and dance, enhanced by charismatic acting.
Camille Paglia, the iconoclastic cultural critic not known for expressing humility, concedes that she once viewed Doris Day and Debbie Reynolds darkly as a reflection of "ruthless tyrants of an ossified WASP establishment." On reflection, she has grown, like lots of us, to respect their spunk, professionalism and craft.
Doris Day, like Lucille Ball, punctured inflated male egos like a hat pin piercing a helium balloon, and audiences male and female loved them for it. Their male co-stars (like certain men in the audience) were too mystified or self-satisfied to understand. Think Rock Hudson in the movie "Pillow Talk," whose pomposity and pride did not serve him sympathetically until Miss Day, playing a contented career woman who hates him, captivates and captures him.
"Though there's plenty to object to in the representation of women in the male-dominated art form of the 20th century," writes Haskell, "I've increasingly come to look for and cherish the heroic or contrary images of women that go against the grain of oppression, either slipping cunningly through the cracks of a patriarchal world order or defying it outright."
Day's persona was so threatening to men of her era that they hid behind stereotypical satirical slurs, as in Oscar Levant's famous quip. In her good nature off screen, the actress acknowledged that she suffered from the "virgy" image, noting that it was a fantasy of others, not hers. She was a stand-up friend of Rock Hudson when he was dying of AIDS. When he joined her for a taping of her television show, "Doris Day's Best Friends," he had not publicly revealed that he was suffering from AIDS, and his gaunt, emaciated figure was a revelation. She didn't sacrifice authentic friendship for image and gave him a heartfelt hug.
Rock Hudson and Doris Day had joked that they thought "Pillow Talk," with its split screen and risque suggestiveness, depicting them both in bed, would ruin their careers. But the movie brought her an Academy Award nomination, and together they saw the times were "a changin'."
Although she is remembered mainly for her romantic comedies, in "Love Me or Leave Me," one of her best roles, she plays the singer Ruth Etting, a woman abused by her husband-manager, portrayed by James Cagney. Her performance was especially powerful, perhaps because she had experienced real-life violence in her first marriage. A poor choice in husbands may explain why she left the movies to establish a foundation to rescue animals. "The more I study human beings," she said, "the more I love animals." R.I.P.
Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.