Extra Virgin

I’ve been saying for years that it’s cool with me if the Motion Picture Academy wants to give Doris Day a Lifetime Achievement Oscar. She was fairly big during the ’40s and huge in the ’50s and early ’60s, and what she stood for — prim, old-fashoned, pure-of-heart virtue in a perky persona — was unmissable in its time and essential for any film scholar or historian to acknowledge today.

But to me Day’s aversion to any suggestion of real sexuality always seemed a bit curious and even weird. I always thought of her as a kind of Singing Nun or Virginal Funny Girl. The hard truth is that in any kind of real-world context, Day played willful, persistent and exceedingly strange women, especially from the early ’50s on. Try watching her labored performance in Alfred Hitchcock‘s 1955 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much without wincing. She was so into the Doris Day persona that she reportedly turned down the Mrs. Robinson role in The Graduate

In any event, despite pleas and exhortations by Douglas McGrath and Nellie McKay and Rex Reed and Liz Smith and other Day fans, the Academy never went for the idea. But the Los Angeles Film Critics Association announced today that it has. And that’s fine. Day is 87 and I presume in good health. But why has the Academy never stepped up to the plate and paid appropriate respect?

Day was very, very good in Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back, opposite Rock Hudson. She was also commendable in Young Man With A Horn and Love Me or Leave Me, and I remember something true and steady about her performance in Young At Heart, in which she played the love interest of a dark-hearted Frank Sinatra.

And yet it’s hard to think of another living veteran of ’50s and ’60s cinema who is more of an icon for uptight middle-class Truman-and-Eisenhower-era values and zero sexuality. I know I suddenly liked Day a lot more when I heard that rumor about her having had an affair with Sly Stone, but that turned out to be bogus. Day did apparently have a fling with L.A. Dodgers base-stealer Maury Wills.

My problem with Day mainly boils down to her performance in The Man Who Knew Too Much. Here’s how I put it last year: “I love aspects of this 1956 thriller (the murder in the Marrakech marketplace, the assassination attempt in Albert Hall) but Day’s grating emotionalism makes it a very hard film to watch. She cries, shrieks, trembles, weeps. And when she isn’t losing it, she’s acting pretentiously coy and smug in that patented manner of a 1950s Stepford housewife. Or she’s singing ‘Que Sera Sera’ over and over again.”

23 thoughts on “Extra Virgin

  1. Day is stepping out more than usual lately. She has a new CD (the first in forever) and one can find online a fascinating conversation she had recently with admirer Paul McCartney. There’s also a radio chat she did not long ago in which she sounds sharp with a still youthful voice.

    I’ve long admired her work and dedication to the humane treatment of animals.

  2. The Academy is missing a big opportunity – they fete oldsters that the average viewer has never even heard of, but Doris Day is known and loved by millions.

  3. i think part of the reason the academy never considered a ‘lifetime achievement’ award is because, for years, she’s been a recluse and even went so far as to tell them she’d never show up to accept (or even do a mary pickford-style remote)…. now, with the new album, she seems to have gotten a second-wind….

    (fwiw — two personal favorites of mine are ‘love me or leave me’ and ‘midnight lace’)

  4. I hope this thread doesn’t turn into one of those threads where people are pulling names like Charles Lane out of their ass.

  5. and another thought — i’ve always thought it ironic that doris day was the go-to actress chosen to replace marilyn monroe in the role she was working on when she died…it seemed a classic case of ‘from one extreme to the other’ (at least, on paper)….

    (where else would you FIND charles lane’s name?!?)

  6. Why load her down with baggage, Wells? Shit.

    She never presented herself as the icon of the stereotype of the conservative, Ike-era prude. She was who she was. A talented and charitable movie star.

    Fucking baby boomers. Get over yourselves already.

    She MORE than deserves recognition by the Academy.

    Although I must say…. she SO would’ve bagged herself and Oscar if she’d said “yes” to Mike Nichols and played Mrs. Robinson.

  7. …and for what it’s worth… the above photo turns me on…

    She had more sexuality sneaking out than she’s often given credit for.

  8. Jeff, I sort of see what you mean regarding Day in MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, but I think that was part of Hitchcock’s long game, casting perhaps the two perfect icons of postwar American staid, conservative small-town values as a married couple undergoing horrible trauma (Glenn Kenny recently had a piece that got into more detail about some of the disturbing “throwaway” dialogue in the film, i.e. Day saying that after a fight she swallowed a bottle of pills, etc.) But my real appreciation for Doris comes not so much from her movies (I confess I haven’t really seen her in much other than MWKTM and a lightweight-but-trying-too-hard Norman Jewison comedy called MOVE OVER DARLING) but from her two stunning late 1950s albums DAY BY DAY and DAY BY NIGHT…her pop records, like most of the Mitch Miller-produced drivel of the day, were often cloying and sugary, but those two albums of Great American Songbook standards with tasteful arrangements by (I think) Frank DeVol are some of the finest singing done in the decade, and proved how smoky hot a sunshine voice could be when it was singing something other than “Que Sera, Sera.”

    It’s also a shame that she couldn’t have gotten some better roles a little earlier in her life, because by the time she was 32 she was already stuck (for the most part, with the exception of some of the more daring roles Jeff mentioned above) playing housewife/love connection to 48-year-old Stewart and uh, Rock Hudson. Too bad, because in her prime, man, Doris was a dish.


    Although I don’t know if I dig the whole “She woulda made a great Mrs. Robinson” meme…it would’ve made for great meta-casting, maybe, but while Hitch and Kubrick could make that work, it doesn’t seem like Mike Nichols’ style. The only “Mrs. Robinsons” that would’ve made as much sense as Bancroft as the role IMHO are Patricia Neal and…and I guess that’s it, actually. PICTURES FROM A REVOLUTION has the great story about how Nichols took a meeting with Ava Gardner about the part and how she made all these demands and then broke down sobbing, confessing that she “couldn’t act.” If Day really WAS being considered for the part, it would indeed be another example of what scooterzz said about “one extreme to the other.” If Doris Day and Ava Gardner are “extremes” then the 1950s seem a little more interesting than they’re given credit for.

  9. Every year you put it that way and many of your readers contradict your view and say that her performance is excellent.

  10. Zero. Sex. Appeal.

    But I agree Mrs. Robinson could have shown a dark side if she had pulled it off. But who would have been Elaine? Kathryn Ross looks nothing like her. And Ross was perfect.

  11. She was plenty lusty in CALAMITY JANE, and believably played a wife-and-mother (i.e., someone who often had sex) in later comedies like THE THRILL OF IT ALL and SEND ME NO FLOWERS. And as the above photo proves, she still had it in Tashlin’s criminally-underrated GLASS BOTTOM BOAT. Watch some more of her films. You’re buying into a dated and erroneous image. (I won’t even begin to get into that whole working-girl-at-a-time-when-most-women-stayed-home mishegas.)

  12. Day’s lifetime achievement award is ridiculously overdue….You can deride her “image” all you want, but she amassed one hell of a body of work AND became an icon(if not THE icon) of the era she flourished in…while they’ve been handing that award out to some admittedly worthy recipients, It’s been awhile since they’ve given it to someone with Day’s level of achievement.

    Sexy? Are you kidding? Cadavra said it: “Calamity Jane”, baby…”Calamity Jane”…and her “Glass Bottom Boat” mermaid-spy…

    As for “The Graduate” legend…it was turned down on her behalf by her odious late husband, Martin Melcher, a holier-than-thou prig who was busy looting his way through Day’s entire fortune. Before Melcher dropped dead, he’d done a full Bernie Madoff on his wife.

    I do remember reading that Alibert Brooks was granted an almost day-long audience with Day when he tried to pitch her for the title role in ‘Mother’….(Day apparently never had any intention of accepting the role…Brooks used Debbie Reynolds…Day just wanted to meet Brooks…)

    And one final word on the ‘sexless’ charges… I’m recalling a party scene in one of the lesser vehicles “Do Not Disturb”….. the camera tracking Day’s behind…a spectacular sight that rivals, if not surpasses the J-Lo/Beyonce’s of today

  13. “…and for what it’s worth… the above photo turns me on…

    She had more sexuality sneaking out than she’s often given credit for.”

    This is what happens when LexG is cryogenically-unfrozen in the 1950s — a man takes what he can get (YUP, YUP).

    Travis, you sure you’re not just looking at her cross-eyed and imagining Barbara Eden?

    In other news — Jeff, you’re not really helping your cause re: your Mulligan freakout here. A discussion on an actress is being framed primarily for how much sex appeal she exudes (in a decade in which the very concept was damn-near verbotin, no less)?

    I actually agree with Travis (a rarity!) in the sense that you’re projecting an awful lot onto this poor woman. Pretty sure if you asked a lot of women back in the day they’d say Lancaster positively personified manliness (little did they know…). Trying to attribute qualities to an actual actor based on the sum of their performances can be a fool’s errand. After all, they get paid to not be themselves, don’cha know?

  14. Watch her in PILLOW TALK with Clark Gable. He plays a veteran newspaper man who crashes her night school journalism class and Gable wants to bang her so bad you can see the lust waves emanate from him on screen. She is unconsciously sexy in this precisely because Gable wants to bed her. And YES! Charles Lane is in TEACHERS PET!

  15. Actionlover:

    “Although I must say…. she SO would’ve bagged herself and Oscar if she’d said “yes” to Mike Nichols and played Mrs. Robinson.”

    Thank the Gods she didn’t. World would be an infinitely darker place without Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson.

  16. Jesus, I can’t believe I typed MOVE OVER DARLING earlier when I meant THE THRILL OF IT ALL. My movie-nerd badge REVOKED for one month. I need to remember Google is my friend-

    That said, if Day IS still healthy/with-it/game for a comeback, why hasn’t some enterprising director cast her as some ingenue’s wisecracking grandmother or something? Maybe Baz Luhrmann can film some Daisy Buchannan-in-1973 scenes for THE GREAT GATSBY where he fades from Carey Mulligan to Doris Day like Spielberg cut from Matt Damon to that old guy in PRIVATE RYAN (that was a joke, by the way.) Todd Haynes, Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson…somebody should take a chance if she’s back (for however briefly) in the limelight.

  17. I have to disagree with your assertion she has no sexuality…Day was excellent at portraying women who YEARNED for eroticism especially in her earlier films. And, her singing of “Secret Love” in “Calamity Jane” is all about WANTING not just love, but passion. Girl wants to get laid.

  18. Feminist film scholar Molly Haskell wrote an insightful appreciation of Doris Day in Ms. magazine in the seventies, arguing that it was a falsity that she always played repressed virgins. Haskell wrote that what Day tended to play were career women, working women in an era when men were still pressuring women to stay home and be housewives. That is a large part of the theme of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH — Day is a professional singer who has become a housewife, her doctor husband (Jimmy Stewart) won’t let her have a career that she still wants, and so she is depressed and takes pills, etc. She finds herself again when she gets actively involved in rescuing her kidnapped son (partly through her singing talent). Haskell further argues that Day was never a sexual pushover in films, because she was a strongly independent woman, and that was misinterpreted as prudery and repression in a time when women were not encouraged to be independent-minded. Haskell notes that Day does have an active sex life in a number of films (her splendid performance in LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME may be her best, and it’s very sexy), and that only in a couple of comedies did she actually play a woman with a sexual hangup. So the attitudes Jeff expresses toward Day are very retro and misguided.

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