Doris Day, film superstar of ’50s, ’60s, dies at 97
The very name “Doris Day,” cheerful as a sunrise on a studio lot, was an invention.
The beloved singer and actress, who died Monday at 97, was a contemporary of Marilyn Monroe but seemed to exist in a lost and parallel world of sexless sex comedies and the carefree ways of “Que Sera, Sera” (”Whatever Will Be, Will Be”). She helped embody the manufactured innocence of the 1950s, a product even she didn’t believe in.
“I’m tired of being thought of as Miss Goody Twoshoes .... I’m not the All-American Virgin Queen, and I’d like to deal with the true, honest story of who I really am,” she said in 1976, when her tell-all memoir “Doris Day: Her Own Story” chronicled her money troubles and failed marriages.
There was more to her, and to her career, than not sleeping with the leading man. She gave acclaimed performances in “Love Me or Leave Me,” the story of songstress Ruth Etting, and in the Alfred Hitchcock thriller “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” Longing ballads such as “Blame My Absent Minded Heart” led critic Gary Giddins to call her “the coolest and sexiest female singer of slow-ballads in movie history.”
But millions loved her for her wholesome, blond beauty, and for her string of slick, stylish comedies, beginning with her Oscar-nominated role in “Pillow Talk” in 1959.
She and Rock Hudson were two New Yorkers who shared a telephone party line. She followed with “The Thrill of It All,” playing a housewife who gains fame as a TV pitchwoman to the chagrin of husband James Garner.
Her on-screen chastity was a gag for comedians, but not audiences. The nation’s theater owners voted her the top moneymaking star in 1960, 1962, 1963 and 1964.
It was an easy punchline which would unjustly overwhelm her name and legacy for younger generations who would come to know her only through jokes at the inherent un-coolness of having such a pure image. As with Monroe’s reductive labeling, it denied, or at least dismissed, the talent behind it all.
In reality, Day was one of the most natural-born movie stars ever to grace the screen, beloved by co-stars and directors for her raw gift, honesty and charisma.
Her last film was “With Six You Get Eggroll,” a 1968 comedy about a widow and a widower and the problems they have when blending their families. It was that year that her third husband, Martin Melcher, who was as widely disliked as she was liked, died, and she retired from movies and turned to television. “The Doris Day Show” was a moderate success in its 1968-1973 run on CBS.
Although Day was absent from the screen for decades, she was not forgotten. In 2004 she was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom, which she said she was grateful for but didn’t accept in person because she “didn’t fly.” That unwillingness to travel also prevented her from getting a Kennedy Center Honor and others.
Day began singing in a Cincinnati radio station, then a local nightclub, then in New York. A bandleader changed her name to Day, after the song “Day after Day,” to fit it on a marquee.