Doris Day was so much more than the ‘wholesome’ face of postwar America

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Doris Day was so much more than the ‘wholesome’ face of postwar America

by - 3 min read

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Within hours of the announcement of Doris Day’s death on Monday, the headlines I dreaded began to appear. A decades-long career that included hit songs and starring roles in thrillers, musicals, drama and comedy, inspired these nonsense descriptions: “perpetually chaste;” “known for wholesome 1960s movie roles;” “the wholesome face of postwar American optimism.”

But that’s a simplistic caricature of a dynamic woman — an unfair caricature, seen through the lens of subsequent generations that get so much about the 1950s wrong. They look back at postwar American optimism with contempt:

But the ’50s were so conformistWomen were just housewives.

Well, no, not really. Anyone who has seen a rerun of I Love Lucy or Leave it to Beaver knows that Lucy ran rings around Ricky, and June was frequently bitingly sarcastic with Ward. Connie Brooks of Our Miss Brooks was a career woman who usually got the better of the men with whom she worked. And as much as I adore the show Mad Men, it was guilty of exaggerating so many of the clichés about the era. It’s as if everyone on the show was just waiting for the hippies to liberate them. 

Day could be sexy, too. In Love Me or Leave Me, she gave a brilliant dramatic performance as 1920s nightclub singer Ruth Etting. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Day didn’t need to be liberated. She always was. And she should be admired not simply as an extremely talented actress and jazz vocalist, but also a feminist, who bravely walked out on her first marriage after her husband abused her and took with her her young son. She was an animal welfare advocate. She was a working woman in life, and later, on screen. She was married four times. A multi-dimensional figure, which only becomes apparent in obits about her life when you read beyond the “Girl Next Door” headline.

But she could be sexy, too. In Love Me or Leave Me, Day gave a brilliant dramatic performance as 1920s nightclub singer Ruth Etting, with James Cagney in the role of her bullying gangster husband. Day was almost too good in it.

In Young at Heart, opposite Frank Sinatra, Day did play a girl-next-door character, but a tough one who didn’t allow Sinatra’s character to overpower her. And wow, those two apparent-opposites sure had chemistry. She worked with Alfred Hitchcock in the thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much, pleasantly surprising some who thought Hitchcock should have cast a more “serious” blonde.

Day was a fine comedienne. Pillow Talk, Love Come Back and Teacher’s Pet all featured her as an independent, principled career woman who wasn’t desperately waiting for the right man. In each of those films, her character held her own against male rivals who underestimates her and tried to outwit her, personally and professionally.

In The Pajama Game, Day was a union representative who stood up for workers’ rights, and didn’t allow her attraction to her boss to sway her demands. And she sung and danced with perfection all the while. This generation of feminists should swoon.

That Touch of Mink was probably the only Day comedy that did feature her protecting her virtue and holding out for marriage. But the movie still opened with Day decisively handling sexual harassment at the unemployment office with skill and smarts.

She stood by her friend and fellow actor Rock Hudson when he was diagnosed with AIDS, during the height of the AIDS crisis. (Associated Press)

And that is only a small sampling of her work. Further, she had a simultaneous and equally successful recording career, one of the few stars of the 1950s – Sinatra was another – to manage both. If you want to hear artistry, listen to Day sing “Dream a Little Dream of Me” or “Embraceable You.” I have nothing against “Que Sera, Sera,” but it is hardly representative of her song styling.

Day was an anti-conformist in one other important way: she stood by her friend and fellow actor Rock Hudson when he was diagnosed with AIDS, during the height of the AIDS crisis, when fear and bigotry were rampant. Later in her life, she founded the Doris Day Animal Foundation and apologized in interviews for having worn fur in films.

When celebrities die, there are reassessments and recognitions of them, and Day deserves many — as complex and varied as she was. Indeed, an extraordinary talent such as Day deserves those that are true to the context of her time, instead of judgements borne from generations thereafter.


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This story originally appeared on CBC

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