“I never retired.” — Doris Day

“I like joy; I want to be joyous; I want to have fun on the set; I want to wear beautiful clothes and look pretty. I want to smile, and I want to make people laugh. And that’s all I want. I like it. I like being happy. I want to make others happy.”

It’s her birthday today.

It was so much fun to pay tribute to Doris Day’s tour de force performance in Love Me or Leave Me – opposite an equally tour de force performance from James Cagney – for Film Comment. People need to see this movie if they have the incorrect assumption that Doris Day was just a perky 1950s blonde. Learn your history before you judge it.

To continue the Doris Day tribute:

Mitchell and I discussed Doris Day a couple years back. I would give him the name of a star and ask him to boil that person down into one word. Then he would begin. Mitchell is prolific and thoughtful. He knows his stuff. Doris Day deserves that kind of consideration.


SOM: One word.

MF: Under-rated.

Here’s the deal with Doris Day. She was such a huge star in her day and she’s almost forgotten now, except for being a footnote to mean something about virginity or a 1950s or 60s throwback to virginity and fear of women’s rights or something like that. But that’s so not who she was. She was such an interesting woman. She was a movie star, a pop star, she had a great voice, she could dance, she could act her balls off. She was a triple, quadruple threat for many many years, a top box office star for many years. Imagine a top box office star now being almost forgotten so soon later.

MF: Her singing was swingy and big band-y, but it wasn’t brassy, it wasn’t Lena Horne, it wasn’t Judy Garland, it wasn’t even Peggy Lee. It was softer, it was more Dinah Shore. Once the 60s happened, and the youth revolution happened, her day was over. I think that most people don’t know the difference between Doris Day, Debbie Reynolds, Gidget, or Sandra Dee. They’re all lumped in together.

MF: It is so unfair. Look at Doris Day’s work in silly musicals, Doris Day’s work in Hitchcock.

Here’s the deal. That Down With Love movie with Renee Zellweger which was an attempt to re-do a Doris Day movie is a perfect example of how hard it is to do what Doris Day did. Because Renee Zellweger didn’t do it well. And we really believe Doris Day. We think Renee is slumming a little bit, we can see her acting.

MF: And watch those movies again, you don’t see Doris Day acting. You see Doris Day being this character. Those women were also, interestingly enough, often single successful working women. This was not a woman waiting for a man to take care of her.

SOM: What’s her best role, do you think?

MF: I think probably her best role that she ever got was in Love Me or Leave Me where she played the jazz singer and James Cagney was her mobster boyfriend.

MF: But my favorite performance of hers is in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. There’s a scene where their son is kidnapped and James Stewart knows it but she doesn’t know it yet, and so he secretly gives her sleeping pills in her drink so that she’ll fall asleep when she finds out the news so she can’t freak out. The period of time from when she finds out to when she falls asleep is masterful acting. Her fear and her fury at her husband, and the knowledge that she’s gonna fall asleep and she can’t participate, and how dare you do this to me – and she’s playing all of it and she’s playing it gorgeously.

MF: That’s why I say she’s underrated.

Day’s image got tied to Pillow Talk. And here’s the deal with Pillow Talk: Nobody else could do Pillow Talk. Member that big argument we had with you and David and Bobby – we were talking about when Julie Andrews won the Oscar for Mary Poppins and she was up against Kim Stanley in Seance On a Wet Afternoon, a very Method dramatic performance. My argument was: other actresses at that time could have given Kim Stanley’s performance but nobody else could have played Mary Poppins.

SOM: It’s what I’ve been working on with the Elvis Presley movies.

MF: Exactly. There may have been better actors, but they weren’t doing what he was doing, because they couldn’t, because they weren’t Elvis.

SOM: And Elvis certainly felt like “This is the stupidest shit I’ve ever been asked to do”, he wasn’t wacky about it either, but sorry, Elvis, you’re irreplaceable in this kind of stuff, because you’re you.

MF: I can’t even think of any of her contemporaries who could do what she did. Even Debbie Reynolds who was the closest, being a perky blonde – not even she comes close to what Doris Day did. The only movie where you can see Doris Day acting, and it’s because it’s an over-the-top ridiculous musical and she was clearly directed that way, is Calamity Jane. But still, there’s that great scene, where she sings “Secret Love” out by a tree, and there’s this weird lesbian undertone to it, and it’s gorgeous. So in this ridiculous movie where she’s acting up a storm in this over-the-top way, she sings the song, and it’s the only famous moment from that movie, really – and it’s so real and so beautiful, and it’s a classic.

MF: I think that she deserves another looking-at. There’s so much joy from Pillow Talk and Send Me No Flowers and Please Don’t Eat the Daisies or The Man Who Knew Too Much or Love Me or Leave Me. Even her TV show was so charming. She had a situation like Joan Rivers where her husband lost all of her money, and so she had to go back to work when she thought she was set. And she did this TV show, and she was gorgeous, and it ran for 7 seasons, and it was a hit, and then she got the hell out of Dodge.

MF: And the only time she made public appearances in the last 30 years, was when she was there to support Rock Hudson when he announced he was dying, and for animal care and research, she was a big animal rights activist. And that’s it. She’s done nothing else. She’ll only show up if there’s a cause she believes in and that’s been 4 or 5 times in 30 years. She’s like Greta Garbo in a lot of ways. She made her money back, she did it with integrity, she did it with a hit TV show, and then out the door. I love that. Lena Horne left pissed. Doris Day is still reaping the benefits of the life she had lived, and I would love to see a revival of that kind of talent.

MF: You know I love a soulful singer, but I think we live in an era where white singers think they have to sound like black people. Even Adele, or Amy Winehouse. And Doris Day made no attempt to sound like anything else other than herself.

MF: And that’s out of style, too. It doesn’t take away from the fact that she was as good as anyone and as popular as anyone in their day.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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7 Responses to “I never retired.” — Doris Day

  1. Jennchez says:

    Love her. The one scene I love in The Man Who Knew to Much is when they are in the church looking for their son and they are singing a hymn and they see who they were looking for. She sees him before her husband as shes singing she’s pointing out like 5 different things at once and stays on pitch why trying to point out the abductor. Kind of like Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth, though with more urgency. She was brilliant!!

    I live in the same town she does and she has become fully reclusive know. But fans still seek her out and when our community hears it we close ranks and protect her. She is our town treasure and she is very loved here. She is truly one of a kind.

  2. hugh grissett says:

    She was a superb singer also!

    • sheila says:

      agreed. We discuss her singing in-depth here in this conversation and I also discuss it too in the Film Comment piece linked at the beginning.

  3. Maureen says:

    She was an absolute wonder. I was so sad when she died, just knowing she was alive in this world, it made me and I am sure other millions of fans, happy. A wonderful actress, a great singer-and an all around excellent human being. Sheila, I feel like you had other posts where we talked about Doris, but I think we talked about her singing, and how the phrasing was so spot on.

    I think even more than her movies with Rock, I love her movies with Jim Garner. They had such wonderful chemistry. The Thrill of It All is such a fun movie-when he drives into the pool? The look on his face and her reaction? Priceless. I don’t want to dismiss Rock Hudson in any way, but I felt she and Garner had a real heat in their scenes, this movie where they are married and totally in lust with each other? Along with two of the cutest kids ever? Adorable!

  4. Ken says:

    I love Doris Day’s singing and acting and everything. Thanks for this great article!

  5. Bill Wolfe says:

    My favorite movie of hers is Teacher’s Pet, with Clark Gable. A smart script that gives both leads their due, it deserves credit for insisting that Day’s character has a right to be pissed when she discovers the mean trick that Gable has played on her. Her delivery of the line where she calls him to account is devastating; that line ought to be an all-time classic (I certainly quoted it many times during the recent term of our now ex-President): “You’re stupid and you’re proud of it, and that makes you cruel.”

    From the many albums of hers that I have, I think my two favorite performances are “I Remember You” and “Hooray for Hollywood.” The former is what I can only describe as reverent, wiping away all memory of Mr. Acker Bilk’s silly-if-likable #1 hit. The latter is slow and sexy as hell. Which is a stroke of genius: why would we be gaga over Hollywood if it weren’t sexy?

    I also like that as soon as the Lakers moved to Los Angeles, she had courtside seats at the Sports Arena. This was long before stars used this as a promotional tool. She simply liked the game, so she went.

    Last but not least, her son was one of the greatest record producers of the 1960s, bringing to fruition the best work by the Byrds and Paul Revere and the Raiders, among others. (He also produced a fine album of his mom’s work; I think it might have been her last album.)

    How the Academy could fail to give her a Best Actress nomination for Love Me or Leave Me, or a Lifetime Achievement Award, is mystifying.

  6. Thompson says:

    @Bill Wolf– thank you for your comment on “Teacher’s Pet.” It is also one of my favorites of hers, and I use the particular line you quoted myself (in my head) more often than I’d like.

    @Maureen– completely agree about her parings w Jim Garner (as well as Julie Andrews’ pairing w him in “The Americanization of Emily”). They were sexy as hell together, and you could feel the chemistry pouring off of the screen.

    I’ve got some movies to revisit….!

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