Monday, April 16, 2018

Considering Doris Day

Doris Day as Ruth Etting working in a ten-cents-a-dance joint in “Love Me or Leave Me.”
Considering Doris Day — Who Has Never Won An Oscar!!! — at 96.
by Denis Ferrara

TEN cents a dance, that's what they pay me
Gosh how they weigh me down.

Ten cents a dance, pansies and rough guys, tough guys who tear my gown.
Seven to midnight I hear drums, loudly the saxophone blows,
Trumpets are tearing my ear-drums, customers crush my toes.
Sometimes I think, I've found my hero
But it's a queer romance

All that you need is a ticket,
Come on big boy, ten cents a dance.
MANY have warbled that old Rodgers and Hart ditty about a “dance hall” girl, spreading her talent around, but I am always drawn back to Doris Day’s version in the  1955 movie, “Love Me or Leave Me.”

This is a dramatic re-telling about the life of singer Ruth Etting. (James Cagney plays her volatile, abusive manager/hubby/gangster Martin “Moe” Snyder.)
Of course Day sings it wonderfully, despite the fact that you know DD herself has never ever had to fend off “butchers and barbers and rats from the harbor.” (Although as a girl singer with big boy bands early on, she might have had her harassments.  And she did suffer physical abuse at the hands of her first husband — and financial mistreatment from at least one of the others.)  But her rendition is as rough and tough as Day can make it, and when she gets to “come on, big boy,” she puts her hands on her hips, and swaggers that shapely but athletically well-toned body like — yeah, maybe she did know a few rats from the harbor!
DORIS DAYwho has never won an Oscar! — turned 96 on April 3rd, so this is a belated birthday shout out to one of the greatest natural talents Hollywood ever had the good fortune to have fall into its lap. 

“Love Me or Leave Me” also has one of the great, gritty comeback lines of Day’s career a career in which she rarely played it tough.  When Cagney/”Moe” informs Doris/Ruth that he has arranged for some great big new deal for her, she is less than excited.  (He forced himself on her in an effort to persuade her to marry him.  Wedlock has not been blissful.)   “Well, Mrs. Snyder, could you possibly show a little gratitude?”  
Friend and former cast member of the CBS' “Doris Day Show” Jackie Joseph pays a visit to Doris Day on her 96th birthday.
Long legs propped up on her dressing room table, Day snaps back, “What do you want, a thank you note?!” Doris, much to the surprise of many even back then, was not nominated for this performance.  Instead, a few years later, she received her only Oscar nod for her adept and pleasant career girl in the phenomenally successful 1960 sex-comedy “Pillow Talk” with Rock Hudson. 

The irony of Doris Day’s career is that when she reached her box-office peak with “Pillow Talk” and a few similar 60’s sex-comedies, her credibility as an actress suddenly went out the window. 
Sharing a party line with Rock Hudson in “Pillow Talk.”
All the grit and expertise the independent womanhood of earlier performances were forgotten, and Day became the subject jokes about her eternal onscreen “virginity.” (This idea, which gained such currency, was absurd because Day before this and certainly after, more often than not played wives and mothers.  Sure, it was a different era, but not even then-cautious Hollywood was promoting the idea of immaculate conceptions!)

Along with her underrated acting talents, Day’s career as a vocalist has been, I think, rather casually treated. Hers was one of the most distinctive of 20th century pop voices.  And she could va-va voom a soulful torch ballad song right alongside Miss Peggy Lee.
Doris Day the songstress in "My Dream Is Yours" (1949).
Clark Gable, who starred with her in “Teacher’s Pet” — a connoisseur if there ever was one — went on record to state that Miss Day’s backside was Hollywood’s finest.  Indeed, from top to toe, Day had a better chassis than all the gals promoted as sex-symbols of the time.

Great voice, great acting chops and a body to die for. Oscar has been handed out for a lot less.
Gable and Day in “Teacher’s Pet.”
Perhaps if Doris was more like other stars, hanging morbidly on to fame, she’d be “better known” today.  Perhaps the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would have honored her with a special Oscar? 

They have refused, apparently, because Day doesn’t really care, and has declined to accept such an award in person.  Or, to be filmed, as in the infamous Mary Pickford Oscar debacle of years ago.  Not a vain woman, but realistic, and as always, open to hurt. Why put herself through a situation that a cruel social media would likely make hay out of?  (Kim Novak, anyone?) 
Mary Pickford receiving an "Honorary" Oscar.
At her best — and Doris Day rarely gave anything less than her best — she was  a bracing, strong-minded, able-bodied, independent female during an era in film that sought to harness women as destructive or simpering sex-pots, fey, sexless sprites or ice princesses. (Her least successful starring role was in “Midnight Lace,” victimized by her evil hubby, Rex Harrison.  Doris Day was simply nobody’s victim!) 
Even in the lightweight musicals of her early career — “Lullaby of Broadway,” “Tea For Two,” “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” “On Moonlight Bay” — she was refreshingly upfront and no-nonsense. She really was an excellent role model for girls!  And there was more of that feisty attitude in films such as “Calamity Jane” and “The Pajama Game.” (She shared this appealing forthrightness with another even more underrated blonde bonanza, Betty Grable, who also shared Day’s amazing box-office appeal.  It’s still a toss-up between which one was actually the biggest consistent money-maker!)  
Again, Doris Day is freshly 96, and from what I hear, healthy — and happy.  But nobody lives forever. Keeping in mind some of the unworthy Oscar wins over the years, not to mention the pathological nominating of some people because they are supposed to be “the world’s greatest actor” (despite considerable evidence that such a moniker is just show biz mythology), how can it hurt to get somebody brilliant to put together a film tribute, and simply honor this star with a little golden guy? I know she is too normal, natural, realistic, busy with her own good life, to care.

I am NOT normal, natural or realistic.  So I care.  I want this for her.

Rant over — for a while.

P.S.  If you want a truly comprehensive, intelligent, affectionate, erudite overview of Miss Day's career and the mysterious/negative morphing of her screen persona, do delve into Tom Santopietro's 2008 book, "Considering Doris Day.”  One of the best of its kind.
Doris — STILL looking great at 96!
Contact Denis here.