Doris Day is still one of Hollywood’s biggest legends, with a film about her life starring Kaley Cuoco in production for HBOMax. On April 3, 2022, she would have been 100 years old. And she almost lived to celebrate it, leaving us just 3 years ago, at 97, due to pneumonia.
Equally respected as a singer and actress, Doris had a well-behaved figure used for many years as a reference in a chaste society, a kind of the antithesis of Marilyn Monroe and, therefore, something more “attainable” by “ordinary” women. However, feminists defend her as her screen persona was always that of a strong, independent woman refusing to surrender to the sexist manipulations of the time. No wonder she was the first woman to top the hit charts and the movie box office simultaneously. It was a case of being adored by all.
Doris Day rose to stardom in Warner musicals in the late 1940s with her freckles, perfect smile, velvety voice, and intact hair. In the early 1960s, she changed studios, heading to Universal, where she starred in a series of romantic comedies some of them with her most famous romantic partner at the time, Rock Hudson, who was light years away from having his personal life revealed by AIDS. With him, she starred in the classic Pillow Talk (for which she was nominated for an Oscar in 1959), Lover Come Back, and Send Me No Flowers.
The actress had a comedic streak and that made her one of the public’s favorites. As mentioned, her characters – modern in those times – generally didn’t want to sacrifice their independence for marriage, something that for the happy endings of that period she ended up giving in to, but only after a lot of struggle.
In dramas, she also did well, with less prominence. One of the films for which she is most remembered is not necessarily one of the most she enjoyed making, the remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, where she sings Que Sera, Sera. As she recalled years later, her nervousness increased with each retaking of the same scene, with Hitch, always in silence and not giving her any notes. She didn’t know what she was doing wrong nor would he tell her. Turns out it wasn’t anything. He liked catching her anxiety just tormenting her psychologically.
If Doris’s life on-screen was all sweet, in real life it was different. Born in the central United States, she suffered from her parent’s separation when she was eight years old. Although her father was a music teacher, Doris Von Kappelhoff dreamed of a career as a ballerina, but a car accident, when she was just 15 years old, interrupted her plans. It was devastating for her, who had even won some dance competitions and was sure of her success. The long and protracted recovery was softened by singing lessons, which her mother suggested after listening to Doris singing and imitating Ella Fitzgerald.
It didn’t take long for Doris, at the age of 17, to start performing as a singer. She resisted the idea but adopted Day as her stage name (legend has it that after she was successful singing Day After Day) and married musician Al Jorden, father of her son Terry, two years later. The marriage was marred by physical and psychological abuse, ending in divorce. Doris recorded Sentimental Journey with Les Brown, and the single became one of the biggest hits of the post-war period.
Her second marriage, now to saxophonist George Weidler, was also unhappy and marred by infidelity on his side, leading to a second divorce. It was during this period that director Michael Curtiz, enchanted by her voice in Embraceable You, hired her to star in the film Romance in the High Seas, the first of several successful musicals and creating classic recordings of songs like Tea for two, Lullaby of Broadway, Young at Heart (with Frank Sinatra) and My Dream is Yours, among others. By the time she left musicals for romantic comedies, Doris was already a star, but she was always remembered for her voice. One of her most beloved roles was that of Calamity Jane, where she sang the Oscar-winning hit Secret Love.
Married for the third time, when she “dared” to play the role of a courtesan in Love me or Leave me – replacing Ava Gardner – provoked a reaction from the more conservative public who did not like to see her smoking. , drinking and wearing more revealing dresses. It may be ironic today, but starring in a movie called The Pajama Party also generated a backlash.
Like many women before and after her, her film and TV roles have shrunk as Doris got older. One of the most famous refusals of her career was to play Mrs. Robison in The Graduate, a role that went to Anne Bancroft and became one of the movie classics. She later admitted that she couldn’t see herself in bed with a younger man.
Upon becoming a widow in 1968, Doris discovered that her husband had spent all of her fortunes and that all that remained was debt. Unsurprisingly, she suffered a nervous breakdown at the news. When she recovered, she was forced to return to TV and fulfill a four-year contract signed by her husband on her behalf without her knowledge. It was only in 1974 that she received a multimillion-dollar compensation in a lawsuit against the lawyer who helped her husband to make the contracts and bad deals without Doris’ consent.
The fourth marriage ended in divorce precisely because she would dedicate herself more to philanthropy than her personal relationship. At that time, she would have said one of her most famous phrases: “Animals have never disappointed me”. From then on, she began to dedicate herself to the cause of animal rescue and created the Doris Day Animal Foundation, taking care of abandoned cats and dogs.
Even retired, Doris was still adored. In 2011, she released a compilation of previously unreleased recordings, My Heart, her first album in nearly 20 years, that quickly became a bestseller. She passed away at her home in Carmel Valley, California on May 13, 2019. Her last years were spent away from the cameras. Doris never considered herself a beautiful woman, but she never lost her popularity. On her centenary, this is my tribute.