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By Samira Ahmed on

Rediscovering Doris Day

This year’s Widescreen Weekend will include a special celebration of Doris Day. In this post, Samira Ahmed takes another look at an oft-misunderstood star.

‘I hate Pillow Talk!’, a film lover said to me at a film festival the other day. There is always a kind of pain I feel when someone knocks Doris Day’s films. I wrote the BBC news obituary for Doris Day back in the mid 1990s and I suspect it sat unchanged for many years. She had long retired from public life, preferring to focus on her animal welfare work. People had set their views on her in aspic. It’s time to view her afresh.

Doris Day in Pillow Talk
Doris Day in Pillow Talk (1959)

Sure, some of the later ones are weak. That Touch of Mink with Cary Grant is a painful and prurient watch. But the truth is that people who know Doris Day’s films tend not to have seen many. Like Jennifer Aniston and Julie Andrews, Day’s public image carries to this day a ‘good girl’ tag that lazily ignores her rich acting ability. Her warm smile belies the grit and physicality that ground her greatest performances—most obvious in the much-loved Calamity Jane, Day’s own favourite role, for which she lowered her voice and swaggered around, becoming a lesbian icon in the process. But in her urban romcoms too, watch her jut her chin in determination, whether battling machinery or a sexist husband (James Garner in The Thrill of It All) or a chauvinist ad man in the workplace (Rock Hudson in Lover Come Back).

Doris Day in Love Me or Leave Me
Doris Day in Love Me or Leave Me (1955)

The physicality is there most memorably for me in the Ruth Etting biopic Love Me or Leave Me. In it Day sings a remarkable number—now a famous singer remembering her days in the sleazy dancehall where she started out in desperation. She stakes out her position, legs wide apart, sways her hips and, with undisguised contempt for the men she had to tolerate, sings out: ‘Come on big boy, ten cents a dance’. In the film she’s paired with James Cagney, who plays her gangster husband—a violent, difficult marriage that, unknown to audiences, shared too many characteristics with her own real past. It’s perhaps the best pairing of her career. Both of them as actors have a charisma grounded in an electric smile and fierce determination. They loved working with each other.

Doris Day and James Cagney in Love Me or Leave Me
Doris Day and James Cagney in Love Me or Leave Me
Cagney was best remembered for playing bullying gangsters. Day’s filmography is dominated by her roles as a woman holding her own in a macho age. She deploys her charm and that gorgeous smile along with the grit. But there are clenched fists when necessary—fighting off a sexual assault from a drunken Harvard undergraduate in Pillow Talk, for example, a scene which makes for unsettling viewing in our times.

The joy of Doris Day is that she brings warmth and knowingness to a dark world.

Samira Ahmed will be introducing a special screening of Love Me or Leave Me as part of Widescreen Weekend, our annual festival celebrating the past, present and future of film. Widescreen Weekend 2019 takes place between 10 and 13 October 2019.

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