Photo courtesy UCLA FTV Archives

Over the course of her 20-year movie career, Doris Day made 39 pictures; none could be numbered among cinema’s greats, and a handful aren’t even much good. Hitchcock’s 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much boasts her best performance but is a lesser of the master’s works, and the 1959 Pillow Talk, for which she was nominated for an Oscar, is hopelessly dated. Why is it, then, that she is one of the most popular American film actors of all time?

Talent, certainly: She could dance and act with skill and warmth, and her voice, with its taut-wire vibrato, supple precision and husky sensuality, was magnificent. More important, she had an innate ability to zero in and connect, to convey the crucial idea that, no matter how absorbed by the matters at hand, she was aware of the audience and grateful to share the fun. You feel that she’s not only your friend, date or daughter, but someone who would never trouble or betray you. Producer Ross Hunter once remarked that Day had “one of the wildest asses in Hollywood,” but with her bright, freckled smile, shiny blond bob and trim physique, Day was accessibly gorgeous, without the carnality of Marilyn Monroe or the hauteur of Grace Kelly.

It was Hunter who put Day in Pillow Talk, the first of the sex comedies that made her a box-office champion and indelibly marked her as America’s standard-bearer of premarital purity (prompting the famous Oscar Levant quote, “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin”). Yet, while she was invariably described as sunny and wholesome, or dismissed as a Pollyanna, her effect is darker and more complex. When the as-told-to autobiography Doris Day: Her Own Story, by A.E. Hotchner, was published in 1975, the lurid life story Day revealed also illuminated what lay at the very heart of her appeal, in the gap between what she presented to the camera and an only partially hidden sense of bitter frustration and disappointment.

She was born Doris von Kappelhoff in 1924 Cincinnati to first-generation German-Americans. Her first lessons in acting came at age 10, when, after feigning sleep while her father screwed her mother’s best friend in the next room during a party, she had to hold her head high through the scandal that ensued when he left. At 24, she landed her first movie role, the lead in a charming if routine musical called Romance on the High Seas. By then, she’d already spent eight years traveling the country as a popular vocalist with big bands, and had been married and divorced twice, the first time to a trombone player whose episodes of psychotic jealousy led to regular beatings. When she made her last film, With Six You Get Eggroll, in 1968, Day had experienced a Christian Science epiphany, nervous breakdowns, a hysterectomy and, on the death of her third husband, Marty Melcher, in 1968, the revelation that Melcher had, in league with a phenomenally unscrupulous Hollywood attorney, wiped out her multimillion-dollar fortune and signed her up, without her knowledge, for a TV sitcom.

It’s clear, looking back, that misery was every bit as important an aspect of Day as joy. It edges all of her performances, slipping out in an unnatural, almost hysterical brightness that critics have dubbed “frightening” and “neurotic.” In her few dramatic roles (The Man Who Knew Too Much, Love Me or Leave Me, Storm Warning, Midnight Lace), almost all of which feature her being terrorized in one way or another, it can be harrowing. In the musicals and comedies, it’s more subtly unsettling. For in that mixture of misery and joy — not unlike the forced smile of a girl pretending that her parents’ acrimonious split isn’t killing her — you recognize an overwhelming dread, at having not only to maintain a charade of happiness in ridiculous life roles, but to do so with apparent willingness. It’s that disposition, often mistaken for idiot glee, that put many off Day. Considering its potency, it’s not surprising.

UCLA’s four-week retrospective of Day’s films commences with a unique example of her alarming energy. Calamity Jane (1953) stars Day as a rootin’-tootin’, buckskin-wearin’, “sasparilly”-quaffin’ roustabout in a town whose desperation for the feminine touch is evidenced by its name: Deadwood. When an actress who is not what she seems arrives to liven up the local dancehall, it sets off an outlandish chain of impersonations, drag performances and intersex partner swappings. (It’s no wonder that the film — which boasts the great coming-out song “Secret Love” — has become an object of study for queer theorists.) Day, who’s admitted that the film is a personal favorite, is formidable in the role. Her pleasure at being set free from the restraints of ladylike comportment is wildly obvious — she growls, yelps, leaps and mugs with a manic verve that is awesome to behold. And just a little scary.

THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH: A Tribute to Doris Day At the UCLA JAMES BRIDGES THEATER | Thursday, January 18, 7:30 p.m.; series runs through February 11 | For further
information, see Film & Video listings.

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