Tuesday, May 14, 2019

And Here’s to You, Doris Day: The Woman who Didn’t Become Mrs. Robinson

The tributes pouring in for Doris Day (who left us Monday morning at age 97) do not mention one tidbit I find unforgettable. Day was the first choice of producer Larry Turman and director Mike Nichols to play the predatory Mrs. Robinson in their film adaptation of The Graduate. Forget the fact that Day’s image was that of a virginal –or at least a prim and proper—young woman with a sunny disposition and a great capacity for love, as opposed to sex. In such mid-century comedies as Teacher’s Pet, Pillow Talk, and Lover Come Back, she’s the perky innocent who lands the hunky guy because of her winning combo of smarts, sass, and sheer unadulterated goodness. Which is why Turman and Nichols, who enjoyed casting against type, loved the idea of her playing the scheming adulteress who lures Benjamin Braddock into the sack

My Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation tells the tale. Back when The Graduate was just a modestly-selling novel waiting to be made into a screenplay, Turman sent the book to Day to ascertain her interest in the project. (It was clear to the production team that the Mrs. Robinson role was the one that required an established star, someone who could fill the seats of movie houses.), Turman has said the idea was to subvert Day’s wholesome, bubbly image by showing her in rebellion against the social rules that governed her earlier films. Day long maintained, in her memoir and elsewhere, that she refused the part because it offended her values. But Turman insists that when he sent her Charles Webb’s novel, it was withheld from Day by her husband and manager, Martin Melcher. Fittingly for a woman whose onscreen persona defines the fifties, Day’s course of action was predetermined, in this and other matters, by the domineering man she married.

Which shouldn’t imply that Doris Day was not a rule-breaker in her own right. Though her roles bought into 1950s standards of sexual conservatism, she was not  portrayed as being without libido. In Lover Come Back, for instance, her character (a New York ad exec) comes very close to succumbing to the seductive moves of arch-rival Rock Hudson, but (phew!) her honor is saved by a timely phonecall.  And Molly Haskell, whose From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies is the essential work on the subject, informed me that as a young woman growing up in Richmond, Virginia, she admired Day not for her sexual standards but because, in an era that exalted the happy housewife, Day was generally portrayed as a working woman—a writer, an executive, a college prof--making it on her own in the big city.

It’s a mistake to underestimate Doris Day’s professionalism. As a big band singer, she idolized Ella Fitzgerald, whose exuberant style resembles Day’s own. As an untrained but potent actress, she starred in thrillers (The Man Who Knew Too Much, Midnight Lace) and a schmaltzy musical biopic (Love Me or Leave Me) as well as romantic comedies. And of course her 1945  performance, along with Les Brown’s Band of Renown, of one of my favorite songs, “Sentimental Journey,” will never be equaled.

Romantically speaking, Day knew what it was like to suffer. She was married four times, and the mismanagement of her assets by her abrasive third husband, Melcher, nearly brought her career to a halt. In later years she seemed to prefer animals to people, and her charitable work on behalf of her furry friends is one more reason we’ll remember her fondly.

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