Doris Day/Love Me or Leave Me
Whenever I tell people of a certain age (the younger ones don’t know who she was) that Doris Day was director Mike Nichols’ first choice for Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate (1967) they always look at me with a surprised / puzzled look on their face as if to say;“Doris Day? What was he thinking?” And when that happens I know that they’re channeling two things. 1) Anne Bancroft’s iconic performance in the role and 2) Doris Day’s image as “The world’s oldest virgin.” A remark that was based on the roles she played in a series of comedies she made with Rock Hudson and a few other leading men. All the films were highly successful at the box office but her roles in them were somewhat similar due to the formulaic nature of the screenplays written mostly by Stanley Shapiro which set the template not just for Doris Day’s films but for nearly all the romantic comedies being made at that time. But the “oldest virgin” tag stuck to Doris Day because her films were the most successful of the lot. The phrase was attributed to Oscar Levant, a pianist/wit who seemed to never be at a loss for a curmudgeonly bitter comment to sum up any person or situation. He is also credited with saying: “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.” based on the fact that they appeared together in her first film (Romance on the High Seas-1948). But there was much more to Doris Day as an actress and screen personality than can be summed up in an admittedly witty remark. She was a solid, hard working professional about whom it could never be said that she gave a shabby or lazy performance. She gave every film her all even some of the ones she didn’t want to do like Lucky Me (1954) and several others later on that her husband / manager Marty Melcher committed her to without her consent. But for anyone who thinks her abilities were limited to those artificial comedies that made her so popular I would point them to her solidly dramatic performances in Young Man with a Horn (1950), Storm Warning (1951), Julie (1956) and Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew too Much(1956). But at the top of the list would be Love Me or Leave Me (1955) in which she plays twenties singer Ruth Etting in a highly fictionalized but dramatically terrific version of her life. Prior to this Doris Day had scored in a number of modestly budgeted Warner Brothers musicals usually pairing her up with singer Gordon McRae (1921-1986) and dancer Gene Nelson (1920-1996). Those films were always pleasant and successful but it was her athletic knock- about performance in Calamity Jane (1953) that marked her as a class A performer and star. During this time she was also a top selling/ award winning recording artist as well.
But anyone who was paying close attention could see that there was much more to her than the sunny and attractive girl-next-door types she portrayed in films like On Moonlight Bay (1951) By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953). And if they weren’t, it was there for all to see in Love Me or Leave Me where she let it all hang out in a role that was originally meant for Ava Gardner. When offered the part Doris Day turned it down but changed her mind and today views it as the best film she made. James Cagney her co-star in the film who plays the gangster who strong arms Ruth Etting to success said that he was startled by the depth and range she brought to the role and by the emotional investment she committed to the part. “It was wonderful and easy to act with her,” he said. They had appeared together previously in the light weight musical West Point Story (1950) but nothing had prepared him for the mature ferocity she brought to Love Me or Leave Me. Cagney, who was no slouch in the acting department himself, was nominated for the Academy Award as Best Actor in that film. He counted it as one of his five all-time favorites. But Doris was passed over as Best Actress. In fact she wasn’t even nominated. But that’s another argument for another time. My point here is that anyone seeing that performance should not be surprised at Mike Nichols’ offer. Of course we’ll never know what she might’ve done with the role had she accepted it and speculations are a waste of time. But what I’m saying is the idea of her in the role isn’t as absurd as some might think.
As a kid Doris Day (real name Doris Kappelhoff) was my favorite actress. I thought her not only a terrific singer/dancer/ actress but a very handsome and sexy woman too. And this was in the era of such beauties like Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor and others. To me, in the looks department, she could hold her own with any of them. The sunny optimisms she brought to her roles was infectious but beyond that she was a true professional who could seemingly do it all, sing, dance and act. A triple treat who was not a threat. On screen she exuded confidence, strength and a kind of straight- forwardness that was in no way neurotic or doubtful. She was also womanly and feminine without being fussy and self involved. And if her personal life was troubled her professionalism was such that none of it appeared on screen.
Like anyone who has been in films a long time her career had its ups and downs. It began modestly enough when songwriter Sammy Cahn suggested her as the replacement for a pregnant Betty Hutton in Romance on the High Seas. It coasted along nicely with all of the films her home studio Warner Brothers assigned her to. Once free of that studio her career went into high gear with Pillow Talk. After that she remained the number one female box office star for so long that she still holds the record as the highest female grossing star of all time. But it was those years at Warner Brothers that provided her with the perfect apprenticeship that would sustain her later on. During that time she worked with such solid studio directors like David Butler, Roy Del Ruth, Andrew Stone and the great but absurdly unheralded Michael Curtiz with whom she made four pictures. All helped her to mold and sharpen her craft to the point that when she worked with Hitchcock she virtually required no direction. And when she querried him about it his famous remark was: “When you do something wrong Dear, I will.” This is remarkable for someone who started as a band singer and who maintained her singing career throughout the entire length of her tenure in films. She had more than 25 top selling hits and although she’s been long retired from show business her recordings still sell in great quantities today.
Since stepping away from the spotlight in 1987 she lives in Carmel, California where she owns a hotel and is known as an animal rights activist. Beyond that she has kept a cheery low profile which for some reason has led the tabloid press to making all kinds of unpleasant speculations about her. They just don’t seem to want to accept the fact that someone who spent 39 years making movies is not interested in glorying or wallowing in the past. Sensibly enough she has moved on with her life. What she had to give is all there on DVD’s and CD’s for us to look at , listen to and savor. We should be grateful for them. To want more from her is to be greedy beyond reason. And for anyone who wants to see Doris Day at her best just take a look at Love Me or Leave Me. Enough said.