Remembering Doris Day“Rethink this whole idea of the virginal Doris Day and the girl-next-door image.”

As heard on arena

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Marking the death of Hollywood icon Doris Day, Dr Ruth Barton, Associate Professor in Film Studies at Trinity College Dublin, joined Seán Rocks to assess her legacy.

America’s sweetheart, Doris Day was synonymous with a clean-cut, chaste image. Seán and Ruth began by discussing how much of this was reflective of the woman, and how much was an industry construct.

“It’s like the projection of a fantasy onto her… peaches and cream, purely, wholly American woman, always blonde, always good-hearted, to represent a fundamental set of values.”

The publication of the actress’ 1975 ‘tell-all’ autobiography Doris Day: Her Own Story, caused many to re-evaluate her. In the book she revealed details of her four marriages, one of which was abusive and one which left her on the brink of bankruptcy. She also shared the painful story of a crippling car accident that ended her dreams of becoming a professional dancer.

Her autobiography was really important because it led people to reassess her reputation and think of her differently.”

It was a long time though before feminist criticism caught-up and looked at how Doris Day’s roles were challenging representations of working women at the time.

“Molly Haskell, a pioneering American feminist writer… was the first person to really take Doris Day seriously and say hold on, what roles did she play… in Pillow Talk she’s playing an independent career woman, she’s the sensible, strong person in the film… she’s sassy and in control.”

In terms of her career, Day enjoyed great success initially as a singer, becoming the highest paid female singer in the world in 1946. Her acting career took off when she was discovered by prolific director Michael Curtiz (who counts Casablanca, White Christmas and Angels with Dirty Faces among his many credits). Initially working in musicals, Day soon transitioned to straight acting roles working alongside Rock Hudson, Cary Grant and later James Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much.

In assessing her acting chops, Ruth notes that her origins as a singer stood to her.

“She brought that ability to perform to her films. People admired her acting … when Michael Curtiz was directing her she said, ‘I’m going to go off and take acting lessons’ and he said, ‘no, don’t you’re a natural’… She has a fantastic presence on screen.”

You can hear Seán’s full discussion with Dr. Ruth Barton on Arena – and hear clips of Doris performing – here.


© The Listener 2019

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