Thursday, May 23, 2019

Doris Day, and actresses then and now

There have been few actor’s deaths that have affected me as much as that of Doris Day’s. Written off, especially since the advent of 1960s countercultural-influenced film criticism, as a superficial all-American girl, enmeshed in the post-WWII consumer and suburban materialistic culture, her death sparked some revisionist thinking. For example, the headline for A. O. Scott’s “An Appraisal” in The New York Times was “Doris Day: A Hip Sex Goddess Disguised as the Girl Next Door.” Sex goddess? Whoever would have thought. For me, Day embodied a sunny but smart disposition; only fools would think her superficial. But foolish they were just like the often male characters in her films. A woman, in other words, who was to be reckoned with was at first underestimated, like by James Gannon (Clark Gable) in Teacher’s Pet (George Seaton 1958), or by Brad Allen (Rock Hudson) in Pillow Talk (Michael Gordon 1959). In Lover Come Back (Delbert Mann 1961) Day again plays an upstanding character, an advertising executive (and therefore a woman well ahead of her time), appalled by a competitor (Rock Hudson)’s underhanded tactics. In fact, I can’t think of a role where Day played someone unethical or dastardly. She is the shining light from which all goodness and justness emanates. And, for decades, she carried off her characters’ principles with a smile and shrewdness that eluded so-called sophisticated film critics, who could only see a cheerleading Miss America.  Yes, Day was perky, and emitted acres of sunshine, but she always was hip to her opponents’ sneaky tricks. Day of course also played serious roles, as in Hitchcock’s 1956 The Man Who Knew Too Much. And she was versatile - far more versatile than the vast majority of today’s actresses. She sang, danced, recorded scores of albums. 

It was hard not to think of someone like Doris Day after watching the much-hyped new Netflix movie Wine Country, directed by Amy Poehler and starring her and Saturday Night Live alumnae like Tina Fey, Ana Gusteyer, Rachel Dratch, Maya Rudolph and Paula Pell. All I knew about Wine Country was the hype and the fact I like wine and I like California’s wine country. And a bunch of broads hitting the road through Napa and Sonoma looked like a blast. Was I wrong. Admittedly I only watched the first hour - it was enough; I could only manage one smile and one LOL. This wasn’t funny, I thought, and left the room. What we have here, folks, is a depiction of a certain kind of contemporary womanhood – women trying to be funny but who are desultory, lacking in style and often vulgar. And there are the tropes – cell phone addiction, prescription drug-taking, middle aged identity crises. And, in the plot line, efforts at dancing and singing that seemed feigned and forced. I thought how Doris Day and a group of her “gals” – Janis Paige, Eve Arden, Audrey Meadows, Polly Bergen - from an earlier time would have performed in similar roles. There obviously would have been an innocence absent from today’s world-weary characters yet that virtue would belie a knowingness that would put any adversaries in their places, all with a sense of style and with smiles, some – very funny – jokes, and delightful sight gags. Ah, but that was then and this is now.

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