In life, as on screen, Doris Day never quite says yes, and never absolutely says no. She leaves her fans hoping she’ll come out from her seaside California home to say “hi,” just like in her girl-next-door movies — and make everything perfect.
Isn’t she perfect, after all? She always looked that way, even when her son was said to be the target of the Manson Family murders and her third husband died, leaving her in debt. That outer perfection, what created it and what’s behind it, is explored in “What a Difference a Day Made: Doris Day Superstar,” a documentary film about the now 87-year-old star. The movie has its North American premiere Sunday as part of “A Day With Doris!” at Philadelphia QFest, the city’s 15th annual gay and lesbian film festival.
The film shambles along charmingly, getting sidetracked in Day’s genealogy, and never delivers a fresh glimpse of its star. Though she’s known to sing along with herself on the sound system of the local supermarket, this film has Day heard but not seen.
We do hear her voice a lot, both on her annual birthday call-in radio show and over the intercom system in front of her gated home, when an uber-fan named Kitten Kay Sera — dressed in 1960s Doris Day pastels with a dyed-pink dog — stands outside, pleading for a handshake. The fan says she sent a note a week ago, “just so she’ll know I’m not a crazy person.” Reached on the intercom, Day nixes an in-person meeting. “I just can’t,” she says, as if the decision isn’t hers, adding with sisterly warmth, “at least we get to say hello.”
Few things fuel a star’s mystique like a door that’s closed, but only somewhat. Earlier this year on DorisDay.com, that’s all you saw — the entrance of her pet-friendly hotel, the Cypress Inn. In the wake of an unflattering tabloid cover recapping all of her personal troubles and her reclusive devotion to animals, Day issued a point-by-point rebuttal in Parade magazine.
“It will be embarrassing to go to the supermarket,” she added.
Cultlike interest in Doris Day has been building for years. Her drag-king outfit and tomboy strut in “Calamity Jane” (1953) endears her to lesbians. Then there’s the song “Secret Love.” To gay men, her mid-‘60s flip ‘do, drop-dead wardrobe, and friendship with the closeted Rock Hudson make a delightful package. The Doris-devoted include workaday middle-aged women (who knows why).
Roughly six books on Day have emerged in the last two years. Thanks to Day’s German roots (she was born Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff, among Cincinnati’s German emigres), the most ambitious tributes come from Germany, including “Doris Day Superstar,” as well as several lavishly produced musical boxed sets in the 1990s.
Her iconhood is there, but up for grabs. She has a tabula rasa quality — blond, cheerful, hard to parody because nothing about her is exaggerated — that allows fans to project their own fantasies onto her. While never emotionally aloof, she seems to diligently assess, elevate, and lend logic to even the most substandard material. And there’s a lot of that, so much so that her nearly 40 movies and numerous albums are devoid of agreed-upon classics.
Some say her singing peaked in the 1940s with Les Brown’s big band. Others say her masterpiece is the 1961 “Duet” album with the jazzy Andre Previn Trio. My vote goes to the early 1950s “Day by Day,” a muted, sophisticated descendant of her big-band work.
Consensus is just as elusive about her films. Her only Oscar nomination was for “Pillow Talk” (1960), a romantic comedy that now seems steeped in dated sexual attitudes. Day’s own favorite is the wicked satire of the TV industry in “The Thrill of It All” (1963). Fans of serious Doris champion “Love Me or Leave Me” (1955) and “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956).
Recently, a Doris Day club in New York that viewed her films chronologically voted for “Teacher’s Pet” (1958) with Clark Gable playing a grizzled newspaper editor. Yet a tattooed-and-pierced clerk at TLA Video adores “The Glass Bottom Boat” (1966), which many fans find embarrassing.
Day knows the difference. Coming out of her post-“Calamity Jane” nervous breakdown (she had terrible panic attacks), she rebelled against making the silly “Lucky Me” but was told that the people in charge knew what they were doing. She was right about “Lucky Me” (1954), but not about “Que Sera Sera,” which she disliked initially but recorded anyway. Burbling “what will be will be” made this tabula rasa something of a pop-culture Zen master.
In fact, Day was saddled with far less silliness than her contemporaries. Consider the novelty songs Rosemary Clooney had to live down. Unlike Connie Stevens, Day never had to play a ditzy character named Cricket. Day also had a crack at all the film genres of her era — the nostalgia musicals, the woman-in-distress suspense films, romantic comedies, and even a James Bond-style film in “Caprice” — and always knew exactly what she was doing.
It’s her Midwestern work ethic. Whatever a project demanded, she could do. The fundamental difference between Doris Day and Marilyn Monroe, it’s often been observed, is that Day could drive a plot. Side-by-side comparisons between Monroe’s unfinished last film, “Something’s Got to Give” (1962), and the version of the same story that Day made as “Move Over, Darling” (1963) explain a lot.
The story concerns a young mother reuniting with her children after five years on a desert island. Monroe is poised and fun but shows undercurrents that break your heart. Day plays the same scene shedding a tear or two and then gets on with her business. Monroe bares her soul. Day gets the job done, and with a trump card few blond beauties of the 1960s had: a talent for physical comedy. But if Day revealed herself on screen, you never knew it.
Longtime Hollywood associates have said they never knew the state of her inner life. In “Doris Day Superstar, her Cincinnati friends — ones with her during a serious car accident that ended her dancing career — say she was always “on,” even in the hospital. Though not impersonal, she never burdens her audience with personal turmoil — another Midwestern quality and one reason her recordings wear well in troubled times.
She gives a song all it needs but, unlike torch singers, demands nothing in return. She’s Ella Fitzgerald without scat singing. Previn relates that Day was a bundle of foibles while recording “Duet” (men in black shirts weren’t allowed near her), but you hear no hints of that. That’s why her TV variety specials feel labored: Playing a version of herself doesn’t quite ring true.
Her nature is to be inviting — but not too much. “My message,” she wrote in Parade, “is just be kind to your animals, and let them know you love them. Please watch out for your loved ones, and don’t worry about me.”
Maybe the simplest theory is the best: The girl next door has become the understandably guarded octogenarian next door — with a state-of-the-art burglar alarm.