Were Doris Day and Marilyn Monroe really so different?
Day, who died Monday at age 97, presented a wholesome, virginal image that contrasted with Monroe's smoldering sexuality, according to The New York Times' front-page obituary.
Times film critic A.O. Scott gave a shrewder assessment of Day's movie persona in the essay, "Hip Sex Goddess Disguised as the Girl Next Door." An accompanying photo shows Day in "Pillow Talk," sitting on the side of a bed wearing a slip and showing off her million-dollar legs. As Scott pointed out, Day in another movie with Rock Hudson sang a swinging number with an all-black group.
Monroe played the girl next door disguised as the hip sex goddess. Day and Monroe could have been sisters, Monroe wilder, Day the studious one who might binge on drinks during a crazy date.
Like Day, Monroe rose from meager beginnings. Both showed their greatest acting in conforming to manufactured personal lives. Both of their images were defined by made-up alliterative names.
The photo with the Times obituary shows Day with Hudson, whose gay sexuality the studios hid. Day wears elbow-length white gloves and a seductive white dress, as sultry and unapproachable as Monroe.
We could never imagine the Kennedy brothers having affairs with Day, but we could imagine Day dazzling JFK with a rendition of "Happy Birthday."
Monroe died young, a victim of drugs, her last movie made with Clark Gable, who also played the older man in a film with Day. Day lived for years in retirement, like Donna Reed rendered sexless and matronly by TV.
But before Hollywood created Day's virginal image, she was a dazzling sex star, bringing the movies a new type of independent woman, not as ethereal and purely sensual as the 1930s' Jean Harlow. Day was the model for the blond Hollywood stars who followed, who displayed different aspects of her persona.
The 1950s and 1960s blondes appear on a spectrum of glamour, sexual promise, all-American fun and unattainability. Grace Kelly. Kim Novak. Jayne Mansfield, Doris Day.
The kaleidoscope shifts to Faye Dunaway and Jane Fonda. But they were not that far removed from Day. Fonda's Barbarella and Dunaway's Bonnie Barrow kept a touch of innocence.
The movie "Young at Heart" with Frank Sinatra, Gig Young, Ethel Barrymore and Dorothy Malone revealed Day's greatness as an actress. I never cared much for her work with Hudson, but Day gave an Oscar-worthy performance as the life-affirming young woman perplexed and attracted by the cynical loser played by Sinatra.
Day was also one of the last links to the great World War II generation of singers who could unite the nation with a song like "Sentimental Journey," recorded with Les Brown and His Band of Renown. As a 1940s pop star, Day was the female incarnation of Sinatra.
Her postwar recordings of classics such as "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" and "It's Been a Long, Long Time" display flawless diction and phrasing. While the productions are over-orchestrated with lush strings and background singers, she raises them to the highest artistic level. Her vocal inflections explore the lyrics' full emotional register.
Day's "Que Sera Sera" was one of the last 1940s-'50s style of pop songs that became a hit in the heady days of rock and teen angst. Again, she overcomes the sickly sweet arrangement, her expressive singing bringing out the timeless truth in the simple lyrics.
The countercultural era that pushed Day into retirement produced Peggy Lipton, who died just before Day. Lipton presented a different kind of TV blonde on "Mod Squad," young and hip, and eager to hook up, or so we imagined.
But she too, like all of the Hollywood blondes, had to retain an element of the girl next door.