Critic's Notebook: Doris Day Brought Big-Band Sass and Grace to the Big Screen

Celebrated and sometimes knocked for her sunniness, the singer turned actress often portrayed women whose independence defied the domesticity-enshrining mood of the '50s and early '60s.

When Doris Day won the Career Achievement Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association in 2011, a few highbrows groused, but many others appreciated overdue recognition for one of the most engaging movie stars of the last half-century. Day, who died today at the age of 97, demonstrated charm and skill in a number of movie genres, and she was ahead of her time as an often underappreciated feminist trailblazer.

Day, of course, started as a big-band singer, and some of us grew up listening to her hit songs (many of them originating in her films) and savoring her silken renditions of ballads as well as sassy up-tempo numbers. I remember a high school friend of mine, one of the school jocks, asking to borrow my copy of the album Show Time (yes, we still had albums then) because he was so captivated by Day's interpretation of Broadway and Hollywood classics.

Day debuted on the big screen in 1948, and she had her greatest period of film success in the 1950s and early 1960s. She made the annual list of top-grossing movie stars several times during that period, and in fact ranked number one four times — in 1960, '62, '63 and '64 — during a period when male actors were beginning to supplant actresses in Hollywood fare. She ultimately became the top female box office draw of the 20th century.

Some critics who came along after her heyday knocked the roles she played in some of these films, describing her as the typical housewife — or, even worse, as a "professional virgin" — but that is too simplistic a reading of these movies. One of her female defenders, critic Molly Haskell, has pointed out that in many of her hit films of the '50s and '60s, Day was playing a successful career woman, way ahead of her time in an era that enshrined domesticity. Reflecting her own background, she played a big-band singer in Young Man With a Horn, torch singer Ruth Etting in Love Me or Leave Me, and a successful singer who had reluctantly given up her career under pressure from her husband in Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much.

But her working-woman roles weren't limited to singers. She played a factory worker and union organizer in The Pajama Game, a journalism teacher in Teacher's Pet (co-written by a woman, Fay Kanin), a successful interior designer in Pillow Talk (the 1959 romantic comedy that earned Day her only Oscar nomination), and an advertising executive in Lover Come Back. And of course she played a Wild West sharpshooter in Calamity Jane, the picture that turned her into a full-fledged movie star. (Her rendition of the movie's Oscar-winning song, "Secret Love," didn't hurt.)

Day played in dramas as well as thrillers (the latter category including not just the Hitchcock movie, but also Julie and Midnight Lace, films that pitted her against menacing men), and some would argue that her best performance was her dramatic turn as an abused wife in 1955's Love Me or Leave Me, playing opposite an electrifying James Cagney. But there is no doubt that her forte was the romantic comedies she made with co-stars including Rock Hudson, Cary Grant and James Garner, where her ability to banter placed her among the best of screen comediennes. And if some of these movies perhaps overemphasized her characters' fierce protection of their virginity, it could also be argued that she was a progenitor of the #MeToo era, portraying women who insisted that romantic and sexual entanglements be on their own terms.

It is unfortunate that Day gave up musicals after Billy Rose's Jumbo, a charming 1962 circus movie that featured her matchless interpretation of such Rodgers and Hart classics as "My Romance" and "This Can't Be Love." Her exploitative manager husband, Martin Melcher, was disappointed by the movie's lackluster grosses, and he steered her into the romantic comedies that seemed more lucrative. But during the 1960s the scripts for those rom-coms became more and more threadbare, and they finished off Day's movie career by the end of the decade. Things might have turned out differently if Day had given serious consideration to the proposal by director Mike Nichols to cast her as the adulterous Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate. Melcher refused to show her the script, and Day later wrote in her autobiography that the role did not really fit into the image she had so carefully cultivated.

Day is not the only actor who prompts speculation on what might have been if only she had chosen one part over another. She ended up retiring from films when she was still in her 40s, and so most of the images we have of her are of those vibrant characters she played when she was riding high, acting gracefully, and singing brilliantly. It is not the worst legacy for one of the screen's enduring icons.