The death of legendary song-and-dance movie star Doris Day compels an examination of the evolution of the socio-cultural trends that recalibrated the pivot points of American values.
She lived to be 97 years old and certainly outlived the generational changes that impacted society’s values related to entertainment, relationships and animal welfare.
For most people, however — even movie buffs familiar with her “edgier” films — Doris Day remains a relic of another era: A “buoyant blonde,” as film critics dubbed her, a gal pal to women and a cutesy heartbreaker to the packs of lecherous males who pursued her on screen during her lengthy, though ultimately abbreviated, film career that stretched from the postwar years to the late 1960s.
Day is lauded for being a lively dancer, a talented, if less highly acclaimed nightclub singer and an actress who starred in a string of sappy, saccharine B movies now consigned to late-night, second-tier cable programming.
But others credit her with being one of the principal stars who helped develop the template for the modern rom-com, that upbeat, feel-good staple of virtually every major studio, in which the guy finally gets the girl in a sweeping romantic embrace as the orchestra swells, the credits roll and the audience files out of the theater wiping away their tears.
Of course, the modern rom com flips the script, with the girl finally getting the guy that she spends the first 90 minutes of screen time pushing away for all the wrong reasons.
A lasting legacy
After decades as a film star and a recording artist with more than a dozen pop music albums, both of which created the image of a freckle-face, wholesome — yet desirable — girl next door, Doris Day finally ran headlong into the changing social mores in the late ’60s, when Hollywood began offering the movie-going public searing slices of real life angst and violence, not to mention graphic depictions of the emerging sexual liberation that was upending previous notions of courtship, marriage and parenting.
In 1967, Day was offered the role of Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate,” the film that earned director Mike Nichols an Academy Award and has long been hailed as a seminal milestone in Hollywood’s transition from the airy fantasies personified in Day’s filmography to the gritty slice-of-life cinema a new breed of filmmakers began exploring to capture the pain, agony and conflict endemic in human relationships.
Day turned down the role of Mrs. Robinson, eventually given to Anne Bancroft, and effectively closed down her career as an actress and entertainer.
But upon exiting Hollywood, she launched the Doris Day Foundation, which focuses on animal welfare, and to be fair, was one of the early advocates of such initiatives as rescuing dogs and cats as an alternative to purchasing them from pet stores that in some cases were mere fronts for less-than-professional breeding operations; promoting spay-and-neuter programs to reduce the numbers of unwanted and abandoned pets; and of course, lobbying (along with PETA) for various legislative and regulatory measures aimed at preventing abuse and mistreatment of pets, farm and work animals.
The impact of her foundation is perhaps a better barometer with which to measure her legacy. Very few movies hold up well over time, and actors once revered by the industry and the public — Bogart, Gable, Cagney, Monroe — now seem like caricatures of the characters they once portrayed.
But the animal welfare movement Day’s foundation help to spearhead has expanded its mission and engaged on issues once considered outside of the scope of reasonable discussion.
For example: Thirty or 40 years ago, the idea that government shouldn’t be allowed to exterminate invasive species would have been laughable. But now, when such measures are proposed to deal with the damage from out-of-control invasive species, activists weaned on the mantra of animal care promoted by Doris Day and other celebrities in the movement emerge to demand far less-practical alternatives.
A few years ago, the government of Australia announced plans to deal with the explosion of feral cats that is wreaking havoc on rodent and wild bird populations in that country. Of course, there are no natural predators that prey on feral cats, Down Under or anywhere else. Those animals quickly grow to twice the size (and ferocity) of the docile housecats with which we’re accustomed, and they breed prolifically, which only exacerbates the ecological problems they cause.
Activists demanded a halt to Australia’s extermination plans, proposing instead a trap-neuter-return program that, with all due respect to its well-meaning proponents, would have about the same effect on that population as those warning labels have had on deterring people from smoking cigarettes.
The point is that the idea of trapping, treating and releasing feral animals should be accorded legitimate status as a population control tool could never have gained traction without the decades-long efforts of organizations such as the Doris Day Foundation in convincing the public that animals — wild or domesticated — never need to be killed, no matter what the circumstances.
Her movies and screen persona have long been relegated to the sensibilities of a bygone era, but Doris Day’s contributions to modern beliefs about the status of the animals with whom we share the planet is more relevant than ever.
The only difference being that the controversies her eponymous foundation wades into rarely have an ending remotely resembling the signature sunny conclusions that were mandatory in the final reel of her many movies.
The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.