What a Difference a (Doris) Day Makes

Doris as torch singer Ruth Etting in "Love Me or Leave Me."

On Sunday Philadelphia Qfest (formerly the Philadelphia Gay and Lesbian Film Festival) celebrates Doris Day with a screening of the documentary What a Difference a Day Made: Doris Day Superstar, followed by a showing of her best known film, Pillow Talk, a mistaken sexual-identity comedy famously co-starring Rock Hudson, a closeted gay actor, as a studly Romeo pretending to be a gay man in order to get the virginal Day into the sack.

While I love Day, she's a more interesting actress than she is in this popular comedy that made her a national joke. (Of this chirpy confection, funnyman Oscar Levant quipped, "I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin." ) Those who want to understand why Day, four times married and the mother of the late music producer Terry Melcher, is a gay icon should rent Calamity Jane, the 1953 musical about the mannish pistol-packin' gal in buckskins surprised to find herself attracted to... a man (Howard Keel as Wild Bill Hickock).  In this gender-confusion comedy, Calamity trades her britches in for a girly dress and tenderly sings the ballad, "Secret Love," which became a gay and lesbian anthem. A key component to the charm of the film and its lead is in how Calamity learns to honor her masculinity and femininity.

A hugely popular band singer of the 1940s, Day (born Doris van Kappelhoff in 1924) recorded the torchy World War II ballad "Sentimental Journey" before reluctantly transitioning into a screen career. Cashing in on her tomboy charm, Warner Brothers cast her in a number of sunny musicals in which she played a wholesome Ginger Rogers type, corn-tasseled hair and cornflower-blue eyes.  Day established her acting bona fides by wedding sunshine and stormy weather  in the films Young at Heart, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Love Me or Leave Me, three extraordinary performances where her singing deepens the drama. She was also terrific opposite John Raitt in the screen version of The Pajama Game, as the sexiest shop steward in union history. Day, an animal activist who lives in Carmel, is a national treasure who deserves to be celebrated for her breadth and depth, and not only her camp appeal. The late novelist John Updike spoke of her as his favorite actress and lifelong crush object. He interpolated her biography into his underknown novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies.

Are you a Day fan? Favorite performance? Recording?