That Old Feeling: Doris Day, Rock All Night

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Besides, in the Wilder films, women were represented by Marilyn Monroe and Shirley MacLaine: plausible, personable extremes of sexy and cute. Doris Day, though... what was she about? Oh, she had a Pepsodent smile and a warm voice; like Hudson she was an expert line-reader. But her starchiness struck me, still strikes me, as school-marmish. She listened to men with a cool stare that came close to castrating. And the way she was photographed (usually by Russell Metty or Arthur Arling) put her in a pastel fog. Day was only 35 when "Pillow Talk" came out — a year older than Zellweger is now — but she or her cinematographers must have thought she was getting creaky. Thereafter she'd be spouting her sampler sentiments from behind layers of gel. Textually and texturally, it was soft-pore cornography.

The minor revelation in the "Pillow Talk" films is Hudson. He was much better than I realized at the time. I didn't know, and neither did Hollywood, that he represented the end of an acting line the movies had taken for granted since the coming of talkies 30 years before: the soft-spoken, well-spoken hunk. Because the Brando Revolution consigned that kind of movie man to the junk heap, or to the small screen, Hudson's work seems all the more laudable. Using that rich baritone voice like Pan's seductive pipes, he always got the meaning of a line without overselling it. His close-mouthed smile (Perry Como, another 50s icon, had it too) could suggest warmth or irony or a closely guarded secret. He did it all, made acting look easy and attractive.

In this sense, the Oscars, which ignored Hudson's comedy work, were less accurate a gauge of quality than the Golden Globes, which voted him World Film Favorite: Male for 1959, '60, '61 and '63. I'd translate those awards by saying he was the ideal exponent of domestic machismo. Tall, strong and handsome, he didn't push his good looks; he wasn't the letch McGregor plays in "Down With Love." Could he help it if, in movies, women fell for him?

That may sound like a joke today, when Hudson is remembered as the most prominent of Hollywood's hidden homosexuals, and the first one "outed" by his disease. Seven years after his death, director Mark Rappaport assembled Hudson movie clips into a provocative video essay, "Rock Hudson's Home Movies," which tried making every Hudson role a subtextual cry from the closet. I'm not convinced, but I do see — there's no avoiding — the gay references in some of the romantic comedies Ahlert and Drake drew on for their "Down With Love" script (while not using any for the Catcher character).

In "Pillow Talk," Rock-as-Brad phones Day to plant suspicions about her new beau, Rock-as-Tex. "Well," he says, "there are some men who are just, uh, well, they' re very devoted to their mothers. You know, the type that likes to, uh, collect recipes or exchange bits of gossip." (Doris' reply: "You're sick!") The movie also has a running gag about an obstetrician who believes Rock is somehow pregnant. In "Come September," in which Rock spends the entire film waiting to have sex with his inamorata Gina Lollobrigida, he is seen wearing Gina's pink hat. In "Lover Come Back," circumstances force Rock to walk through a lobby in a woman's fur coat. Two onlookers, who throughout the film have been admiring Rock's way with the ladies, are flummoxed. Says one: "He's the last guy in the world I would've figured."

Usually, though, Randall got the gay gags. "Send Me No Flowers," the final Rock-Doris-and-Tony film, is otherwise off-topic — a hypochondriac (Hudson) convinces himself, his wife (Day) and his best friend (Randall) that he's about to die — but it's packed with nelly jokes about Randall's devotion to Hudson. Looking for help buckling a cummerbund, he pleads, "George, do me." He gets drunks and murmurs, "I love ya, George." And when the plot requires Rock to spend the night with Tony in the latter's bedroom (all the other bedrooms in Tony's large house are being "painted"!), Rock changes into a sports shirt that's way too small for his robust frame. As he walks past Tony, who' s sitting on the bed trying to open a champagne bottle, the cock - sorry, cork - pops out from between Tony's thighs. Then they go to bed together.

I never said these movies weren't weird.


These movies didn't spring from nowhere. They were preceded a few years earlier by Broadway sex comedies, among them George Axelrod's "The Seven Year Itch," Leslie Stevens' "The Marriage-Go-Round," Harry Kurnitz' "Once More With Feeling" and Norman Krasna's "Who Was That Lady I Saw You With?" All these works, which were quickly made into movies, skinny-dipped in male fantasies of adultery, usually to stop just this side of total immersion. They were about breaking that favorite commandment of the 50s — the one about coveting. It's a great movie subject, because it's what movies are all about: watching something desirable. They're vicarious sex, lust in the dark, second-hand sinning.

The closest modern version of that 50s furtiveness is Stanley Kubrick's 1999 "Eyes Wide Shut," whose plot turns on whether Tom Cruise will surrender to infidelity or resist it. Kubrick makes us watch Cruise watch women, be drawn to them, then allow scruple or circumstance puncture the flirtation. In the end, he settles for passive cheating — coveting — but the movie wants us to be as fascinated and troubled (and, why not?, aroused) by what Cruise sees as he is. Kubrick knew a few things: that sex, and the longing for it, can be brutal, but in subtler ways; that, no matter how active we are, we think about sex more than we engage in it; that sex is what happens not between our legs but between our ears. This dreamy erotic impulse was made for movies. In a way, it's what movies are.

The Rock-and-Doris movies didn't go nearly that far into the naughty-wish fulfillment aspect of film. They were about the obsession with sex (the fantasy life) and the denial of sex (in real life). Their topic, like that of most comedies, was sexual anxiety: the eruptive frustrations of courtship, the enervating frustrations of married life. And, whether the characters are married or single, the sex act must ever be deferred — to prolong the dramatic tension, to satisfy the guardians of morality.

Doris was known for her roles as the perpetual professional virgin, but it wasn't that she couldn't convince herself to have premarital sex. The fates — and the Production Code, the industry's system of self-regulation — conspired against it. In "Pillow Talk" she goes with Rock to a Connecticut hideaway; they're making out on a couch in front of a raging hearth; then he goes out to get some wood for the fireplace, Tony barges in to say Rock's a fraud and the night is over. In "The Thrill of It All," Doris has three bedroom rendezvous with rich-but-considerate playboy Cary Grant before he can so much as touch her (and by then they're married). In "The Thrill of It All," in which Doris is married to James Garner, a movie-long series of contrivances (his job as a doctor, her sudden job as a TV pitchwoman) deprives the otherwise happy lovers of sex until the final fade out.

They were metaphorical versions of the screenwriters' tussle with the Production Code, which was founded both to keep movies from being too adult, too offensive, and to fend off local and state censors. By the late 50s, Hollywood was faced with competition from sexier foreign films. The studio bosses knew that code, administered by people whose salaries they paid, needed some wiggle room. At this time the Production Code was a corset of morality that was loosening but hadn't yet snapped. That would come later in the 60s, when everything changed — when the severe rules of sexual propriety (which we struggled against) were suddenly and forever overthrown, to be replaced by new rules or no rules (which we sometimes struggle against).

The Hudson-Day movies can't help being weathered monuments, as foreign and far away as Stonehenge. The characters in them abide by codes as peculiar as the ones in Jane Austen novels. More so, because the Austen stories are fairy tales about the grace with which people fight or submit to society's strictures; the "Pillow Talk" films are cautionary fables about the desperate strategies of people trying to subvert those strictures, before they acknowledge defeat and fall in love. That's why the Rock-and-Doris movies are less appealing to us, and less suitable for remaking, revising or reliving.

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