Virgin Territory

Looking behind the stereotypes of the Doris Day-Rock Hudson pairing
by Saul Austerlitz  posted November 10, 2008
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There was a time, before the collapse of the studios and the rise of the sexual revolution, when virginity not only wasn't laughable, but could serve as a legitimate movie plot point. In this long-ago era, the battle of the sexes was one whose only acceptable resolution—at least according to the movies—was marriage. Men and women scuffled with their wits because more physical, intimate forms of combat were verboten onscreen. The incredible thing was they managed to make all this seem kind of—well, sexy.

Sexy is generally not a word associated with the collaboration of Doris Day and Rock Hudson, who have undeserved reputations as prim and wooden, respectively. Nonetheless, their movies from the late 1950s and early 1960s—with suggestive titles like Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back—are reminders of the charm and resourcefulness of the comedies of the late studio era. Day and Hudson were a midcentury-modern Hepburn and Tracy, enjoying the thrill of the chase, and the battle of wits, more than the comfort of being happily settled.

As David Kaufman’s new biography Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door (Virgin Books) makes abundantly clear, Day’s life offscreen was hardly as rosy—or as innocent—as the one she lived onscreen. At 27, with two brief, calamitous marriages already behind her, she wed her agent Marty Melcher. He was a dedicated steward of her career, but not much of a lover, or a husband. Day strayed too, her tastes running toward professional baseball players and other athletes. Base-stealing champion Maury Wills was one conquest; Mickey Mantle, reportedly, was another. For all his reported savvy, Melcher was also woefully naive in fiscal matters. After his death in the late 1960s, Day discovered that millions of dollars of income had vanished, stolen by unscrupulous business associates. A loveless marriage, untrustworthy advisers, a life devoid of the workaday comforts of home and family. Doris Day may have lived out women’s dreams onscreen, but off the screen, she pined after those same women’s drab, unglamorous lives. "All I ever wanted is what you have right now," she told an interviewer in a 1991 PBS documentary. "A baby, a husband who really loved me, a home, all the happiness they could bring. I never got that, and that’s all I really wanted."

The Rock-Doris comedies, produced by Ross Hunter, were sparkling big-city films set among upwardly mobile singles. They were at home in the nightclubs, restaurants, and gleaming International Style skyscrapers of the metropolis. Hudson and Day’s films were lighthearted jaunts through the minefields of the gender wars, pitting sex-hungry men against the women intent on protecting their honor for marriage. By the standards of the 1950s, the Rock-Doris films are downright raunchy. Sex is everywhere, and the prospect of sexual relations between consenting single adults is treated as perfectly acceptable, if a bit risqué. Hudson and Day are the perfect American couple of the era—he’s hunky, crude, but ultimately redeemable, she’s girl-next-door beautiful, charming, a little uptight but capable of reforming.

Doris, the supposed Iron Virgin of the Eisenhower years, eyes firmly focused on a future of husband and hearth, is actually something quite different here: a driven, single-minded career woman, more intent on protecting her professional reputation than her chastity. Hudson, as we all know, was living a double life, his secret homosexuality a study in contrasts with his unbroken string of hetero screen conquests. But in our determination to crown Doris Day the All-American Virgin Queen, have we missed seeing her, too, for what she was?

Pillow Talk (1959), directed by Michael Gordon, established the model for all future Rock-Doris comedies, as well as for Day's collaborations with Hudson stand-ins like Cary Grant (ironic that Hudson, in so many ways a student of Grant’s bluff, good-natured charm, should be seen as the real thing, and Grant the understudy, when it came to Day). Day is Jan, a prosperous interior decorator driven to near-homicidal rage by sharing a party telephone line with occasional songwriter and full-time playboy Brad Allen (Hudson). Brad is the kind of toxic bachelor who has a single switch in his living room that turns out the lights, puts on a romantic record, and locks the doors—and a second that automatically unfolds the bed in his sleeper couch. Learning that she is the intended beloved of his close friend and patron Jonathan (Tony Randall), and growing curious, Brad crafts a character intended to snare her away: "Rex Stetson," Texas businessman and perfect gentleman.

Rex is so restrained, in fact, that Jan must take the wheel of the relationship. "Rex, we’re both over 21," she gently chides him, after he grows tongue-tied while asking her to spend the weekend with him. Day is breathy, kittenish, and willing to be seduced—in fact, practically egging him on to do the seducing. For all her virginal reputation, it is usually her leading men, and not Day, who balk at the prospect of sex with a good girl like Day.

Hudson is here, as in the two films that follow, a split personality. He is both horndog and mama's boy. The mama’s boy, with his courtly manners and reserve, is in acute danger of being perceived as limp-wristed, and Pillow Talk roars with pleasure at the prospect of the virile-looking Hudson drinking with his pinky finger extended, expressing delight at Jan’s "working with all them colors and fabrics," and hoping to get a recipe to bring home to his ma. One can only imagine how Hudson—a gay man pretending to be straight playing a straight man pretending to be gay—felt about acting out such scenes of gay panic. The hollowness at the heart of Hudson’s masculinity is implied by another running joke in Pillow Talk, in which an obstetrician is convinced that he is going to give birth to a baby. Hudson is the prototypical romantic hero—with his strong jaw and hulking physique, he is almost comically manly—but Pillow Talk implies a certain cavity in his machismo, as if, of the two roles he plays, Brad Allen is the bigger put-on.

Lover Come Back
(1961) was both sequel and remake, with Day and Hudson returning as squabbling rivals and occasional lovers. Here, Day was Carol Templeton, a tightly wound advertising executive infuriated by the cheap-shot tactics of her competitor Jerry Webster (Hudson). The contrast between rock-ribbed Doris and playboy Rock is underscored from the very first scenes, in which she arrives at the office, bright-eyed and beehive-hatted, in a taxicab, and he wakes up in the passenger seat of the convertible being driven by his latest fling. "What kind of a good-night kiss is that?" she squawks, as the worker drones stream into their assigned hives. "We’re not married!"

Through a series of misunderstandings, Jerry fashions a series of ads for an imaginary product. Painted into a corner, he must create something—anything—called VIPS. He employs the services of Nobel Prize-winning chemist Dr. Linus Tyler, giving him carte blanche to design a product of his choosing. Carol stops by Dr. Tyler’s lab while Jerry is visiting, and assumes that Hudson is the scientist—an assumption he gladly avoids correcting. The second half of Lover Come Back has Hudson and Day switching roles, with Doris once more the sexually experienced pursuer and Rock the virginal, sheepish pursued. "In your apartment? All night? Alone with you?" he asks Carol, as if he had accidentally swiped a quintessential Doris Day line. Hudson’s unreconstructed, unapologetic masculinity becomes, if not quite the outright homosexuality of Pillow Talk, a similar brand of limp-wristed fearfulness.

Jerry’s Dr. Tyler, brilliant and coddled, unable to assert himself in the boudoir as he does in the laboratory, is like Hudson doing perennial sidekick and pantywaisted third wheel Tony Randall. Carol wants to give herself to Tyler, preferring the mass of neurotic doubts to crass, calculating Jerry Webster. In fact, Jerry and Carol never fall in love in Lover Come Back. Carol falls in love with the nonexistent Dr. Linus Tyler, and only ends up marrying Jerry after getting smashed on VIPS (which turn out to be wickedly alcoholic candies). Lover Come Back is a romantic comedy without a genuine romance to its name. Having created two diametrically opposite romantic leads, the film cannot figure out a way to ultimately bring them together, other than deception.

Day and Hudson’s third and final collaboration, the far inferior Send Me No Flowers (1964), begins after the "Happily Ever After." Hudson is George, a hypochondriac whose tender self-ministrations drive his wife Judy (Day) batty. Mishearing a doctor’s pronouncements after his latest checkup, Rock is convinced he has just weeks to live, and strives to set his house in order and find a partner for his wife after his untimely death, without letting her know of his illness.

As Mark Rappaport’s speculative documentary Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992) astutely notes, Send Me No Flowers comes dangerously close to giving away the game with Hudson, offering the specter of a husband unmoved by the prospect of his wife’s getting into bed with another man. In fact, it is George and Arnold (Randall) who are the true married couple here, squabbling and making up with some regularity. "George, do me?" Arnold asks, handing him his cummerbund before a black-tie event. Later in the film, Hudson and Randall share a bed, and Rock practically shrieks when Randall’s cold feet give him an icy chill. Judy is only an encumbrance and a problem to be solved.

Day’s persona, however, has been distorted to match the simplistic stereotypes about her. Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back worked in large part because we believed Doris Day as a flinty career woman and tempered romantic. In Send Me No Flowers, she’s a happily married ditz, perfectly content to let her husband worry about the affairs of the world as she twitters around the house in her bathrobe. "What is amortization of a mortgage?" George demands of Judy, attempting to give her a crash course in microeconomics. "I don’t care," Judy replies. "I really don’t care." It is only when Judy believes she has learned of George's duplicity that the old Doris persona comes into focus, tempting George with offers of sex before punishing him for his lies. Day’s manic glee at the prospect of winning her revenge on unfeeling, uncaring men has not dissipated in suburbia, and it is only at this belated moment in the film, when she shoves George’s wheelchair out the door and locks him out, that a glimpse of the unflinching Doris of yore peeks out from beneath the unflattering hairdo (like a ferret roosting on her head) and dowdy attire.

Doris and Rock would never make another movie together, but show business would bring them together one last time. In 1985, Hudson made one final public appearance, on his former co-star’s television show Doris Day’s Best Friends. Sweaty, emaciated, and increasingly disoriented, Hudson was unable to remember the details of their shared past; when asked by Doris which of their films together was his favorite, he named a film he had starred in with another actress. Hudson was in the final stages of AIDS, soon to be the first celebrity casualty of the disease. It was, as James Wolcott noted, a real-life remake of one of their pictures, but played for tragedy, not farce: "In truth, it wasn’t Pillow Talk they were reprising, but Send Me No Flowers, this time for real, with no last-minute reprieve." Life, ultimately, was not a Hollywood film, and marriage and domestic bliss not the aftermath of the final fadeout. Hudson’s untimely death would cast a sepulchral glow over these films, as if they had all along been skirting the abyss. This glow was like an X-ray, rendering full-blooded figures as skeletons-in-waiting. It is only with the passage of time that we can see these films, and the immensely charming characters that people them, in their full color once more.


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Courtesy Universal Pictures
Doris Day and Rock Hudson in Norman Jewison's Send Me No Flowers
Photo Gallery: Virgin Territory


Doris Day  |  Rock Hudson  |  Hollywood  |  studio system  |  sexuality  |  masculinity  |  gender equality  |  comedy  |  Tony Randall


Saul Austerlitz is at work on a book on the history of American film comedy.

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