Well, when did the world change? It changes all the time, but if you could pick a moment that defined the modern era, here's my nomination: Doris Day turns down the role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate.
Doris Day was a famous actress who made her name playing squeaky-clean girl-next-door roles in sex farces. Sound contradictory? Well, I was astonished to find out that Doris Day movies were considered quite racy in their day. Doris usually played an independent career woman who had a nice job and got into fights with a nice man, played by Cary Grant or Rock Hudson, who would eventually kiss her while she struggled for a second or two until she realized that she really loved the "big lug". Then they got married.
Doris really looked squeaky clean. She must have bathed and scrubbed her face before every shot. I hated her. Her movies were phony because they wanted to titillate the viewer, while pretending that everything was as innocent as a Tupperware party. Hollywood thought that putting Doris Day through a car wash in a convertible with the roof open was titillating. But then, they also thought Elvis was convincing as a doctor and Mary Tyler Moore as a nun. More recently, Meg Ryan played a heart surgeon. Tom Hanks as an astronaut? Demi Moore as Hester Prynne??
I thought she was boring. She and Rock or Cary would squabble and fight and argue and then wind up kissing on the couch. You were supposed to figure out that they had sex, sooner or later, but they weren't going to actually show you anything. That would be immoral. Decent people assumed nothing happened afterwards, at least, not until they got married. Hip New Yorkers assumed that something did happen, because of the way she held her cigarette or something.
You know, you never hear the Republicans say something like, "Bill Clinton and John Kennedy are both disgusting because they cheated on their wives." John Kennedy had sex with Judith Exner, the girl-friend of a mobster, and Marilyn Monroe, among others. But the Republicans never try to publicly draw your attention to the parallels between the two men. Why not? Maybe because John Kennedy only had sex when you weren't looking. It wasn't reported in the papers or used as grounds for impeachment, though a lot of reporters knew about it. And John Kennedy is still very popular. Many Americans still feel cheated by his assassination. Old films and video clips show a young, vigorous, smart man. Like Bill Clinton.
Doris Day movies were always brightly lit up, in the Hollywood manner. No shadows or natural earth tones here: everything was hard and plastic. Never filmed on location: always in a studio, with those phony backdrops. They're driving down the coastal highway and he's hardly even looking at the road. He's arguing with Doris. I always wished he would suddenly panic and spin the wheel and -- pfffttt-- gone. End of the movie. The owner of the theatre would have to come out and explain to the audience: "Sorry folks-- I don't know what happened. We thought the movie would be two hours. What a tragedy. Well, go home, we'll have someone else for you next week."
Well, by the mid-sixties, squeaky-clean Doris was dying at the box office. Her films didn't seem very exciting or daring anymore. This was about the time, you may recall, that Faye Dunaway made her very conspicuous debut in Bonnie and Clyde. Compare Doris and Faye. You can see that one of them is completely out of sync with the times.
And then Mike Nichols asked her if she would like to play the part of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate. Mrs. Robinson is the wife of Benjamin Braddock's father's business partner. She smokes. She drinks too much. She gets Benjamin to drive her home one night and then flashes him. She later seduces him and they carry on a tawdry affair for several months. When Benjamin, sick with disgust for himself, falls in love with Mrs. Robinson's daughter Elaine, she tries everything she can to destroy the relationship, even to the point of confessing the affair to her husband, and to Benjamin's parents, and to Elaine. Bill Clinton did that too, eventually. But Benjamin pursues Elaine anyway and eventually wins her.
Mike Nichols liked Doris Day. He wanted to save her career. He was convinced that this part would make her a star once again. But Doris didn't like the part. She thought it was vulgar.
She had no idea of what an actress was supposed to be. She thought she was supposed to be a star, a personality, a celebrity, who did toothpaste commercials and appeared on Hollywood Squares and encouraged bored suburban housewives to immerse themselves in her little titillating-- but never vulgar-- dream world.
She was, by all accounts, a thoroughly nice, decent person, who let an idiot husband mismanage her career until he messed it all up and lost all her money. [Debbie Reynolds, and so many others, suffered the same fate.]
Mrs. Robinson was not her "type".
So Ann Bancroft, whose career was also in the doldrums, got the part instead. And, of course, it saved her career. She was suddenly in demand again. She made lots of money and people remember her as a decent, if not outstanding, actress.
And Doris went on to obscurity, except for the occasional radio play of "Que Sera, Sera" -- it had been recorded originally for the Hitchcock film "The Man Who Knew Too Much" in 1956. It means, "whatever will be, will be" which is about as dumb a lyric as you can imagine. Well, there's nothing you can sing that can't be sung.
On a personal note, I have occasionally confused this song with "Is That All There is?" written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and performed by Peggy Lee (1969), and a much better song. The German title is "Wenn das alles ist", which sounds even more world-weary to me.
And then she want back into obscurity. I don't know what happened to her. Is she dead? I'll bet she became a recluse, like Mary Pickford and Marlene Dietrich and Carroll Baker... [She is a recluse, wandering Carmel, CA, apparently looking after stray animals.]
A&E's biography was going to follow her special with one on Dinah Shore. If that's not a bad sign, I don't know what is.
Copyright © 1998 Bill Van Dyk All rights reserved.