Helen Mirren admired her acting. Bob Hope praised her natural comic timing. James Garner thought her the sexiest sort of co-star. She recorded more than 600 songs, made 39 movies, and, for four years in the early 1960s, reigned as the No. 1 box-office star in the world.
And yet Doris Day, who died Monday at 97, was always underrated—the girl next door whose peaches-and-cream good looks, 1,000-watt smile, and sinuous, molten singing voice were so often taken for granted. Her huge commercial power—and the bad management of her third husband, Martin Melcher—meant that she seldom had material worthy of her talents, in records or on film.
But when she did, watch out.
Her performance as the Jazz Age chanteuse Ruth Etting in 1955’s Love Me or Leave Me is as heartbreaking and affecting a piece of acting as was ever committed to celluloid. Her co-star James Cagney praised her as “the epitome of guilelessness” and compared her to Laurette Taylor, the great stage actress and original star of The Glass Menagerie.
In 1994, years after Day’s retirement and near-total withdrawal from the public scene, she released The Love Album, a collection of classic standards she had recorded and shelved 27 years earlier. “We should not underestimate the quality of her voice,” the film historian David Thomson once wrote. “Not only was she a fine singer, technically, but her singing voice had a natural dramatic force that carried her beyond her acting ability.” Her downbeat, slow-tempo take on “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” reflects the hard-won wisdom of a woman whose life was anything but.