In Jeanine Basinger’s book on the old Hollywood studios’ star-making system, The Star Machine there is a great little section on how Doris Day became a huge name, while the similarly talented and wholesome Rosemary Clooney did not. Basinger put it down to bad studio handling. The studio system broke down in the 60s. But I think there’s an even stronger comparison with Jennifer Aniston, currently struggling in the ambivalently reviewed Horrible Bosses.
Like Aniston, Doris Day’s nice girl image has been held against her over the years. Both have been huge television stars, though The Doris Day Show on TV came after her movie career, and she was a top box office movie star from the start. Both have a tomboyishness about their beauty and the way they carry themselves. Day lowered her voice an octave for her favourite ever film role, Calamity Jane,(1953) and watch her strut around her log cabin with her lower lip stuck out. It’s uncannily Aniston-like.
Both Day and Aniston are capable of playing much darker roles. Day’s Oscar nomination was for the very witty Pillow Talk (1959) with Rock Hudson, but her Ruth Etting biopic, Love Me Or Leave Me (1955) showed a gritty jazz singer who rises from being a cheap dance hall girl. Her violent relationship with her gangster husband, played with real menace by James Cagney is a jagged line through the film. It was one of her favourite roles.
Aniston’s not made anything as obviously dark, but she’s capable of so much more and it’s evident on the big screen, though often in supporting roles. Check out the underrated Office Space (1999)– Mike Judge’s charming film about horrible bosses and the soul destroying banality of modern corporate culture. She shines and convinces in her role as a waitress and shows an understated comic timing. Even in a creation as excerable as Marley and Me (about a big dumb kindhearted dog) you are stunned by the depth of her anger and resentment as the fellow journo struggling with new motherhood as her husband’s career takes off. (Incidentally her co-star Owen Wilson is another talented actor who seems to have lost his way.)
Doris Day ‘s sex comedies went wrong when they started to fetishise her “virginity”. That Touch of Mink (1962), with Cary Grant, mainly takes place in and around the hotel room where the deflowering is supposed to happen. It’s excruciating to watch. In the same way Jennifer Aniston’s early solo vehicle Picture Perfect (1997) casts her front and centre as a desperate singleton. Surrounding her with a lacklustre leading man (the now long forgotten Jay Mohr) and a strangely unfeisty Ileana Douglas as her best friend, the film seems to push a bizarre pro-marriage agenda. There is a particularly grating scene where she comes up with a “brilliant” ad campaign for mustard (Aniston is a cute genius copywriter with pigtails and short skirts) while all the men in suits watch.
Perhaps the most intriguing contrast is how Aniston was often cast as a girl, when Day was playing a woman. When Day played an advertising careerist, she was a senior account executive in Mad Men-era Madison Avenue, fighting Don Drapers like Rock Hudson in Lover Come Back (1961), not desperately seeking a fiance like Aniston in Picture Perfect.
Day’s singing and acting skills emerged after an accident as a teenager put an end to Doris Kappelhoff’s promising dancing career. She earned her pre-Hollywood fame as a singer, touring with a band, and did those 10,000 hours of hard graft, which the Malcolm Gladwell Outliers thesis, suggests was the key to great successes. Aniston’s work on the long running Friends TV series may not seem as tough, but I would contend is a fair comparison. She’s a talented, hardworking actor. She just seems to keep getting/taking the wrong part or vehicle.
Doris Day’s public image as the happy girl next door hid a dark private life. While she was no Ruth Etting, her 3 marriages ended unhappily, with her being swindled out of her fortune and still fighting court battles over her earnings into the 80s. At the time I was researching her career for a BBC profile in the mid 90s she was a total recluse; her energy focussed on her animal rescue work. Obviously Marley and Me has a point about the redemptive power of caring for pets. Even now, her website, while promoting new released recordings for the first time in 20 yrs, shows only the Doris Day of long ago.
I write as a film lover and fan of both actors. Aniston like Day, has, I think, the sympathy of a lot of fans, who remember that simple free photo that she and Brad Pitt released of their wedding. How has an actress, so closely linked to her most famous and much loved character (Rachel from Friends) , found her public persona become so like a character out of her one of her bad films? In the past few days I have found myself watching or listening to her go through the most appalling “interviews” to promote Horrible Bosses in the UK. In the shortest possible leather dress, perfect ironed hair and tanned limbs, still wholesome looking and polite, Aniston went along with some ridiculous pointless banter with minor showbiz reporters who’d brought her a burrito; or asked her to pretend to ask for their phone number. (She declined, politely but firmly.) Jennifer Aston, not being interviewed as a actor, but only the lust object.
Doris Day famously turned down the Mrs Robinson role in The Graduate, saying in her autobiography, “I could not see myself rolling around in the sheets with a young man half my age whom I’d seduced. I realized it was an effective part (Anne Bancroft won an Academy Award for it) but it offended my sense of values.” With hindsight her decision was a smart one, careerwise, even if, for us film goers, it would have been fabulous casting. Because Day, unlike Aniston, grasped that playing desperate women, at such an advanced stage in her career, could/would make her seem desperate.
In Love Me or Leave Me, Doris Day’s Etting now a big success, remembers her grim start performing for gropers for 10 cents a dance. The trajectory of a traditional Hollywood star was to escape a sordid start. Jennifer Aniston needs a dramatic role as strong, to help her essape from the dancehall of cheap comedies.
Further reading: The films of Doris Day that never were
This article first appeared on for The Spectator magazine culture blog.