LOS ANGELES — Along with Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, Doris Day was one of the iconic actresses of the 1950s and ’60s.
But nearly 40 years ago, she left Hollywood behind and moved to Carmel, Calif., after her CBS sitcom “The Doris Day Show” left the airwaves after five seasons. She brought out a few albums, did a series with animals from Carmel (“Doris Day’s Best Friends,” from 1985-’86), and appeared in a PBS special on her life in 1991.
Nearing her 90th birthday, she is back in the limelight. Day recently released her first recording in 17 years, “My Heart,” and she’s been doing phone interviews to support the album, which features songs mostly recorded for the animal series, because all the proceeds go to her foundation. The 1956 Oscar-winning tune, “Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera),” which she introduced in the 1956 Alfred Hitchcock classic “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” is being inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in February.
But even more important, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association has awarded her its Lifetime Achievement Award. Day will not be coming to Los Angeles for the Jan. 13 ceremony. But in a recent interview, she said she was thrilled with the award, especially since her last feature film was the 1968 family comedy “With Six You Get Egg Roll.”
“It’s strange to me (to get the award) at this point in my life,” she said. “I can’t get over it.”
She said she has always felt comfortable in front of the camera, from her debut, 1948’s “Romance on the High Seas,” which was directed by Oscar-winner Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”), through “Egg Roll.”
“I wanted to be in films,” she said. “I wasn’t nervous. I just felt, ‘I am here. I am supposed to be doing this.’ ”
Film historian and writer Cari Beauchamp, who specializes in the history of women in film, and Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan note that Day is often underestimated as an actress.
“People don’t take her seriously,” said Turan. “It was a lifetime battle for Marilyn Monroe to be taken seriously; that was a battle she won. Audrey Hepburn was always taken seriously. People are reluctant to take Doris Day seriously. It’s too bad.”
Though she was one of the most popular stars and recording artists of her day, a series of films in the late ’50s and early ’60s in which she played a thirtysomething virgin, often opposite Rock Hudson, tagged her with an image that still lingers.
“My favorite Doris Day line is from Oscar Levant: ‘I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin,’ ” Beauchamp said.
“It is a joke, but it sort of isn’t,” she said. “I talk to people about her and they tend to say she played the girl next door. And you look at her movies, particularly at the time of those films, and she wasn’t the girl next door. She always had a backbone. You look at films like ‘Pillow Talk’ and ‘Lover Come Back’ with Rock Hudson and she’s an interior decorator and an ad executive. She had careers. In ‘Teacher’s Pet,’ she’s a journalism professor.”
Turan loves her 1953 musical Western “Calamity Jane” because “her energy is kind of irrepressible. The one that surprised me the most, which was a very unusual film that doesn’t get seen a lot, was ‘Love Me or Leave Me.’ ” The 1955 musical drama with James Cagney revolved around famed torch singer Ruth Etting and her turbulent marriage to a gangster.
“It’s a provocative film,” said Turan. “It almost defines a kind of thing that you would say: Doris Day would never do something like that. But when we say that, we are thinking of the cliché Doris Day, not thinking of the actual actress who made interesting choices and made interesting films.”
Day also counts “Love Me or Leave Me” as a career highlight.
“I really loved working with Jim (Cagney),” she said. “The wonderful thing is that when you have someone like Jim to play opposite, it’s very exciting. You just feel so much from a man like that.”
She said she didn’t research Etting’s life, but went by the script “and just how I felt and what I listened to. You react. It was so well-written. … It just comes out of you. I don’t know how to explain it.”
Though Cagney earned an actor Oscar nomination, Day was overlooked.
Day followed “Love Me or Leave Me” with a role in “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” She said Hitchcock didn’t give her much direction, but when he did “he was always right.”
In discussing her film career, Day also cited with enthusiasm the little-known “Storm Warning,” from 1951, which marked her first nonsinging role. She starred opposite Ronald Reagan and Ginger Rogers in a drama about the Ku Klux Klan. “I die in the end,” she said.
She earned her only Oscar nomination for “Pillow Talk,” in which she played a New York interior decorator who shares her phone line with a womanizer (Hudson). The pairing was so successful, the two teamed up for “Lover Come Back” and 1964’s “Send Me No Flowers,” which marked the first time they played husband and wife in a movie.
Though Hudson had been an established star for nearly a decade and was an actor Oscar nominee for 1956’s “Giant,” Day confessed she had never heard of him when they were cast in “Pillow Talk.”
“Isn’t that amazing?” she said, laughing. “I thought he was just starting out. I didn’t know about all the films he had made. I just loved working with him. We laughed and laughed.”