Vera Miles/Doris Day
I snuck up to Birmingham last weekend for a first visit to the Alabama Theater, a heaven-sent, beautifully refurbished movie palace with easy access, a friendly staff, popcorn in boxes and, on this particular lazy Sunday afternoon, a Hitchcock double-bill of Psycho (with Miles playing the ultra-responsible sister of the Master’s most famous snuff victim) and the fifties’ version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (with Day playing the wife of James Stewart’s Indianapolis-doctor-cast-adrift-in-Eric-
I had not seen either film on a big screen since the mid-eighties and, as I suspected, these two sneaky great performances–both far beyond the capacity of my ignorant youth–gain considerable power with their nuances writ large.
Anybody interested in knowing why rock and roll had to happen when and how it did, could do worse than spend a few hours watching these thirty-ish actresses use every second of the screen time they were granted inside genre pictures made by the world’s greatest story-boarder to render sharp, telling definitions of repressed middle-class American women yearning to breathe free.
Miles’ Lila Crane is the much smaller part, of course, and the actress had the burden of knowing Hitchcock wanted desperately to be done with her (for reasons too complicated to go into here).
But she specialized in compression so the inch he gave her is enough.
The movie that opened the seam into the underbelly of modernity turns on her response to John Gavin’s assertion that he “can’t believe” his suddenly missing girlfriend, Marion Crane (the Janet Leigh character butchered in the famous shower scene), would commit the one completely unforgivable American sin and steal a large wad of cash from a guy who could afford to lose it.
Miles has no more than a full second to respond before Hitchcock cuts away but it’s all she needs to send the movie spinning off into the deep, subliminal recesses where it has to go in order to transcend mere shock value. In that perfect second of evasive stillness she reveals what the script either can’t or won’t–that clearly there’s nothing she wouldn’t believe, and thereby nothing you shouldn’t believe, especially where Marion is concerned.
Constricted as that moment is, Doris Day’s Jo Conway McKenna would probably have killed for it. She’s the perfect fifties’ housewife–right down to giving up her glamorous career because her husband wants to stay in Indianapolis–so she doesn’t get to breathe for anything like a full second, either before or after her son is kidnapped.
Forget her life–the closest she comes to seizing control of anything at all is in one of the London scenes that unwind after her son has been snatched and she senses the first real chance to get him back.
She’s outside a church, becoming less and less polite with the British bobbies who are practicing the fine arts of officialdom everywhere–obfuscation and appeasement. Finally, they start to think it might ease things along if they looked a little closer at the surface of the situation. No further mind you. No sense digging underneath and courting anarchy just because the Indiana housewife is getting her period.
Stalking their stroll, hurrying them along, Day’s entire body language changes–shoulders forward, rear tucked, legs pistoning.
I was once at a baseball stadium with a young mother who had just been informed that her daughter (about the same age as Day’s son in the movie and, like him, an only child) hadn’t shown up where she was supposed to. Happily, the girl had not been kidnapped by international assassins and was found quickly enough, but the memory of that mother’s carriage when she lit out in search of someone who could tell her what the hell was going on has always made Day’s similar immersion in the task–and burden–of restoring the order men are forever undoing by violence and stupidity instantly recognizable even on the occasional TV viewing.
Here, with plush curtains and Jim Crow-era balcony shadows looming all around, it jumped.
It jumped so much I finally remembered to ask myself if Day had been a mother herself at that point.
Well, of course she had.
I had to look up the exact details when I got home the next day, but a fast memory-twitch allowed me to grok the essence right off.
One son, roughly fourteen at the time of filming–not much older than the boy in the story. Fathered by Day’s first husband (who apparently did everything but kick her in the stomach when she refused to have an abortion), he eventually took the last name of her third (who bilked her fortune down to a box full of I.O.U.s before dying young).
So, as Terry Melcher, he became one of the great American record producers of the sixties and, along with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, the unwitting but essential contact point between hip, heady, show-biz L.A. and Charles Manson, the man whose perversion of society’s fundamental building block–“family”–would soon after use Melcher’s last known place of residence as a stage to make America long for the halcyon days when everybody knew the smile on Mom’s face was permanent and sincere, and–precisely because this was so assuredly true–Norman Bates was still the worst you could imagine having to put up with in a boy next door.
I would go on about the cosmic significance of it all–what connections, if any, exist between motherhood, society’s yearning need for rock ‘n’ roll and Tex Watson finding the chance to stab a pregnant actress to death in part because Doris Kappelhoff’s first husband had the decency to settle for punching her in the face.
However, since doing it justice would take a book and a stronger stomach than I presently possess, I’ll just have to leave it in the “food for thought” category for now.
If nothing else, this may help me preserve the happy illusion that it means nothing at all!