Every now and then the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences goes a little haywire and makes an exception to its rule of only according Best Picture Oscars to films about epic battles, monumental disasters, heroic characters, historical figures, or mentally challenged persons. I mean, occasionally a gentle, unpretentious little film slips by with the Award, like 1989’s “Driving Miss Daisy.” The movie is light, sweet, partly amusing, partly serious, partly melodramatic, and very, very sentimental. It probably wasn’t the “best” picture Hollywood produced in ’89, but it’s pleasant, nonetheless.
Written by Alfred Uhry, based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play, and directed by Bruce Beresford (“Tender Mercies,” “Breaker Morant,” “Paradise Road”), “Driving Miss Daisy” has a simple, straightforward plot line, free of cynicism or too much social criticism, which drove some reviewers to distraction because it wasn’t weighty enough. What’s more, its two stars were largely unknown in pictures. Jessica Tandy (as Daisy Werthan) had played supporting roles in films for well over fifty years but was mainly a Broadway star whom most moviegoers probably didn’t recognize too well; and Morgan Freeman (as Hoke Colburn) had been in movies for almost twenty years but only in minor or supporting roles, not yet realizing the stardom this film helped him achieve. Additionally, Dan Aykroyd (as Daisy’s son, Boolie), while certainly acknowledged as a fine comic actor, had seldom played straight, dramatic parts. So, the film’s immense popularity and its winning several Academy Awards came as a surprise, nay, a shock, to a lot of Hollywood observers.
It’s tempting to call the film “heartwarming” if that term didn’t convey a sense of the old-fashioned about it that might scare away viewers stuck on filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Judd Apatow, James Cameron, and Christopher Nolan. Instead, let me say the film is satisfying and rewarding in a purely personal, sometimes humorous way. Anyhow, with stars like Freeman, Tandy, and Aykroyd in it, it couldn’t go too far wrong.
The movie’s story line is incidental to the characterizations, a reminder of the movie’s stage-play origins. It spans about twenty-five years in the lives of several Southern folk living in Atlanta, Georgia, beginning in 1948. Miss Daisy Werthan (Tandy), a well-to-do, elderly Jewish widow living alone with only a combination maid/cook (Esther Rolle) for help, finds herself unable to drive her car safely anymore. Her son, Boolie (Aykroyd), hires an older African-American man, Hoke Colburn (Freeman), as her chauffeur. Although initially resistant to the idea of having someone drive her around, Miss Daisy eventually accepts Hoke’s assistance, and after some years she strikes up a relationship with him that transcends mere employer-employee; by the time they have both reached a considerable old age, they have become best friends.
Despite the movie’s title and Freeman’s screen credit coming first, the movie is really about Miss Daisy. It is she around whom all the story’s activities revolve and she who changes the most in the course of events. Her son describes Miss Daisy as “high strung,” but that’s too kind; in fact, she is a grouchy, crotchety old lady. After Boolie hires Hoke, it takes Hoke six full days to get Miss Daisy to allow him to drive her to the store; “…the same time it took the Lord to make the world,” he remarks. Miss Daisy has a good deal of money and lives in a fancy house, but she wants no one to know how rich she is; her pride won’t let her, and she revels in telling everyone about her poor upbringing. Miss Tandy won an Oscar for her dead-on performance.
The Academy nominated Morgan Freeman for an Oscar, but he didn’t win. Perhaps it’s just my bias because I think Freeman is one of the better actors working today, but as much as I liked Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot,” I’d have to say Freeman was right up there. It’s one of the best roles he’s undertaken, and one that appears custom-made for his soft-spoken talents. Hoke is good-natured and infinitely tolerant and long-suffering. In a wonderful bit of innocent reverse discrimination, when he first learns that Miss Daisy is Jewish, he assures her son that he has no objection to working for Jews. Just listening to Hoke talk makes you wish he were a member of your own family.
Aykroyd as the son, Boolie, is another story. It takes a while to get used to the actor in a serious role and to watch him age over the years. But keeping an open mind, one can see Aykroyd fitting the part well, and his aging is convincing. Boolie is a prosperous Atlanta businessman who tends to his mother carefully. He tries to remain unaffected by the racial tensions around him, but we see it surface toward the end of the picture when he tells his mother it wouldn’t be good for business if he accompanied her to a political speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boolie’s wife, Florine (Patti LuPone), is less tolerant of life, though, and is often a sore trouble to her husband.
In an accompanying featurette, writer Alfred Uhry addresses one of the major criticisms leveled at the film over the years. People have suggested that the movie presents a false impression of the South in the mid-twentieth century because relationships between blacks and whites were not always as relaxed and cordial as the ones presented in the story. Mr. Uhry counters by saying he based his characters on real-life people he knew–his own grandmother and her driver–and that he had always observed them behaving toward one another just as the characters do in his screenplay. I’m not sure, however, this doesn’t say more about Mr. Uhry’s perspective on things as a white man than it does anything else. The fact is, African Americans in the South generally worked in menial or servile positions throughout more than half of the twentieth century, and many of them in their ignorance of anything better probably were content. That doesn’t make it right or good. Hoke himself in the movie is unable to read or write, a condition he is happily living with until Miss Daisy points it out to him.
There are, however, only a few passing references to the racial tensions of the times: Hoke remarks that he is unable to use the “whites only” rest room at a gas station; a couple of Alabama policemen question Hoke about his driving so fancy a car and then comment to each other about how pitiful it is to see an old black man driving an old white woman, thereby hitting both racism and ageism at the same time; and Miss Daisy’s attends a speech given by Dr. King. More subtly, Miss Daisy claims to be non-prejudiced but periodically uses terms like “they” and “them” in reference to blacks. Finally, when hate mongers bomb the local Jewish temple, Miss Daisy asks, “Who would do such a thing?” To which Hoke replies, “They always be the same ones.” It isn’t much, but any more emphasis on race relations probably would have unnecessarily shifted the story’s focus from the central characters to some grander themes that the author did not intend.
The movie works best as a lightweight trifle, its inspiration deriving from Hoke’s patience and understanding and Miss Daisy’s gradual acceptance of Hoke as a personal friend and companion. As the years go by, we see that life is, after all, a passing and a changing. About the best we can do is cope with it and try to make things a little easier for one another. Miss Daisy and Hoke do just that.
The video engineers use a single-layer BD25 and an MPEG-4/AVC codec to transfer the movie to Blu-ray in something like its original screen ratio, in this case 1.78:1. The disc’s picture quality is, like the film, modest. The image is soft, hazy, and fuzzy around the edges, with a very fine grain noticeable in many of the indoor and nighttime scenes. Darker and shadowy areas of the screen are sometimes a tad murky, revealing less definition than one might like. Colors are fairly realistic but mainly on the pastel side, with facial hues sometimes too red or orange. Much of the picture mirrors a look of natural lighting.
For sound we get lossless 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, but for all the stereo there is, it might as well be mono. Not that this is a bad thing. Ninety-nine per cent of the film’s sound is dialogue, and the soundtrack does a fine job conveying it clearly and distinctly. Just don’t expect many (or any) rear-channel effects or a very wide front-channel stereo spread, for that matter. Occasionally, an automobile will make its presence known by zooming across the screen; that’s about it. The audio track forces us to concentrate on the characters and what they’re saying; that’s its primary job and it does it well enough.
In honor of the film’s accomplishments, the folks at Warners have provided the Blu-ray edition with an all-new featurette, “Things Are Changing: The Worlds of Hoke & Miss Daisy, twenty-nine minutes. Writer Alfred Uhry, star Morgan Freeman, and others discuss the changing social climate of the Fifties and Sixties. The remaining extras WB ported over from the movie’s DVD edition, including the obligatory audio commentary, this one with director Bruce Beresford, writer Alfred Uhry, and producer Lili Fini Zanuck. Next, there are two more featurettes that provide detail on the movie, the filming, and its star: “Miss Daisy’s Journey: From Stage to Screen,” about eighteen minutes long, and “Jessica Tandy: Theatre Legend to Screen Star,” about six minutes.
The extras conclude with a brief, original, 1989 promotional featurette; twenty-three scene selections; and a widescreen theatrical trailer. English as the only spoken language involved, with French and Spanish subtitles, and English captions for the hearing impaired.
WB package the disc in one of their fancy Blu-ray Books, a thirty-six page, hardbound book of information, notes, production history, and rarely seen photos, the disc attached to the inside back cover in Digipak fashion.
Besides winning the Oscar for Best Picture, “Driving Miss Daisy” won Academy Awards for Best Actress (Jessica Tandy), Best Makeup (Manlio Rocchetti, Lynn Barber, and Kevin Haney), and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Alfred Uhry). The Academy nominated it in five other categories as well, including Best Actor (Morgan Freeman) and Best Supporting Actor (Dan Aykroyd), and it won a slew of other awards from the National Board of Review, Golden Globes, BAFTA, and other distinguished organizations all over the world.
Although the film won international critical acclaim and the public widely admired it, it is at heart a simple character study. Expect, as I’ve said, no big protest agendas about the struggle of black-white race relations, no trenchant themes about the problems of growing old, no penetrating insights into the plight of the human condition. Do, however, expect a warm, cozy, genial human drama that probably says in its own way as much about getting along with other people as many more overtly “message” films. “Driving Miss Daisy” is a sweet, touching, sometimes funny, clearly sentimental motion picture that attempts only what it can reach, but does so with simple ease.