Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

This is a film that many people like to take shots at, but I find myself always engaged in watching it. It is a very moving and warm film.

There are various reasons why Driving Miss Daisy has been knocked.  Recently, TCM featured the film, and even host Ben Mankiewicz mentioned the controversy of films depicting the Black experience through the White prism of storytelling.  Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture at the Academy Awards that year, and it set off some controversy, Spike Lee leading the charge.  This issue surfaced again with The Green Book, a film with a somewhat similar story, ironically, winning the Academy Award in the same year of BlacKkKlansman.

K. Austin Collins wrote an article for Vanity Fair if you would like to read it.  Collins discusses the controversy, as well as The Green Book and BlacKkKlansman.

When the Oscars chose Driving Miss Daisy over Do The Right Thing.

These issues exist, and the article is a fair look at not just Hollywood, but the uneasiness of telling stories like Driving Miss Daisy and The Green Book from a White point of view.  Both of these films are good stories, but are they are only partial stories of the relationships they present.  I’ll leave it at that.

Now, Driving Miss Daisy.

 

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Driving Miss Daisy is based on the 1987 play by Alfred Uhry which won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  The play was inspired by Uhry’s grandmother and her chauffeur, so this not entirely a work of fiction. The original play starred Judith Ivey as Daisy, Morgan Freeman as Hoke and Ray Gill as Boolie Werthan.  Since, many recognizable faces have played the part of Daisy or Hoke, including Angela Lansbury, Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones.  I caught a touring production of the play a few years ago with Michael Learned as Daisy.

The film version was produced by Richard and Lili Fini Zanuck.  Zanuck, the son of legendary producer Darryl Zanuck, began producing films in the early 1960s and formed a production team with David Brown to produce Jaws, The Sting, The Verdict and other films.  Later, he teamed with his wife, Lili Fini to produce Cocoon, Rush, Road to Perdition and many others, prior to his death in 2012.

Uhry wrote the screenplay from his film, and Bruce Beresford was hired to direct.  Bereford is best known as directing Tender Mercies and Crimes of the Heart, sensitive and deeply layered dramas.

Among those rumored to be interested in playing Daisy were Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Lucille Ball, Lauren Bacall and Angela Lansbury.   According to Zanuck, Davis was persistent in her efforts to land the role.  The part went to Jessica Tandy, who was awarded the Academy Award for her portrayal, and at the time, the oldest actor to win a competitive Oscar.

Freeman, who originated the role, in the off-Broadway production, was picked over Eddie Murphy for the role of Hoke.  Yes, that is true.

Dan Aykroyd was selected to play Daisy’s son, Boolie, and was nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar for his performance. Aykroyd is terrific in the role. This is the only nomination of his career.  Shocking that he was not nominated for either Dragnet or Doctor Detroit.  That is a joke.

So, we know the story.  Senior citizen Daisy Werthan is at the age where her son, Boolie, forbids her to drive herself.  He hires Hoke, another senior citizen, and a Black man, to be her chauffeur. She hates the idea of losing her driving privileges, and she’s cool to the idea of a Black man being in charge of her car.  She’s independent, but also very “old-fashioned” in her attitudes.  Let’s spice this up a bit, she’s Jewish, which will come into play later, and this takes place in Atlanta, Georgia.  Age, race, religion, economic class, Southern attitudes – it is quite a literary stew.

Hoke eventually grows on her and she slowly lets down her guard.  As we learn, the two have several things in common, besides their age.  This is what allows their relationship to grow and strengthen.  They are both stubborn, and although their personalities and worlds are somewhat different, their lives have some of the same foundational values.  And each are very prideful.

Daisy has been very sheltered in her adult life, it has been safe and privileged. First, it was her husband who took care of things, now it is her son.  Now her independence is threatened and there is this new person in her life.  The loss of driving is a crack in her cocoon.  Hoke enters her world and she does not like it.  She is rude and resistant to him.  His folksy, resilient demeanor deflects most of her bitterness and sharpness.  Only occasionally does he bows his neck, and it backs her up when he does. He stands up to here when needed.  Each of them develop a tolerance to the other.  Daisy gets a chauffeur and eventually someone to depend on.  After her housekeeper/cook suddenly dies, Hoke moves up in priority in her life.  Hoke gets a job, but also it fills a void in his life, almost a purpose.  He is not someone who likes to be idle and he needs to keep his hands busy.  These traits are what get him into trouble with Daisy, constantly wanting to fix things or plant things, but it is the same hard work and drive that Daisy has.

Uhry’s screenplay sets up these conflicts beautifully, this battle of wills, in two people who under the surface, are very much alike. Watching Tandy and Freeman take hold of these characters and bring them to life is such a joy.  The characters are much deeper than what you see, and over the course of the film, which covers a 25-year period, the changes may be subtle, but they are changes.

driving-miss-daisy-3The film is a three-person story, the third being Daisy’s son, Boolie.  He provides much of the comic relief in the film and is able to let some of the hot air out of his mama.  He appears at important times, usually to mediate an argument, help denote the passage of time, or when their is key story development. Aykroyd is exceptionally good in this role.  He plays it with swagger and humility.  He also shows the delicate balance between being who you are, and who you would like to be.  A Jew, with a Jewish wife, they celebrate Christmas, as Ulry’s family did growing up, because he said it made them “fit in” better in a Southern Christian community.  At the same time, Boolie gives up tickets to hear Martin Luther King speak at a swanky engagement, because he is afraid what the other businessmen will think of him and it may cost him business.  His mother goes instead.  The film shows how challenging it can be for us to really be who we are.

On the road to visit a relative in Mississippi, Daisy and Hoke are stopped by Alabama police.  They are suspicious of a Black man (they use a different term) and a old Jew lady, and make their own racial comments.  Later, Daisy discovers her temple has been bombed, and has a hard time facing it.  Now, discrimination is real, and she is reminded that is always a part of Hoke’s world.

The film has plenty of dramatic moments of dealing with racial issues and character disagreements, that’s what drama is.  However, the film has lighter moments, not big laughs, but many warm, smiling moments.  Despite the scratchiness of Daisy, she becomes very protective of her friendship with Hoke, although she does not often express it as that. It takes her a long time, a very long time to see that there is a friendship. On the way to hear Martin Luther King speak, she talks about how much things have changed, but she couldn’t bring herself to ask Hoke to attend the event. He reminds her about how little things have actually changed. As she sits listening to Dr. King, his words about the silent people, who who do nothing when they could be doing something, register on her face.

Beresford’s direction is almost invisible, which is how he usually works.  He was nominated for Academy Awards for Tender Mercies and Crimes of the Heart, but did not win either time.  He was not nominated for Daisy.  This is very much a character film, which means the focus is on the material and the acting, not the direction.  Beresford’s style is light, but focused.  His camera is intrusive or showy, he provides warm, emotional lighting and color, helps his actors do their best work, and gets out of the way.

Hans Zimmer wrote and played the musical score himself, and it is a fine one at that.  His score brings out the hues of the story and supports the emotional elements.  If you look at film credits, it seems that most Hollywood scores are done by either John Williams or Hans Zimmer, that’s where they rank on the film food chain.

Driving Miss Daisy was nominated for nine Academy Awards and walked away with four (Actress, Picture, Screenplay, Makeup).  Nominated for three Golden Globe Awards, winning three (Picture, Actress, Actor).  It also won the Producers Guild and Writers Guild top awards, and a slew of other awards.  Plus, it made a lot of money at the box office.


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