The Best Picture Project – Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

Directed by Bruce Beresford

Screenplay by Alfred Uhry, based upon his play

Starring Jessica Tandy, Morgan Freeman, Esther Rolle and Dan Aykroyd

When The King’s Speech won Best Picture this past year at the Oscars, I was a bit beside myself over it, because I didn’t really fancy it as Best Picture.  An enjoyable film?  Sure.  Best Picture?  No.

In retrospect, though, it doesn’t make sense I would get upset about it, after all, the Academy has shown a history of honoring films just like The King’s Speech: solid, inoffensive films that are hardly loved, but more importantly, hardly hated.  In other words, unlike Black Swan or The Social Network, which had a tendency to be divisive, The King’s Speech is least likely to offend voters and therefore, most likely to rise to the top.

While this policy of honoring inoffensive films hardly started with Driving Miss Daisy, it’s a good example of The King’s Speech phenomena, only 20 years earlier.  Just as The King’s Speech triumphed over more well-loved, and also more well-hated film, Driving Miss Daisy took the top prize over the uncompromising and difficult My Left Foot and Born on the Fourth of July.  And just as 2010 was a rehash of 1989, so 1989 was a rehash of 1966, when A Man For All Seasons beat out the caustic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

In other words, despite the fact that the Academy will occasionally throw a bone to Midnight Cowboy and The Hurt Locker, it heart will always be for nice, inoffensive films.

Because it doesn’t really inspire much passion, you might be lead to believe I think Driving Miss Daisy is a bad film, but that’s hardly the case.  Quite the contrary, I think it’s a sweet little film, gently addressing issues of race relations and prejudice without beating you over the head with it or detracting in any way from the film itself.  It’s brimming with gentle humor, easy performances and a great rapport amongst the entire cast.

But what the film is about, and how it’s made, are basically beside the point, as the film is really carried by performances only.   Yes, there’s a bit of plot – only a bit – allowing the actors to be center stage and it’s really their relationships we stick with and which make the film work.  Jessica Tandy won the Oscar as Best Actress, the oldest ever, and no matter what I can say about the film as a whole for it’s sometimes hands-off approach to race, there is no doubting her performance is magnificent.  Playing the part of an old, stubborn, proud woman, Tandy could have easily just played the role with truculence and bluster, but she manages to exude absolute authority all the while hardly managing to raise her voice above a nag.  Sometimes it’s strange to think how imposing she could be, especially as frail as she looked, but I guess that’s the hallmark of a great performance.

Just as good is Morgan Freeman who might’ve been carried the Oscar that year himself by the good-nature of the film, despite half his dialog consisting of the phrase, “yassum.”  Sadly for him, Daniel Day Lewis not crushed in My Left Foot and would have beaten most anybody, no matter how good they were.  Fortunately, Freeman would get his Oscar later, as about the only good thing in the putrid Million Dollar Baby.

My one real quibble with the film, that makes it a serious drawback for me, is that it tends to fall into that category of movies made about race relations that focuses on the white people, not the black.  After all, while we see quite a bit of Miss Daisy’s life, hearing about where she grew up, being a teacher, etc., we know very little of Hoke beyond the fact he learned to drive on an ice cream truck and once drove for a judge.  It isn’t until the film is basically over we learn he had children and a granddaughter who is a college professor, which easily would have been a far more fascinating story than listening to Miss Daisy be stubborn for the whole film.  Of course, that would have been a wholly different film altogether, probably called Hoke’s Granddaughter or something like that, which wouldn’t be Driving Miss Daisy at all.

What’s interesting is that while I call Driving Miss Daisy the feel-good compromise-winner, I fully well acknowledge that if the other feel-good movie in the race, Field of Dreams, had won, you’d hear no complaints from me about it.  I guess that’s just the fact that a film about baseball and bad relationships with father’s resonates with me more than a film about an old white lady having an old black guy driving her around, even if the guy in question is Morgan Freeman.

An aside:

Incidentally, I watched the film on Ovation, and is it just me, or does that station play a million commercials during the film?  It seemed every time I turned around I was hitting the skip function on the DVR.

Trivia:

Just two films have won Best Picture without the benefit of a Best Director nomination to go with it: Grand Hotel and Driving Miss Daisy.  Such a fact only seems to lend more credence to my perception of Driving Miss Daisy as a compromise Best Picture, especially given the truly best picture of the year, Born on the Fourth of July took the Oscar for Best Director.

Driving Miss Daisy also holds the distinction of giving only the second female producer an Oscar; Lili Fini Zanuck, wife of Richard Zanuck, son of the late, great mogul, Darryl F. Zanuck.  The first woman to win as a producer?  Julia Phillips for The Sting.

For the list of other winners seen and those to go, click here.

Also, don’t be afraid to buy something I wrote.  Follow this link here for more info on buying my books.

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