Our present pop culture is so disastrously mired in its simpleton’s saturation of youth oriented crude comedies and fast paced/effects laden crass commercialism that I’d quite simply forgotten just how refreshingly original and utterly charming Bruce Beresford’s Driving Miss Daisy (1989) is. Shame on me! It is one of the most frankly intelligent movies from the 1980s – a decade oft’ criticized for its whacky-tacky claptrap of pre-processed gunk mass marketed as ‘art’. Having lived through the 1980s – a decade I continue to revere – I suppose I’ll preface this review by simply saying that you just had to be there. No retrospective will suffice. It was a grand time to be young and alive and to feel both young and alive even if you were 72 – the age of this film’s protagonist, Miss Daisy Werthan (Jessica Tandy).
Hollywood has long had an aversion to even exploring, much less celebrating the goodness that only time itself can bring to our lives. If the elderly are represented at all in movies today they are bitterly reclusive, angry, tired and careworn hermits exiled from and by the world around them or laughably viewed as doddering old fools attempting to turn back the hands of time, but with some thoroughly misguided behaviors and mannerisms that make them seem even more piteously pathetic in their agedness and life experiences.
Indeed when Richard and Lily Zanuck began shopping the project around town for investors they quickly discovered how bias and youth-centric the film making capital of the world had become. Yet, the inevitability of those golden years awaits us all if we live long enough – a message readily avowed in Alfred Uhry’s original off Broadway play that had only steadily grown in audience appreciation since its modest debut. The reticence in Hollywood to produce Driving Miss Daisy as a film may also have had something to do with adapting its clever stagecraft for the big screen. As is often the case, what works theatrically readily proves problematic once a show is ‘opened up’ for the more expansive presentation of a motion picture.
The general consensus was that no one would want to see a ‘kitchen melodrama’ about two elderly people. But Zanuck was undaunted, and perhaps more determined than ever to make the movie. Funding the preliminary scouting of locations from his own pocket on nothing more than a blind promise his investors would back his pride, Zanuck hired Australian Bruce Beresford, who promptly cast the stage’s Morgan Freeman to reprise his role in the film as Miss Daisy’s chauffeur, Hoke Colburn. It was the film’s first stroke of genius, further compounded when Zanuck hired Uhry to write the screenplay. Both men concurred that the age of the actress who played Daisy Werthan had to be true to the character; a decision that effectively brought Jessica Tandy on board.
Driving Miss Daisy offers an affecting and unapologetic snapshot of old age as just that: not as ‘a condition’ to be overcome or casually set aside. No, the film’s verisimilitude is all about accepting these latter stages of the natural life cycle; to appreciate them as well lived and equally well deserved, simply, finely and with a modicum of dignity. Driving Miss Daisy is therefore something of a portrait of stubborn valor; of two diametrically opposed individuals finding unlikely common ground and learning to admire each other’s convictions in the sunset of their lives.
The sheer joy in that exercise remains the film’s unmistakable kernel of truth only made possible when casting is quite simply ideal. And in Tandy and Freeman we are given the forever cherished gift of inimitable performance – so utterly true to life that it seems impossible, or at the very least highly unlikely, to be faked. Freeman came to the project well versed, having performed the part for nearly three years on stage. But Tandy was the fresh face; a stage presence of impeccable pedigree whose film career had been spotty at best. In the final analysis, Tandy’s stage training afforded Beresford the rare opportunity to rehearse her until he was satisfied with the form and shape of Miss Daisy’s character.
Because Driving Miss Daisy was shot on a shoestring budget, director Beresford and the Zanucks improvised practically everything on location. A small rural town just outside of Atlanta became the Atlanta of the 1940s, 50s and 60s with just a little window dressing and fresh paint. The Werthan house was an actual Atlanta residence rented inside and out for the shoot with cinematographer Peter James employing diffused lighting for the interiors through the actual windows. The last bit of perfection visited upon the film was its memorable ‘Driving Theme’ written by noted composer Hans Zimmer, extemporized while observing Jessica Tandy walking down the street as Morgan Freeman trails her every step in the Hudson automobile.
Our story begins on a hot afternoon with Daisy Werthan (Tandy) announcing to her housemaid, Idella (Esther Rolle) that she is going to market. However, the trip is cut short when Miss Daisy manages to back her car off the neighbor’s sunken patio wall. The insurance company promptly cancels her policy, forcing Miss Daisy’s son, Boolie (Dan Aykroyd) to hire his mother a chauffeur. His decision does not meet with Miss Daisy’s approval. Indeed, during the first week that Hoke (Freeman) comes to work for her, Miss Daisy all but ignores and admonishes him at ever instance; ordering him to refrain from speaking to Idella, dust the lamp bulbs on the chandelier in the dining room or even quietly skulk about the ground floor of her home, casually observing her various family portraits.
However, when Miss Daisy sets her mind to walk to market Hoke decides he has had quite enough and follows his employer down the street at a snail’s pace, attracting nosey glances from the neighbors. To quell their curiosity and save herself some embarrassment Miss Daisy gets into the car, forcing Hoke to abide by her rules as he drives her to the Piggly Wiggly for some groceries. While she shops Hoke hurries to a nearby phone both, declaring to Boolie “Yes sir, I just drove yo’ mama to the store. Only took six days…same time it took the Lord to create the whole world!”
Miss Daisy’s brittle contempt does not abate. In fact, she continues to regard Hoke as one of ‘those people’ and even tells Boolie that she suspects him of stealing a can of smoked salmon from the pantry for his lunch. But when Hoke arrives with a newly purchased can of salmon to replace the one he has indeed eaten Miss Daisy is quietly ashamed of her accusation and her prejudices and her relationship with Hoke begins to soften. Hence, when Miss Daisy announces that she intends to go to Mobile Alabama for her brother’s birthday she employs Hoke to drive her the considerable distance. Along the road the two are stopped by a pair of racist state troopers (Ray McKinnon and Ashley Josey) who momentarily question Hoke about his ability to drive such an expensive car.
Afterward, a slightly flustered Miss Daisy accidentally encourages Hoke to make a wrong turn, the two losing their way along a dark and lonely road. When Hoke admits that he cannot wait and must pull over to the side of the road to use the bathroom, Miss Daisy admonishes him, leading to their first disagreement. “I’m not just some back of the neck you look at while you get to where you’re goin’,” Hoke explains, “I’m a man.” To prove his point, Hoke takes the keys with him as he disappears into the darkness to relieve himself. As the moments pass Miss Daisy becomes frightened and calls to him in the dark. The two arrive at Miss Daisy’s brother’s house and celebrate his birthday. As the seasons change and years pass the friendship between Hoke and Miss Daisy grows more ripe and satisfying. After she learns that he cannot read, Miss Daisy gives Hoke a child’s reader as a present during the Christmas holidays. “It’s not a Christmas present,” she affirms, “Jews have no business giving Christmas presents.” Nevertheless, Hoke sets himself to learn by the children’s reader.
As in the play, the first and second acts of the film are almost exclusively focused on the subtle enrichment of this unlikely relationship. However, the latter third is devoted to the passage of time. As we enter the turbulent 1960s, Miss Daisy is exposed to racial bigotry when an unknown assailant firebombs the synagogue on her way to prayer. Miss Daisy later attends a speech given by Martin Luther King at a venue that openly denies Hoke the same opportunity to partake. Idella suffers a fatal heart attack and dies while preparing dinner in the kitchen and Miss Daisy decides that it is time she and Hoke shared their meals together instead of eating alone as they have done in the past.
Finally, we see what the years have done to Daisy’s mind. Hoke arrives early one morning to find her overwrought and confused, ranting about having misplaced her papers – a reference to her many years as a school teacher long since gone by. Hoke tries to comfort Miss Daisy but to little avail. Then, struck by a moment of clarity, Miss Daisy declares, “Hoke, you’re my best friend” as she loosely clutches for his hand. The two regard one another in silence and Hoke later telephones Boolie to report the incident. Miss Daisy is placed in the care of a retirement community and her family home is sold. In the film’s final moments Hoke gets Boolie to drive him out for a visit – the two reunited, probably for the last time, to spend a glorious afternoon together in reminiscence of that vital friendship they briefly shared.
In these penultimate moments Driving Miss Daisy achieves such a bounteous swell of tender emotions that it is impossible not to be overcome in that tearful poignancy of life, love and loss; the all too familiar triage in shared incidents indigenous to the human condition, herein communicated to the audience with the simplest of visuals and dialogue. We sense the end of Miss Daisy’s time on earth looming in the background as the days dwindle down; a finality approaching this unlikeliest of all friendships and poetically realized by the last shot in the film – Miss Daisy’s Hudson slowly driving away from camera and down a lonely open road; like a beautiful memory of amity most bittersweet, gone by, and never meant to return.
What a glorious finale to a film so plentiful in so many emotionally satisfying moments left to cherish. Driving Miss Daisy was nominated for 9 Oscars. It won 4, including Best Picture and Best Actress. The truer injustices are as follows: first, that Morgan Freeman did not win Best Actor for his performance, and second, that Beresford was not even nominated for his flawless direction! Academy history is riddled with such inconsistencies – but for some reason these two seem to stand out as glaring oversights bordering on a complete insult to both men. In the final analysis, Driving Miss Daisy is as good as movies get; true to life, true to its source material and truer still to the humanity of its characters. It really doesn’t get any better than this!
Warner Home Video’s digi-pack Blu-ray delivers the goods and how. It’s about time Driving Miss Daisy was given its due in hi-def. Collectors have been waiting for this one for years. I can recall my absolute horror back in 1997 when Warner Home Video released Driving Miss Daisy as one of their very first DVDs only to realize that the image had been cropped to full screen. This travesty persisted for the next five years, compounded by a reissue of the film in widescreen derived from the same fundamentally flawed film elements, plagued by dull colors, dot crawl and a barrage of age related artifacts.
But now we get Driving Miss Daisy in 1080p and what a cause for celebration it is. Peter James’ diffused cinematography has never looked more beautiful. The visual vibrancy in the image perfectly recaptures the lushness of its vintage summers and icy blue spectacle of very cold winters. Fine detail is so crisp and refined it’s as though I’m seeing the film for the very first time. I was awestruck by how appropriate everything looked, astounded to see the subtle palette of natural flesh tones and rich shimmering greens accurately reproduced; the glint of sunlight almost radiating genuine warmth from my television screen. The ‘wow’ factor I had hoped for is definitely here. The new 5.1 DTS audio is also a vast improvement on the old 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks referenced from the DVD. There are subtler nuances to the sound field in general. I’m hearing orchestrations in the Hans Zimmer score I’d long forgotten even existed, while dialogue and effects always sound appropriately placed.
Extras are the singular disappointment. We get a newly produced featurette ‘Things are Changing’ – that provides a superficial overview of race relations in America then and now. It’s interesting in so far as it goes, but not terribly comprehensive. As for the rest, we get everything from Warner’s SE DVD, which frankly, wasn’t much: a brief featurette on Jessica Tandy, another even briefer on the making of the film and a vintage promo piece, plus a careworn theatrical trailer and audio commentary.
I’d like to be the first to begin championing that all of the studios get serious about their Blu-ray extras. Blu-ray should not simply be a dumping ground for extra features we already own on DVD, but contain new features befitting the capability of that brand new format. I won’t poo-poo this any further, because Warner has done a handsome job on the transfer and their digi-booklet that is long on photo art but short on readable materials. Bottom line: Driving Miss Daisy on Blu-ray comes very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)