“When I wrote the play, I never dreamed it would get this far…when I wonder how all this happened…I can come up with only one answer. I wrote what I knew to be the truth and people have recognized it as such.”
Our present pop culture is so disastrously mired in a simpleton’s saturation of youth-oriented crude comedies and fast-paced/effects-laden crass commercialism I had quite forgotten how refreshingly original and utterly charming Bruce Beresford’s Driving Miss Daisy (1989) is and has, in fact, remained in the intervening decades; a handsomely mounted and perennial poignant charmer. Oh, decidedly, much more than that. For here is one of the most frankly intelligent movies from the 1980s – a decade oft criticized for its whack-tacular claptrap of pre-processed gunk mass marketed as ‘art’. Having lived through the 1980s – a decade I continue to revere – I will simply preface the bulk of my praise in this review by stating ‘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 same age of this film’s protagonist, Miss Daisy Werthan (Jessica Tandy).
Driving Miss Daisy rectifies Hollywood’s long-standing aversion to explore, much less celebrate, the richness and rewards that only time can bring to life. If the elderly are represented at all in movies today they are portrayed as bitterly reclusive, angry or careworn hermits, exiled from and by the world at large or laughably viewed as doddering old fools, attempting to turn back the yellowed pages in their own youth 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 Driving Miss Daisy around town they quickly discovered the bias of this youth-centric film cultural. As Zanuck would later recount, “Everybody would say, ‘we know you’re going to make a good picture – but nobody is going to want to see it!’” It is one of life’s ironies the inevitability of one’s golden years is never discussed – just one of the truths readily avowed in Alfred Uhry’s off-Broadway play. The other great revelation of the stage play and movie deals with the ‘separate but equal’ segregation in the south; Uhry, drawing from his own upbringing to create parallels in the prejudices faced by blacks and Jews.
The reticence in Hollywood to produce Driving Miss Daisy may also have had something to do with adapting its clever stagecraft to the big screen. As is often the case, what works theatrically readily proves problematic once a show is ‘opened up’ for the more expansive demands of a motion picture. If anything, the overwhelming consensus, that no one would want to see a ‘kitchen melodrama’ about elderly people, made the Zanucks even more resolved to get the necessary funding. Paying for preliminary location scouting from their own savings, and, on nothing more than a blind promise from Warner Bros. to ‘probably’ write them a blank check, Zanuck hired Australian-born, Bruce Beresford to direct; also, the stage’s Morgan Freeman, who had expressed a fervent resolve to reprise his stage role as Miss Daisy’s devoted chauffeur, Hoke Colburn. In retrospect, the casting of Freeman proved the film’s first stroke of genius, further advanced when Zanuck also hired Uhry to rewrite his own material as a screenplay. Both men concurred that the age of the actress who played Daisy Werthan needed to be true to the character with minimal makeup trickery applied; a decision that effectively narrowed Zanuck’s search for viable actresses and brought Jessica Tandy on board.
Driving Miss Daisy offers an unaffected and unapologetic snapshot of old age: not as ‘a condition’ to be quaintly pitied or casually set aside. Rather, the film’s verisimilitude is all about accepting the latter stages in life’s natural cycle; to appreciate and simply define them as truth – neither openly revered nor dramatically tragic, though laughter and pathos are cues applied to this mixture with a modicum of dignity. In Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy’s gifted hands, Driving Miss Daisy becomes a portrait of stubborn valor; also, the story of two individuals from diametrically disparate social backgrounds who, nevertheless, discover an unlikely common ground where they can learn to see the similarities in their convictions; the exquisite richness unfolding at the sunset in both their lives. The sheer joy in this exercise is its unmistakable nuggets of wisdom, each gradually unearthed in Alfred Uhry’s prose. Uhry had based Daisy Werthan on his grandmother; her chauffeur, on the family’s hired man, Will Coleman. And in Tandy and Freeman we are given the forever cherished strengths of an inimitable reality, untainted in its fidelity to the social mores of a particular period. Freeman came to the project well versed, having performed the part for nearly three years on stage. But Tandy was the movie’s fresh face; possessing an impeccable pedigree of theatrical experiences that had not always translated to film. Yet, in hindsight, Tandy’s stage training afforded Beresford an even rarer opportunity: to rehearse until he was satisfied with the form and content of Miss Daisy’s character.
Because Driving Miss Daisy was shot on a shoestring (the studio repeatedly slashing its budget during the preliminary preparations), 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; cinematographer, Peter James employing diffused lighting to light the interiors through its actual windows. The last bit of verisimilitude visited upon the film was Hans Zimmer’s memorable ‘Driving Theme’, extemporized with techno influences while observing a rough cut of the scene where Jessica Tandy’s caustic widow is pursued by Morgan Freeman’s mildly perturbed chauffeur, trailing her every step in the brand new Hudson automobile. Above all else, Driving Miss Daisy remains a testament to a particular period in the renaissance of the south, awkwardly, clumsily, but valiantly blundering beyond the civil uncertainties into modern-day progressivism. Uhry’s lyrical dialogue is, at times, just this side of edgy as he illustrates the societal constraints meant to keep time-honored conventions firmly affixed.
Our story begins on a hot afternoon as Daisy Werthan (Tandy) announces to her housemaid, Idella (Esther Rolle) she is going to market. The trip is cut short when Miss Daisy manages to back her car off the elevated driveway and over the edge of her 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. This decision, like his other – to marry the frivolous, Florine (Patti Lupone) does not meet with Miss Daisy’s approval. Indeed, during his first week’s employ, Hoke (Freeman) is all but ignored and frequently admonished for making any and all attempts to be useful around the house. He is ordered by Miss Daisy to refrain from speaking to Idella, or dust lamp bulbs on a chandelier in the dining room or even quietly skulk about the ground floor, casually observing the various family portraits in the hall. However, when Miss Daisy sets her mind to take the trolley to market, Hoke decides he has had quite enough of her prudery and follows his employer down the street at a snail’s pace in her newly purchased Hudson, thus 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!”
For some time thereafter, Miss Daisy’s brittle contempt does not abate. She continues to regard Hoke as one of ‘those people’ and forces Boolie to drive out to the house after she suspects Hoke of stealing a can of smoked salmon from her pantry. But when Hoke arrives with a newly purchased can of salmon to replace the one he has indeed eaten, Miss Daisy is quietly chagrined. From here on, her relationship with Hoke begins to soften. Hence, when Miss Daisy announces her intentions to travel to Mobile, Alabama for her brother, Walter’s 90th birthday, she employs Hoke to drive this considerable distance. Along their journey the two are confronted by a pair of racist state troopers (Ray McKinnon and Ashley Josey) who momentarily question Hoke and Miss Daisy about the ownership of their expensive vehicle. Narrowly averting a scene, 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 he must pull over to the side to relieve himself, Miss Daisy orders him to wait until they reach Mobile. “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. A few disquieting moments pass. Miss Daisy becomes frightened and calls for Hoke. A short while later they arrive safely at Walter’s house to celebrate his birthday.
Driving Miss Daisy is, among its other very fine attributes, a skillful ‘opening up’ of the stage bound original; Beresford and Uhry sparsely using montage and the changing seasons to cleverly advance the friendship between Hoke and Miss Daisy as it grows more patiently ripe and satisfying. A trip to the graveyard proves unexpectedly poignant when Miss Daisy asks Hoke to place flowers on her sister’s grave; Hoke confiding he never learned to read and thus cannot decipher names on the tombstones. Instead, Miss Daisy refutes Hoke’s confession, phonetically sounding out the letters to bolster his confidence. Later, Daisy gives Hoke a child’s reader she used while a teacher in the public schools; reiterating the point that “It’s not a Christmas present. Jews have no business giving Christmas presents.” Nevertheless, Hoke sets himself to learn by this educational reader.
As in the play, the first and second acts of Driving Miss Daisy are almost exclusively focused on the subtle enrichment of this unlikely friendship; poignantly understated ‘little’ moments of self-discovery that sparkle and resonate as quiet truths. However, the latter third of the picture is devoted to the inevitable passage of time. The first lesson to be learned in these unexpected and changing times is loss. Idella suffers a fatal heart attack and dies while preparing dinner in the kitchen. Her funeral is a distinct reminder of the ephemeral nature of human life. As we enter the turbulent 1960s, Miss Daisy is exposed to bigotry of a different sort when an unknown assailant bombs the synagogue on her way to prayer; an incident culled from Uhry’s remembrances of an actual event – the timeline suggesting 1966 in the movie, when in reality the bombing occurred in 1958. To ease Miss Daisy’s concerns, Hoke relays a story from childhood about his best friend’s father, lynched by an angry mob when he was only nine years old. Despite her repeated insistences to never being prejudiced, Miss Daisy is unable to see the parallel in Hoke’s parable; the plight of anti-Semitism and racial inequality lingering as a backdrop for the audience, more than a moment of disclosure for the characters.
Miss Daisy receives an invitation to a gala where Martin Luther King will speak. Offering two tickets to Boolie and Florine, Boolie accepts, but later bows out, citing that his attendance might ‘color’ the opinions of his contemporaries in the business and professional community; alliances he has forged and cultivated these many years. Amused by his mother’s sudden interest in Dr. King, Boolie suggests she invite Hoke to attend in his stead. Yet, Miss Daisy denies Hoke this same opportunity to partake. Instead, she attends the gala, surrounded by a congregation of affluent blacks and whites, while Hoke patiently listens to the same speech being broadcast on the radio from his car; Dr. King’s immortal words resonating a fundamental truth about race relations in America, and the eloquent promise of a more enduring future beneficial to all, in which “history will have to record, that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
Driving Miss Daisy’s last act is a bittersweet epitaph; Miss Daisy, now in her nineties, suffers a mental breakdown, frantically meandering through her house, believing she has somehow regressed back to an undisclosed time when she was still a school teacher. Hoke arrives to discover her overwrought and extremely confused, ranting about misplaced papers. He telephones Boolie to report the incident; then, tenderly tries to comfort and console. Struck by a moment of clarity, Miss Daisy declares, “Hoke, you’re my best friend”, loosely clutching for his hand. The two regard one another in a moment of sustained silence. We fast track a few years ahead, Miss Daisy’s stately manor up for sale – then, sold; Boolie meeting Hoke in the empty parlor and taking him to the retirement home for Thanksgiving where Miss Daisy has since been ensconced to spend her final years. At first, it is unclear whether she even knows they have come to see her; the fog and far-away look in her eyes suddenly lifting as she orders Boolie to ‘go and charm the nurses’. Hoke takes his seat beside her, offering to feed Miss Daisy a piece of pumpkin pie; their silent assignation translated into an affecting farewell. Likely, this will be is the last time they see one another; director, Beresford’s subtle superimposition of the image of Miss Daisy’s Hudson driving off into the distance: a very tender reminiscence, if only a wan ghost flower of their once vital and remarkable friendship.
Driving Miss Daisy is one of too few movies made about these emeritus years that swift approach and unexpectedly creep up to envelope us all; a beautifully ‘imperfect’ snapshot of the unlikeliest amity blossoming between two people who might otherwise have never met. The irony is of course that under any other circumstances, these two would likely never have met; the lingering societal stringencies in the Deep South both drawing Miss Daisy and Hoke together, even as it continues to keep them apart. In preparing their picture, the Zanucks were frequently reminded of the box office failure of another understated and similarly themed southern pilgrimage picture, Trip to Bountiful (1985). What a glorious retribution for the Zanucks then, when Driving Miss Daisy went on from a respectable opening weekend to steadily build in stature and box office returns; the escalation of its financial success capped off by 9 Oscar nominations and 4 wins, including Best Picture and Best Actress – Jessica Tandy.
Alas, the oversights are even more glaring: Morgan Freeman passed over for Best Actor, and Bruce Beresford not even nominated for his flawless direction – a bungle marginally corrected when Richard Zanuck, accepting the Best Picture statuette, opened his remarks with, “This only proves that Bruce Beresford is the best director in the world.” Academy history is riddled with such inconsistencies – but for some reason, these two stand out even more so as a complete insult to both men. Because, Driving Miss Daisy is as good as movies get; true to life, true to its source and truer still to the humanity of its characters. It really doesn’t get any better than this; Beresford and the Zanuck’s ‘little picture’ in support of the rather old and tattered cliché, ‘the road is for journeys’. Driving Miss Daisy may have driven off with a slew of well-deserved accolades. But the picture today is hardly buoyed by this prestige. Awards are nice, but they rarely speak to the intangible hallmarks of any movie’s greatness – ditto for box office or well-intended reviews. Longevity can only be judged with the passage of time, the endurance of memory to support it. Driving Miss Daisy is a movie that, once seen, can never entirely be purged from the collective consciousness. It remains, perhaps as Zanuck attested back in 1989, “my finest hour and the movie I’m most proud of.”
Were that I could as highly recommend Warner Home Video’s digi-pack Blu-ray. But I continue to have issues with the color density, sharpness and contrast levels on this disc. Peter James’ cinematography was never intended to exhibit high key-lit gloss; rather, a softly diffused glow. Even so, the image herein just seems too dark. Even late day afterglow from orange sun filtering through the heavy slats of Miss Daisy’s window treatments is dull rather than glimmering. Naturally lit interiors are extremely dusky even in the full bloom of noonday sun, unable to be appreciated for their stately character, except in a completely darkened viewing room. I understand the point of subtlety in James’ cinematography. But the image on this disc is so low key it borders on creating eye-strain; the grain levels advancing considerably and much thicker than expected. Colors become muddy and muted rather than nuanced and understated. There’s also a sort of residual blurriness in background details I don’t recall from my theatrical experience. Granted, that was many years ago. Finally, there is some built-in instability in this image harvest; subtle gate wobble and an intermittent strobing effect; as though one is viewing an old analog broadcast with an airplane flying overhead to disturb the signal. It’s virtually unnoticeable on smaller sets, but in projection becomes glaringly obvious.
My thoughts that something is decidedly remiss with both the film’s color density and contrast derives from clips excised from the movie for the newly produced documentary, ‘Things are Changing’ (included herein). The clips exhibit a considerably lighter and brighter image. On the whole, these excised portions look far more natural and appealing, revealing much more overall image clarity and crispness. As example: the scene where Hoke convinces Miss Daisy to allow him to chauffeur her to the store for the very first time. In the movie, this sequence is so dark every time a shadow from an overhead tree limb passes across the reflective surface of the front windshield it completely obscures Miss Daisy from our view. In the clip, as excised for the documentary, this scene is considerably brighter, the aforementioned shadows adding texture to the scene, not obscuring it.
The new 5.1 DTS audio is a vast improvement we can support. There are subtler nuances to observe, as though listening to Hans Zimmer’s score for the very first time. Extras are singularly disappointing. We get a newly produced featurette ‘Things are Changing’ – that provides an overview of race relations in America then and now, referencing the movie when it can. It’s an interesting addendum, but not terribly comprehensive. As for the rest; it’s all been ported over from Warner’s tired ole DVD: a brief featurette on Jessica Tandy’s prolific stage career; another, even briefer, on the making of the film, and finally, a vintage promo puff piece, tacked onto a careworn theatrical trailer. The best of the lot is the audio commentary – informative and engaging. I’d like to be the first to champion Warner to redo this catalog release. Driving Miss Daisy on Blu-ray is something of a letdown. It deserves better.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)