DRIVING MISS DAISY (1989)

driving_miss_daisyIt’s a battle just about every family fights at some point: convincing an elderly parent that the time has come to hand over the car keys. I can imagine what it’s like for an aging individual, how humiliating it must feel to transition from independence to dependence. No surprise then, that it often takes a mishap behind the wheel before one of our elders concedes and vacates the driver seat for the last time. And so begins Driving Miss Daisy in 1948, when wealthy Atlanta widow Daisy Werthan (Jessica Tandy) drives her car into a ditch. This prompts her son, business owner Boolie (Dan Akroyd), to hire an African-American chauffeur named Hoke (Morgan Freeman) to do the driving for her. The movie then largely concerns the relationship between Daisy and Hoke over the course of subsequent decades. Daisy initially perceives Hoke’s very presence as an attack on her independence, but after he blunts her resentment with Job-like patience, her ire gives way to acceptance, and eventual friendship. This plays out against the backdrop of mid-20th Century America and touches themes of race and aging.

One of the things I liked about Miss Daisy was that for a film that addressed race in the Jim Crow-era South, for the most part there aren’t really any bad guys. Daisy Werthan, by the way, isn’t a stereotypical aged southern belle. She is proud of her humble beginnings and is an observant Jew. Daisy and Boolie are both relatively progressive people- for their time. Yes, their comfort with an exclusively African-American servant class may seem distasteful, but they are also people who see the world changing around them and are doing their best to change with it. This results in characters who are both nuanced and sympathetic. All three primary actors were recognized for their work, with Freeman and Akroyd getting nominations and Tandy being the oldest person to take home a Best Actress Oscar, a record that stands today.

I wish I didn’t recall so many Driving Miss Daisy spoofs. It’s been a trope and a punchline, and – it’s not without reason. I liked this film quite a bit, but there were definite moments when the pace was a little – languid if you will. Daisy drives the viewer a little crazy with her incessant grumping – but hey, I kind of love a few grumps myself. I think Mouse is right about the elderly and independence – one aspect of this film that I really appreciated was its focus on dignity as the characters age. There is a scene in which Hoke is driving Daisy to her brother’s house for a 90th birthday party, and the two must traverse across Alabama. They are stopped by police and Hoke is degradingly referred to as “Boy.” This is one of the most powerful scenes in the film and feels like a punch in the gut. It illustrates that even though the two may try in some small ways – for their time – to transcend racism and injustice, that won’t stop the world from throwing it their way. That is a message that resonates with me, because I see it as pertinent to our world today. We can and should try in every way possible to rebuke racism – and more strongly than depicted in this film, of course – but we should never be blind to its reality writ large.

Miss Daisy is notable for being the first adaptation of an off-Broadway play to win Best Picture, as well as the last film rated PG to win (as of this writing). Reception at the time focussed on the actors’ performance. This was my first time seeing it, and the experience was…nice. It is a fine enough movie, and Mr. Freeman and Mrs. Tandy are solid, but it isn’t exactly the type of movie that keeps a viewer on the edge of his or her seat. Now, I don’t mean to denigrate what comes across as a warm and emotionally engaging film, but I’m having a tough time deciding if it lives up to Best Picture status. Of particular note, Field of Dreams was wildly creative, with a mix of fantasy and the national pastime, used to tell a story about family and regret. It would have been cool if Glory– the history-inspired story of the legendary Massachusetts 54th Regiment- had at least gotten a nomination. But if I were to recommend just one movie from that year it would unquestionably be Dead Poets Society.

But yes, the movie was certainly right about one thing: be nice to grumps. They just might end up being your best friend.

It’s kind of hard to know that this film beat Glory. I remember watching Glory in eighth grade – being moved by it and having great discussions with my classmates. Driving Miss Daisy is a quieter film – it’s more apt to start a conversation inside your own head, with yourself, than with other audience members. I did think the film did an excellent job of illustrating the main characters as they aged, and the final scene in the nursing home was the most moving of all to me. After so much between the two of them, when we think that Daisy has lost a lot of her cognition, she firmly and clearly tells Hoke, “Hoke, you are my best friend.” With the work they had both put into their relationship, with the external stresses, with everything surrounding the pair, this was powerful. I definitely burst into tears, which didn’t really surprise my blogging comrade. He’s right – sometimes grumps do become your best friends.

I should also mention that the film reminded me of an undeniable truth: I could watch Morgan Freeman act for hours.

Also nominated in 1989:
Born on the Fourth of July
Dead Poets Society
Field of Dreams
My Left Foot

Next film: CIMARRON (1931)

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