Monday, October 22, 2012

DRIVING MISS DAISY (1989)


DRIVING MISS DAISY (DIR: BRUCE BERESFORD) (SCR: ALFRED UHRY BASED ON HIS PLAY OF THE SAME NAME)

DRIVING MISS DAISY is the first best picture winner to deal with the subject of race and racism in America since 1967's IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT.  Sadly, it is far less provocative and interesting than that earlier film; it's also slow and mawkish, although well acted by its two leads.  Despite its often bland tone, it was controversial, with some audiences claiming that it romanticized  the days of Southern segregation.  In any event, the film is pretty weak tea, and a poor choice for the award.

Before it was a movie, it was an off Broadway play written by Alfred Uhry, starring Morgan Freeman and Dana Ivey.  It was a great success, and it eventually won Uhry a Pulitzer prize.  Uhry based the play on his own grandmother and her relationship with her chauffeur.  In 1987 Lily and Richard Zanuck bout the film rights, but had trouble finding funding for the film, because few studio executives saw much box office potential in a story about two old people.  Eventually Warner Bros. agreed to partially fund the film, with British producer Jake Eberts providing the rest of the budget.  Australian born director Bruce Beresford was hired to direct, and Freeman was immediately brought on board to reprise his stage role.  For the title role, names like Shirley MacLaine and Elizabeth Taylor were considered, but Beresford wanting someone who was really close to the age of the character.  The  79 year old Jessica Tandy, better known for her stage work than for her screen acting, was hired.  The film was shot entirely on location in a small town near Atlanta Georgia.  It would turn out to be a surprise hit, making over one hundred and six million dollars on a budget of around seven.

Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman

Set in Georgia in 1948, it's about the 25 year relationship between Jewish Daisy Werthan (Tandy) and African American Hoke Colburn (Freeman).  When wealthy Daisy is too old to drive her own car anymore, Hoke is hired by her son Boolie (Dan Ackroyd) as her chauffeur.  At first resentful of his presence, she eventually comes to rely and depend on him.

From the gauzy, sepia toned lighting to Hans Zimmer's sappy soundtrack, this is one sentimental movie, which is part of its problem: although it condemns the racism of the era its set in, it makes the Georgian locations look so pretty, (along with the lovely sets and costumes), that, no matter the filmmaker's good intentions,  one can't help but feel the film is pushing a nostalgia for "the good old days", when things were simpler, and, of course,  when African Americans "knew their place." Still, in the film's defense, Daisy's change from distrusting Hoke to calling him her best friend is clearly supposed to chart America's changing attitudes on race, so an attempt is made to not defend the south's history of racism.  How effective that attempt is remains up to the viewer.  (On their 1990 hip hop album FEAR OF A BLACK PLANET, rap group Public Enemy have a song called Burn Hollywood Burn about the demeaning roles blacks have suffered though over the years in Hollywood.  The song ends with them storming out of a screening of this film.)

That said, the performances here are winning; it's interesting to note that, like 1988's best picture winner  RAIN MAN, this is a film that has many scenes of two people driving and talking together, and therefore the chemistry between those two characters must work, and here it does.  Tandy's Ms Daisy is a common enough character in movies: the cantankerous old lady who always says just on mind without regard to consequences.  But Tandy also makes sure we see a touch of sweetness behind her feistiness, and we can also understand her desire to independent, even if that's no longer possible.  And Tandy is also good in the later scenes when she honestly shows herself falling into senility.  She won a best actress award for the role, and while part of that came from admiration for her lifetime of work, she is good here.
Freeman, on the other hand, is even better.  After playing the character for years on stage, he clearly had it down, and he finds nuance and meaning in each line reading; for example, he says the words "Yes Miss Daisy" many times in the film, but never with the same pronunciation, always letting the audience know what he is really thinking behind the words. Freeman even plays the scene where he admits to Daisy that he can't read well, showing pride in his honesty,  even in his embarrassment.   Hoke never raises his voice in the film, but he does display anger: in perhaps the film's strongest scene, the two of them are driving through Alabama, and Hoke pulls the car over to relieve himself because he couldn't use the segregated bathroom at the gas station.  When Daisy objects, he calmly but forcefully explains to her that he is more than a just a ride to her, and that he needs to be respected. The fact that she is frightened when he leaves the car, even just for a moment, proves his point.

Dan Ackroyd

Comedy actor Dan Ackroyd make a rare dramatic appearance as Daisy's long suffering son Boolie, and he's really very good, getting big laughs as he roles his eyes at his demanding mother (and equally demanding wife), and I'm surprised that he didn't try more small roles in dramas after this.  And the rest of the cast is just fine.
While the film does have a nice sense of place, and effectively shows the passage of time, it's slight story does it no favors: stretched out in different episodes over 25 years, there is little that happens that could be called surprising, or even particularly dramatic.  And, even though it's only 98 minutes long, it often drags, with one perfectly good ending glossed over for another.  It is, all in all, a mostly  pleasant, good natured film, that's worth watching for the performances, but is far from great.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

It's a shame that such a simplistic film about race and racism  won best picture when a far more powerful film about the subject came from Spike Lee that year: DO THE RIGHT THING.  I also really enjoyed Jim Sheridan's MY LEFT FOOT, Oliver Stone's powerful follow up to PLATOON, BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, Peter Weir's DEAD POET'S SOCIETY, and my personal favorite, Woody Allen's brilliant mixture of drama and comedy, CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS.  Given the quality of all of these films, I think DRIVING MS DAISY stands as one of the Academy's weaker choices.