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.


Sunday, October 14, 2012

RAIN MAN (1988)



RAIN MAN (DIR: BARRY LEVINSON)  (SCR: RONALD BASS AND BARRY MORROW)

Barry Levinson's RAIN MAN is an interesting combination of several classic Hollywood styles: it's a classic star vehicle, that combines two big stars from different generations, it's also a road movie, a redemption story and a honest look at a person with a serious handicap.  I think it's also one of the few Hollywood movies to show a mentally challenged person in a way that doesn't make the person cuddly or lovable (like, say FORREST GUMP), but instead deals honestly with the problems such a person would face.  It's also just an excellently made, well acted, highly entertaining film that showcases its two stars perfectly.  It also raised awareness of the then mostly unknown condition of autism, making it sadly prescient, as the rates of autism have risen in this country since this film's debut.  
The fact that the film got made at all is a testament to the tenacity of Dustin Hoffman, who first became interested in the project in 1984,  after screen writer Barry Marrow met a real life savant named Kim Peek, and wrote a script based on him and gave a copy of the script to Hoffman.  It turned out that Hoffman had been interested in playing a mentally challenged character ever since he had worked at a psychiatric institute while studying acting years earlier.  Hoffman clung to the film for years, and he  met with Peek and researched mental disorders and autism while waiting for the film to come together.  He never wavered, even after directors like Martin Brest and Stephen Spielberg  passed on it (Spielberg's contribution was to have another writer, Ronald Bass, rewrite the character of Raymond Babbitt as autistic instead of mentally retarded, a  significant change).  The film would probably never have gotten made if it weren't for the fact that mega star Tom Cruise was interested in playing Charlie Babbitt.  Eventually, Barry Levinson, who had already turned down the film before in order to make GOOD MORNING VIET NAM, was brought in to direct.  He turned out to be the right choice, as Levinson's earlier films like 1982's DINER and 1987's TIN MEN showed, he had a real gift for showcasing casual, realistic, funny dialogue between male characters, which would turn out to be the key to RAIN MAN's success.  Levinson shot most of the film sequentially, using actual locations, essentially following the character's road trip.  Sentiment was scrupulously avoided, with Hoffman playing Raymond as a blank slate, and Levinson even dictating that Hans Zimmer's score eschew string sections to avoid schmaltz. The film opened poorly, but word of mouth built, and it wound up becoming the biggest hit of the year, a rarity for a serious drama.

Dustin Hoffman & Tom Cruise


The film is about Charlie Babbitt, an auto dealer in financial trouble, who discovers that his estranged father left all of his estate to his brother Raymond, a brother that Charlie never knew he had.  He goes to visit Raymond in a mental home, and then kidnaps him and takes him on a road trip to try and find a way to get the inheritance.  At first frustrated by his brother's behavior, he eventually, he comes to care for him, while also using Raymond's computer like memory to win at Blackjack in Las Vegas and solve his money troubles.

While Levinson made sure that this is a good looking film (there are several nice shots of perfectly moonlit American highways), he clearly realized that it is, first and foremost, a two man show between the leads, and he made sure the chemistry between them works.  (Hoffman and Cruise often remained in character between shooting to build that chemistry, and it shows). Hoffman was so obviously committed to the role, that's it easy to forget that you are watching a famous actor; his Raymond never looks anyone in the eye, mumbles constantly to both himself and others, and is truly frightening when upset.  He completely lives in his own world, one that even his brother can't really enter. This is illustrated wonderfully in one scene when,  after Charlie gives Raymond a quick dance lesson, he screams when Charlie moves to hug him.  And, in an uncompromising moment, at the end of the film, Charlie puts him on a train and says goodbye to him, and Raymond doesn't even look back as he rides away.  It's Hoffman's dedication to the role that won him as Oscar for best actor, (his second win after KRAMER VS. KRAMER) but in many ways Cruise gives the better performance here: since Raymond is, by his very nature, a character that the audience cannot relate to, Cruise has be the audience's link to the film, and he handles that well: he believable in his often frustrated reactions to his brother, and sincere when he realizes that he is building feelings for Raymond.  And, also unlike Raymond,  Cruise's Charlie does change in the film, going from a cynical, often cold man who curses his dead father and is openly contemptuous to his handicapped brother,  to someone capable of caring about someone as distant as Raymond.  I love the scene (shot in one take) when Charlie realizes that he does have some distant childhood memories of his brother, or when he pleads with a psychiatrist to be allowed custody of his brother.  This was an important role for Cruise: although he had become a big star by mostly coasting on his good looks in lightweight entertainments like 1986's TOP GUN, it was here that he established that he was more than a pretty face, and that he could handle serious dramatic roles.  Perhaps it was his realization of this that pushed him into giving such a strong performance, along with his willingness to play a character who is often unsympathetic at the beginning of the film. 

Dustin Hoffman & Tom Cruise


Outside of the two leads, the rest of the acting in the film is also strong: all the various people the two brothers meet on their road trip are well played, and pretty Valeria Golano does what she can in the somewhat thankless role of Cruise's girlfriend Susanna.  Although she mostly exists in the film to chart the change  in Cruise's character (she rejects Charlie when she sees him exploiting his brother, and then returns to him when his experiences with Raymond make him a better person),  Galano makes the most of a charming scene in which she gives Raymond a playful kiss in an elevator.
Hans Zimmer's synth heavy score heavily dates the film to the 80's (as does Galano's ugly wardrobe), and the quick cutting and flashy lighting Levinson uses in a brief montage of Las Vegas shows the insidious influence of MTV, but none of these things really hurt the film.  The only serious flaw I have with the movie is Charlie's naive belief that he can take care of Raymond himself at the end.  After having  seen firsthand just how difficult Raymond can be, and how leaving him alone for even a short time can be disastrous, he still thinks that Raymond will be fine living with him.    While we can understand Charlie's anger at never being told that he has a brother, and admire his sincerity in wanting to take care of Raymond, he still seems foolish to me here, after being smart for the rest of the film. Still, to the film's credit, the doctors who want Raymond readmitted are not villains, they truly seem to want what's best for him, and so the film's ending feels inevitable, even if Charlie's actions are out of character.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

1988 was not a particularly strong year for films, and I think the only movies that can really be compared to RAIN MAN are Stephen Frears's excellent DANGEROUS LIASONS and Jonathan Kaplan's powerful THE ACCUSED,  but neither of them surpass Levinson's terrific achievement.