Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 5, 2013)
In 1990, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences demonstrated why so many people dislike that organization. As John Harkness wrote in my worn and tattered copy of The Academy Awards Handbook, "In the year of Do the Right Thing, Hollywood chose to honor Driving Miss Daisy, an uplifting film about the good old days when blacks were faithful family retainers."
In other words, when confronted by a strong, aggressive picture made by an opinionated black filmmaker, Hollywood retreated to the comforts of a well-meaning but paternalistic work shepherded by the white establishment. Really, it seems unfortunate that another film that dealt with race relations won in place of Thing. The Academy would have taken flack for its failure to acknowledge the Spike Lee flick in any case, but had something like Field of Dreams won instead, I don't know if the oversight would have appeared as politically charged.
As it stood, this decision looked like a serious slap in the face of filmmakers who wanted to say something challenging about current events, and it reinforced why so many see the Academy as a reactionary, backwards institution. While a competent piece of work, Daisy provided a glaring example of what was wrong with the Hollywood establishment in the late Eighties.
Alfred Uhry adapts his own play for the big-screen here, though the film's stage roots still show. Some settings vary - it's not as claustrophobic as something like A Raisin In the Sun, another stage adaptation that spends almost all of its time on the same location - but the action remains dialogue-intense and event-poor. Granted, Daisy doesn't open up opportunities for vivid displays akin to those in Henry V, but I think it could have broadened its horizons to a greater degree.
In any case, the movie concentrates on Miss Daisy (Jessica Tandy), an aging white woman whose son Boolie (Dan Aykroyd) hires a chauffeur for her when it becomes apparent her skills gave deteriorated. Miss Daisy accepts the presence of black driver Hoke (Morgan Freeman) reluctantly, but they slowly become friends and longtime companions.
This sort of heartwarming piece is supposed to make all of us feel good about relationships between the races, and to a degree, it does. There's certainly nothing overtly wrong with the movie. Not a whole lot happens in it; it starts in the late Forties, and we follow Miss Daisy and Hoke for a period of about 25 years. They drive around together, they chat a lot, they appear to like each other – end of movie. Perhaps that's typical of real life, but I couldn't help but wish for something to actually happen; small changes take place along the way, and Miss Daisy gradually loses her mildly-racist tendencies, but nothing else of note occurs.
The civil rights movement receives some minor attention, and Miss Daisy actually attends a dinner at which Martin Luther King speaks, but those events remain tangential to the plot at best. There's little to stir one up here; even when some obviously racist cops confront the pair, the worst thing one of the officers utters is to call Hoke "boy", and any implied threat dissipates incredibly rapidly.
Frankly, I feel uncertain as to what the actual point of Daisy was. Oh, I'm sure it was made in that "let's all get along" spirit, and that's great, but I seriously doubt it influenced anyone's opinions of other races.
If anything, it could easily work in a negative way, as the film represents a time during which blacks "knew their places"; absolutely no one challenges the system in this film, as all of the blacks are quite content with their subservience. Of course they are - Boolie and Miss Daisy treat them quite well, and Boolie continues to pay Hoke's salary well after his driving days have ended.
Unfortunately, that kind of person was the exception in that period, and some may take the mistaken notion that Daisy offers a representation that accurately displays the historical record. It doesn't, and that's what makes its message somewhat insidious. It says that if blacks just pipe down and drive around the white folks, they'll take care of them and everyone'll be happy.
Yes, Daisy pays some lip service to progress, through the semi-presence of Dr. King and also through Hoke's mention that his daughter teaches at Spelman College. However, the movie as a whole stands as an homage to the status quo, but not today's; no, it goes back decades to find a "better time".
Do I think the filmmakers consciously meant to show such a backwards and dated view of race relations? No, I expect they thought they were creating a nice little tale that shows how race doesn't matter when two people openly deal with each other, and that's true. Granted, there's not a whole lot of development in Miss Daisy - she wasn't exactly a card-carrying member of the Klan from the start - but some positives can be taken from her growth.
I remain convinced that these negatives outweigh these, however. I find it striking to note that A Raisin In the Sun predates Daisy by 28 years but offers a more realistic view of "the black experience". Racism provides such a profoundly minor component of Daisy that I can't imagine what the filmmakers were thinking.
I also am not sure why a great talent like Morgan Freeman signed on for a borderline-demeaning role like Hoke. I adore Freeman and think he adds to virtually every part he plays - except here. His portrayal of Hoke may be historically accurate, as it'd be incorrect to show such a character as well spoken and literate. However, I couldn't help but cringe at times, such as when he uttered, "I'm tryin' to drive you to de sto'!"
Freeman's inherent dignity comes through in the character at times, and he actually seems a little too strong for the role; Freeman is such a powerful presence that I found it hard to accept Hoke as such a bland but good-natured servant. As much as I bemoaned the fact that a great actor like Freeman took years to snag an Oscar, I'm glad he didn't get one for his work as Hoke.
Tandy did win an Oscar for her portrayal of Miss Daisy, an occurrence that seems closely connected to her advanced age, her lack of prior victories, and the weak field that year. Overall, Tandy provides perfectly acceptable work in the role, but the part lacks any challenges, and it seems a stretch to consider her performance as Oscar-caliber. The English-born Tandy does pull off her Southern accent unusually well, however.
As Boolie - why must all movies about the South always include characters with such asinine names? - Aykroyd became the first cast member of Saturday Night Live to receive an Oscar nomination. This occurred despite the fact Aykroyd's not very good in the role. He seems okay, I guess, but I think little personality or emotion come through in his performance. Boolie never seems like anything more than just another Aykroyd character to me; he's nothing more than an accent with a little corn-pone attitude.
Personal footnote: my favorite thing about Daisy comes from my memories. I worked at a restaurant for a decade as I went through high school, college and grad school. Originally from Germany, Ellie long worked as a waitress there, and she always referred to the actress as "Jessica Dandy" and the film as Riding Miss Daisy. Perhaps you had to be there, but these thoughts still entertain me.
That remains my most positive associations with Driving Miss Daisy. As a film, it offers a well-constructed but plodding piece of piffle. The craftsmanship bears no overt flaws, but it doesn't do anything to excite or stimulate either. My problems with it relate to the movie's politics, which seem backwards, to say the least. I found the picture to provide a rather distasteful mix of paternalism and reactionary sentiment, and I don't think it serves a positive purpose.
Footnote: Daisy marked only the third time in Oscar history when a movie won Best Picture without a nomination for Best Director. To find the two prior examples, you have to go way back into Oscar’s very early history. For 1931-1932, Grand Hotel took home Best Picture without a Best Director nomination for Edmund Goulding. However, only three directors received nods that time, even though seven Best Picture nominees occurred. In addition, first-ever Best Picture winner Wings from 1927 also didn’t get a mention for William A. Wellman. Given the nascent nature of the Oscars in those days, these anomalies don’t seem all that strange, whereas the failure for Beresford to get a nomination for Daisy seems bizarre.