By Marc S. Sanders
Mainstream films released by big studios suffer from a major problem these days. Too often, they don’t allow their characters to breathe. Films today rush to the climax or the action or the cliffhanger that’ll whet our appetites for a sequel or a crossover or a toy product. Bruce Beresford’s Driving Miss Daisy escaped all of those conventions. In fact, I’d argue that Beresford made a buddy picture with his Best Picture Winner based upon Alfred Uhry’s well received play.
Daisy Werthan (Jessica Tandy, who won the Oscar, and held the record for oldest recipient) is an insistently independent old southern Jewish woman living in Georgia. She drives her car where she wants to and whenever she wants to go somewhere. However, following an accident in her driveway, her son Boolie (Dan Aykroyd in a very surprisingly good performance) breaks the hard truth to Daisy that her driving days are over since it’s likely no insurance company will ever affordably cover her. Boolie recruits Hoke Colburn (Morgan Freeman in one of the most gentle and delicate performances of his amazing career) to chauffer the proud woman around her Georgia neighborhood. Naturally, Daisy does not take well to Hoke at first.
The film begins in the 1950’s and then spans roughly 20 years from that point. I love how Beresford presents the passage of time. The cars that Hoke carries Daisy in change as the years go by. As a new car is shown parked in Daisy’s garage, the relationship and eventual friendship of Hoke and Daisy become stronger and, on some occasions, franker and more honest. With Hans Zimmer’s energetic score that seems to accelerate the speed of the automobiles Hoke drives, Driving Miss Daisy feels like a very sweet and tender film. It is. Moreover, it’s an alive picture. However, the film does not ignore the prejudiced mentality that’s embedded within the south. A telling moment occurs when Hoke is driving Daisy to a family gathering in Alabama. Why would an elderly black man with an elderly Jewish woman sitting in the back seat be met with such disdain by policemen who question their presence while eating lunch on the side of the rode? I won’t repeat the officer’s comment here, but it is ugly and a sad reflection of how things were. Are things still that way?
Uhry’s script adaptation from his play does not stop there though. He questions Daisy’s own stance. She takes no issue with black people catering to her and her home on regular basis, and she becomes enamored with Martin Luther King’s inspiring wisdom. So, when she is given the opportunity to see Dr. King speak in person, it only makes sense that Hoke will question why he was invited last minute to join her. After so many years of servitude, why did Daisy wait until Hoke literally drove up to the location of the speech to invite him in? I’d argue that it never occurred to Daisy, and I think Alfred Uhry believed that is part of the problem.
Both Daisy and Hoke experience anti-Semitism and racism in the mid twentieth century south. Ironically, the film demonstrates that common victimization is one reason why they need one another. I’m thankful that Beresford does not show a burning synagogue for dramatic effect. Instead, he relies on Uhry’s dialogue as Hoke breaks the news to Daisy when they are on their way for morning Shabbat services. How does Daisy feel in this circumstance? The synagogue can be rebuilt. The horror of knowing this kind of hate exists will never be erased. That’s the terrible shock. As well to empathize, Hoke describes how as a child he saw his uncle get lynched and hung from a tree. Daisy and Hoke unite in the hate that surrounds them.
The performances of Freeman, Tandy and Aykroyd are exquisite. Their dialect for each of their respective characters rings so true of the Georgian southern regions they stem from. Freeman has an enunciation that rings of a black man who never learned to read. He even develops a laugh that seamlessly works into his dialogue and reaction to Daisy’s stubbornness. His posture is marvelous as an elderly gentleman who will walk slowly while hunched over. It just looks so natural. Aykroyd is in no way doing one of his comedy characters. He carries the gut of a well-fed southern man who’s become successful with his family business while not taking every fit that his mother has so seriously. If any of us have had to tend to an elderly relative, then we can certainly relate to Boolie’s position. Tandy is wonderful at method acting; it should be studied in performance art classes. She was an elderly woman already when cast in the role. Yet, as the years carry on through the story, she changes her gait to how this woman’s bones might become more brittle, or how she might speak slower or smile or frown or chew her food. She has such a fire in every one of her scenes. A heartbreaking scene where she appears to be having a frantic form of dementia is very eye opening as she paces her historic two-story home looking for papers she graded years earlier as a teacher. The younger Freeman (playing a far older man) has to keep up with Tandy in this moment; even Beresford’s steady cam has to move quickly to keep focus.
Recently, I had reviewed Terms Of Endearment, and I alluded to the fact that not enough films about middle age people are focused upon, or at least given the commercial attention that they should be given. Why is that? So many middle age and elderly characters are so interesting. I said it before. Look at The Golden Girls sitcom. After all, characters with more years behind them have had more moments to live and breathe. Actually, they have a longer history with more nuances and meaningful events they have already encountered, as opposed to twenty somethings with hot cars, pecs and guns. Film studios are missing out on a wealth of great storytelling.
Driving Miss Daisy is well paced story of friendship and fear, and often natural comedic material within its three lead roles. It’s never boring. It’s only more and more interesting as the years of the story pass by. It’s simply an endearing buddy picture of the finest quality.