By John H. Foote
There were three films released in 1989 that dealt openly with the racial tensions between blacks and whites. Spike Lee’s explosive Do the Right Thing, the epic Civil War drama Glory, and the most conservative and gentle of the three, Driving Miss Daisy.
Lee’s film was incendiary, a scalding study of racism on the hottest day of the year in Brooklyn, New York, the events surrounding the local pizza parlor, eventually the site of a riot. The film was brutally honest in its depiction of the characters, and equally honest in its portrayal of the racism that haunts most big cities in America. Glory, directed by Edward Zwick, was a superb film about the first black regiment out of Boston to fight in the conflict which tore America apart. Superbly acted and directed, the film contains some of the finest cinematography of the decade, and as expected and as deserved won the Oscar for its cinematography. Neither was a Best Picture nominee which more than surprised many within the film industry who screamed loudly that Spike Lee’s film was ignored for Best Picture and Director, while others protested Glory’s snub. Each should have been nominated.
The most conservative of the films to deal with racial tensions was Driving Miss Daisy, directed by Bruce Beresford, which was easier to like than the other two, less challenging (some say) and the kind of film the Academy liked. In the years since the film won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, many things have been written about the fact it was an undeserving winner, which I find insulting and absolute rubbish. Was it the finest film of the year? No, I do not believe so, giving the edge to Glory, but Driving Miss Daisy has much to admire, and I personally have never had a problem with the film winning Best Picture. It certainly is not an embarrassment to the Academy as The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), Around the World in 80 Days (1956) or Crash (2005) are. I do protest the fact director Beresford was ignored for a Best Director nomination, which was a travesty, and not even the DGA Awards felt obliged to nominated him for their annual honours.
Driving Miss Daisy is based on the Off-Broadway comedy-drama by Alfred Uhry which explores the more than 25-year relationship between a haughty Southern Jewish woman, Daisy (Jessica Tandy) and her driver, the proud African American Hoke (Morgan Freeman). Hoke is hired by Daisy’s son Boolie (Dan Ackroyd) after his mother is in yet another car accident, and her insurance company cancels her insurance. Initially upset and refusing to allow Hoke to drive her anywhere, she warms to the idea and allows him to drive her to the Piggly Wiggly, on her conditions. A backseat driver, she is constantly nattering at him about the speed limit, driving too close, exerting the power she has over him. She constantly looks for a reason to fire Hoke, finally finding one when he takes a can of salmon without permission for his lunch. Just as Boolie is about to fire him, he pulls a can out of his pocket to replace the one he took, explaining the pork chop left for him had soured. Daisy begins to see his honesty and slowly a friendship and trust begins that will define both of them.
Set mostly in the sixties, the racial tensions between blacks and whites runs rampant in the South and Daisy often sees that Hoke is mistreated by whites for no reason other than they can. She is amazed he is always so calm, so accommodating to the often arrogant whites who bully him. By saying nothing or not protesting, he always looks more humane than they do, something not lost on Daisy. When Boolie trades the car he bought his mother in for brand new vehicle, Hoke buys the used car, but on his own refusing to accept anything from Boolie but his pay cheque.
As the years pass, Daisy finds the only person she can truly count on is Hoke, as Boolie is busy with his demanding wife, whom Daisy despises, and his business, left to him by his father. As her mind slips with old age, she begins to hallucinate, the past coming to her out of the shadows. Terrified one morning, she takes Hoke’s hand and tells him, “Hoke, you’re my best friend.” The old man holds her tiny hand in his and whispers, “Yes m’am”, recognizing what they have come to mean to one another.
Initially divided by class, colour and personality, the friendship they forge loses sight of those three things as they find they have more in common than they ever believed would be possible.
Forced to put his mother in a senior’s facility, Hoke loses his license when his eyesight becomes terrible with age. His daughter drives him to visit Daisy, now in her nineties, but still as demanding as ever. When Boolie attempts to make conversation with them both, Daisy scolds him, “Hoke came to see me”. Hoke feeds her pudding and she smiles at him like a gamine, happy, thrilled her friend is still with her, looking out for her. They develop something deeper than friendship, a love between two people that is not romantic at all, but a mutual respect and fondness that cannot not be broken.
The search to cast Daisy was a long one, with actresses such as Lucille Ball, Shirley MacLaine and the two Hepburns, Audrey and Katherine, considered for the part. Even Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep entered the discussion, the magic of makeup able to turn them into 70-year old women and age them into their nineties. In the end it was a stroke of fate, payback even, as Jessica Tandy was cast in the plum role of Miss Daisy. Years before, after originating the role of Blanche Du Bois on Broadway opposite Marlon Brando, Tandy was dropped for the film when the studio demanded Vivien Leigh play the role as she had greater box office appeal. Tandy took it like a pro but knew she had missed out on a chance to further her career as an actress on film. 80-years old when she was cast in the film, Tandy would age 25 years in the film, from 70 to 95, and gave the finest performance of the year. There were wags out there in the critical community, who obviously know nothing about the art of acting, who claim she was portraying herself, or had no arc, as it was the case of an old woman playing an old woman to which I say bull. Watch her, watch her closely. Watch for the gentle shifts, the slow realization she can trust Hoke, the way she begins to understand he might be the best man she knows, the way she begins to lose her faculties, her mind going gently, and watch that final scene between she and Hoke, because it is breathtaking. Tandy won the Academy Award for her performance, well earned.
Morgan Freeman was an actor on the rise, a late bloomer who had been on TV for years and given a handful of fine film performances but never really broken through. His searing work as a vicious pimp in the otherwise terrible Street Smart (1987) caught the eyes of critics, earning him supporting actor awards from the L.A. and New York Film Critic’s Awards, as well as the National Society of Film Critics. He was nominated for an Oscar, losing to Sean Connery in The Untouchables (1987). In 1989 he finally broke through with two superb performances, the first as an older soldier in Glory, and the second this leading performance as Hoke. Humble, unable to read until Daisy gets a hold of him, but sharp, knowing always how to act among the whites, knowing his place, Daisy recognizes Hoke’s value to her, understands as best she can his struggle in the world. It is a superb performance from Freeman, placing him on the path to becoming one the finest actors in modern film. Nominated for both an Oscar as Best Actor and the Golden Globe, he and Tandy give exceptional performances, creating a beautiful chemistry between them, a believable friendship that takes our breath away.
In a surprising supporting performance, Dan Ackroyd is exceptionally fine as Boolie, the put-upon son who deals with his demanding mother as best he can. Did anyone ever expect a performance of this depth from the comedic actor? I did not, but was pleasantly shocked when he gave it, never once looking out of place.
Beresford created a lovely, often deeply moving film about the evolving friendship between two people moving into their elder years. Eventually Daisy sees no colour barrier between them, and Hoke, well he never did. Much of the film is through the eyes of Daisy, and we see her grudging respect of Hoke come after the can of salmon is returned, and when the two of them deal with the death of Daisy’s long time cook and maid. We watch as Hoke stands up to her, arguing about having to urinate on his time, not hers, and the small smile from him when he gets her on time to the party she is attending.
The cinematography is crisp and clean, the score is perfect, and the make up that ages the three leads is subtle and perfect, winning one of the films four Academy Awards. Nominated for a whopping nine, incredibly not including Best Director, the film won four, for make-up, adapted screenplay, actress and Best Picture.
A beautiful, deeply moving film about an always evolving friendship.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.