Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

Welcome to another Oscar Film Journal entry, here at!  This here is the first installment that features a film I'd give a full non-recommendation....

We're heading back to the 80s today, with a movie that heads back to the 40s through the early 70s.  The 1989 Best Picture winner was textbook 80s Oscar bait, a light-footed comedy-drama that kinda sorta tackled the issue of race in mid-century America but in a very safe, innocuous fashion.  I'm talking about Driving Miss Daisy, starring Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman, and based on the 1987 stage play by Alfred Uhry.  DMD is about a rich southern widow who takes her car out for a spin one day and learns that at her advanced age she's no longer sound behind the wheel, driving it backwards into her neighbors yard and totaling the vehicle.  Her son (played by Dan Aykroyd) insists that he hire her a chauffer, a prospect she resists kicking and screaming.  But gradually Hoke (Freeman) wins her over with his calm demeanor and uncanny ability to handle her excitable, disagreeable nature.  Over the years Hoke becomes her most trusted companion, gradually helping her understand the ugliness of oppression and bigotry (something that as a Jewish woman in the Jim Crow south she begins to experience firsthand); Daisy exhibits some racist behavior early in the film but by the end actually attends a dinner where Martin Luther King speaks (though she fails to extend Hoke a proper invitation).  The pair age into retirement and are forced to separate, only visiting each other once in a while at Daisy's retirement home.  And, well, that's it.
Watching this film I found it truly baffling that Driving Miss Daisy beat out Born on the Fourth of July (not to mention Field of Dreams, My Left Foot, and a great film that wasn't even nominated, Do the Right Thing) in the Best Picture category.  Yes, the two lead performances are excellent, particularly Tandy as the fastidious title character, too proud and independent to admit she needs help.  And Freeman is great as always, handling his boss with great care and calm dignity.  But aside from the acting I didn't get much out of the story at all.  It was a series of episodes spread out over a quarter-century without much narrative thrust, and what precious little social commentary the filmmakers injected felt sanitized and dumbed-down.  Yes, racism and anti-Semitism are bad.  Is that all you've got to say on the subject?  Contrast that with the explosive, thought-provoking Do the Right Thing, which took a hard, complex look at similar issues.  How could this possibly have edged out that all-time classic for a Best Picture nod?  Sadly this pattern repeated with the Oscars celebrating 2018, as the safe, white savior-y Green Book won Best Pic over another Spike Lee masterpiece, BlacKKKlansman.  What the Academy has against Lee, I'm sure I don't know.  But you'd think they'd have learned from this mistake.

Regardless of how over-awarded Driving Miss Daisy was, I found it a well-acted film without a very engaging story.  The beats are all very repetitious.  Daisy resists having a chauffer.  Hoke gets her to accept him.  Daisy thinks Hoke is overstepping his bounds as her chauffer.  Hoke gets her to accept him again.  Daisy doesn't want to admit she needs Hoke.  Hoke gets her to accept him as her friend.  Daisy doesn't see Hoke as a real person.  Hoke gets her to see him as a real person.  And so forth.  I have a feeling this material worked better on the stage, but as a film I found it ponderous and kind of low-hanging, a project designed to make an audience feel noble for even considering the subject of racism, without challenging them to really confront it.  If you're going to have the conversation, HAVE THE CONVERSATION.  Driving Miss Daisy has to be one of the weaker Best Picture winners in Oscar history.

I give the film ** out of ****.

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