Monday, April 11, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Driving Miss Daisy" (1989)

Although it hasn't aged particularly well since winning the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1989, "Driving Miss Daisy" is an exquisitely-acted slice of cinematic comfort food that evokes the look and feel of the Old South -- or, at least, how we would like to remember it.

Looking back on this film directed by Bruce Beresford from a screenplay by Alfred Uhry, based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, it feels a little quaint and musty -- like a room in your grandmother's well-tended house that seemed magical when you were little, but upon reaching adulthood seems cramped and a little stale-smelling.

Still, it's mostly a showcase for two finely-written characters, and the actors who portray them. That's how "Driving Miss Daisy" registers now: Marking the coda of one great acting career, and the rise of another.

Jessica Tandy made her bones on the stage, but had many memorable film appearances beginning in 1932, including "The Seventh Cross" and "The Birds." Already in her 70s, she stepped into a major career revival in the 1980s and '90s with "The World According to Garp" and "Cocoon" and its sequel, capped off by her Oscar win for Best Actress for "Miss Daisy," becoming the oldest actress (at 81) to win the statuette. She would be nominated again a couple years later for "Fried Green Tomatoes," and died in 1994.

"Driving Miss Daisy," along with "Glory" that same year, vaulted Morgan Freeman into stardom at the age of 52, beginning a 20-year run of screen roles that is, in my estimation, unmatched by any other actor in the modern era. "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves." "Unforgiven." "The Shawshank Redemption." "Se7en." "Kiss the Girls."  "Amistad." "Deep Impact" (portraying a black American president). "Bruce Almighty" (playing God, no less). "Million Dollar Baby." "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight." "Gone Baby Gone." "Invictus."

Five Oscar nominations, and one win. Amazing. Only Tom Hanks' run in the 1990s is even worthy of comparison.

Even when "Miss Daisy" came out more than 20 years ago, many people were critical of it because of its portrayal of a deferential black man playing servant to an rich, elderly white woman. All of the "Yes'ms" and "Yessirs" coming out of Hoke Colburn's mouth grated on the ears of a younger, more assertive generation of African-Americans -- especially filmmaker Spike Lee, who still speaks ill of "Miss Daisy" winning Best Picture when his film of the same year, "Do the Right Thing," did not even garner a nomination.

(Lee is correct in his assessment that "Right Thing" is the superior film, but doesn't seem to realize how much his harping diminishes him.)

Daisy Werthan is a member of a small community of Atlanta Jews prominent during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She is wealthy but denies it -- in fact, her main objection to her son Boolie (Dan Aykroyd) hiring a driver for her after she crashes her Chrysler is that her friends will think she's putting on airs. She's furious when Hoke picks her up right in front of the synagogue after services, "like the queen of Romania."

Their relationship progresses with an unsurprising but still genuine thawing period. Daisy teaches the illiterate Hoke to read, he helps her in the garden, and eventually learns to stand up for himself. "Hoke, you're my best friend" is her declaration after 25 years together, and its utterance surprises her as much as it does Hoke.

As a confirmed classic car nut, the automobiles in the movie were a gorgeous feast for these eyes. I could barely stand to see Miss Daisy crash her brand-new Chrysler, but was rewarded by its replacement with a maroon 1948 Hudson Commodore. That gave way to a black 1955 Cadillac Fleetwood 75, and Miss Daisy stayed in Caddies from there on in -- a 1965 and 1972, I believe.

3.5 stars out of four

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