Driving Miss Daisy
I have fond memories of heading to the movies with my parents to see Driving Miss Daisy. The 1989 motion picture wasn’t really supposed to be my cup of tea as a 10-year-old, but there I was thinking it was all a rather pleasant experience. Fast-forward to today and I still think of the Bruce Beresford-directed film as rather pleasant and rather nice, but it’s not much else.
Based on the Alfred Uhry play of the same name, Driving Miss Daisy is one of those relationship movies that places the characters against external odds. Society would’ve invariably and stupidly frowned upon the friendship between the two main characters, of course, and that means an awful lot. But beyond that, the movie falls into a lot of the traps overly sentimental pictures tumble into. That, unfortunately, keeps this film from being as good as it could have been.
Jessica Tandy does a wonderful job as Miss Daisy Werthan, a Jewish woman living in Georgia. She is alone after an interesting life, but her son, Boolie (Dan Aykroyd) watches over her diligently. One day, Miss Daisy takes the car out for a ride and has a minor accident. Boolie says that she’ll need to get a chauffeur because no insurance company would cover her. He hires Hoke (Morgan Freeman) to take care of his mother.
Hoke and Miss Daisy begin what could best be termed a reluctant relationship. Daisy deals with her loss of mobility as many of us doubtlessly will and she becomes equal parts bitter and suspicious. Hoke tries to get her more comfortable with the idea of having a driver, but it’s not an easy road. Eventually a friendship does blossom, but it’s hard for a Jewish woman and an African-American man to be seen together without society’s unfortunate expectations coming to the fore.
Driving Miss Daisy does well to not hammer the viewer with the prejudices of the time. The characters exist no matter what happens, so this helps in conceptualizing the importance of the friendship between Daisy and Hoke. There’s a minor incident involving cops in Alabama that isn’t pushed too far beyond knowing glances. And there’s the bombing of Daisy’s synagogue, a moment that plays out carefully and not with glossy flavour.
Beresford directs things well enough, but he doesn’t take too many chances. There is one particular scene that stands out, however. When Boolie is talking to his mother about the Martin Luther King dinner and his reluctance to attend because of the downside it could have on his business, Beresford frames the conversation using the mirror. The two characters never face each other and stay in separate panels despite being in the same room facing each other. It’s a nice touch that illustrates the distance Daisy must have felt from her son in that moment. Was it shame? Regret? Disdain?
Unfortunately, Beresford’s picture falls into melodrama and schmaltz quite often. Tandy is tremendous and she sidesteps the more obvious moments with her characteristic subtlety, but Freeman isn’t so lucky. He oversells routinely, playing up the stereotype of the uneducated black man with a sort of unnecessary glee. Had Freeman pinched just an ounce of subtlety from Tandy, Driving Miss Daisy would be a much stronger picture.
In any event, it’s still a decent picture. It’s every bit as pleasant and inoffensive as I remember all those years ago. I only wish now that it had taken a few more chances with its subject and direction, as the outlines of possibility stand out like sore thumbs. As it stands, Driving Miss Daisy is a nice movie. But it could have been so much more.