Directed by Bruce Beresford
It has taken me forever to finally get my thoughts about Driving Miss Daisy written down. It’s partly because my feelings about it are complex, but it’s also because I have a new boyfriend, and while I like to write about movies, there are many things that are more enjoyable that I can do with my boyfriend, so this has been put on the back burner for a bit. Once I get in the rhythm of having a boyfriend again, posts should start appearing with more regularity. So without further ado, I present my thoughts on Driving Miss Daisy:
As is oddly common with so many of these movies from 1989, Driving Miss Daisy is a movie I grew up watching. Again and again and again and again. Yet somehow, I haven’t ever gotten tired of it. In fact, immediately after I finished watching Deliverance and was traumatized by it and wanted to get it out of my head, I turned on Driving Miss Daisy. It calmed me down and got the scary, icky feeling to go away. It reminded me that there is good in this world.
So what’s the story? After 72-year-old Miss Daisy Worthen crashes yet another car, her son Boolie decides that she needs a chauffeur. Against her wishes, Boolie hires Hoke Colburn for the job. Although Miss Daisy refuses to even acknowledge that Hoke’s existence at first, their relationship slowly becomes one of mutual admiration and friendship, something amazingly unusual between and white woman and a black man in pre-Civil Rights era Georgia.
The Good: Because I have a hard time explaining everything else, I’m going to start with the screenplay. It’s easy. The screenplay is wonderful. The author, Alfred Uhry, adapted his own Pulitzer-prize winning play for the screen. In my opinion, the best way to get a good movie from another medium is to have the author of the original medium write the screenplay. They know why they wrote the play/book/short story and can put that motivation and intention into the screenplay. They are able to take out the less important things and expose the important core more easily than some random screenplay writer. Anyway, back to the screenplay – it’s delightful. The speech patterns and expressions of the American South are fun, and in this case, you get to hear ways of talking from the black people and the white as Hoke and Daisy become close and share so much of their lives.
Here is where I come to the tricky part that I’m not sure how to explain. To show the passage of time in a movie that spans 25 years, everything had to come together perfectly–and everything did. The film elements do double duty; they show things about the characters, like social class and funny characteristics, but they also have to show the passage of time. Instead of making one long paragraph explaining how all the film elements came together to really show that the relationship took time to grow from nothing to tolerance to true friendship, I’ll write about each one separately to highlight how exactly it did its job.
Acting: Jessica Tandy as Daisy and Morgan Freeman as Hoke both give amazing performances. Daisy, who is described as “too much there,” is intelligence, fierce and iron-willed, unyielding in her ideas of standards. Tandy shows how Daisy softens as she ages, realizing in her old age that maybe some of her ideals weren’t so good after all. Freeman plays Hoke as a man who is too proud to take money for nothing, a man who knows his own worth but isn’t pushy about it. I love the habit that Hoke has of working his mouth in a certain way; it’s something I’ve always respected about Freeman’s performance. As he ages, Hoke realizes that he and Daisy are on a much more equal footing, and he acts accordingly. Dan Akroyd is excellent as Daisy’s only child, the long-suffering Boolie. Although he respects his mother, he is often impatient with her stubborn ways. He mellows, though, especially toward the end when he realizes that he misses his mother’s funny ways. Boolie’s wife, Florine, is played by Patti LuPone. Florine tries hard to be kind to her impossible mother-in-law at the start of the movie, but eventually realizes that no matter what how hard she tries, Daisy is never going to accept her. Florine remains high-strung her entire life; some people just don’t change. LuPone shows this to perfection.
Set Decoration: As happens in life, the things surrounding the characters change. Since the movie is about driving, the cars are an obvious example of this. The car that Miss Daisy crashes, the catalyst for the events of the movie, is a brand-new 1948 Hudson. Her car is replaced by another exactly the same, but whenever Boolie decides it’s time for his mother to have a new car, every five years or so, the styles change. The car from the fifties is longer and sleeker than the 1948 Hudson, and the cars continue to get more aerodynamic as time goes on. The photography occasionally highlights the registration tag, which changes year to year as does the registration on cars in real life. Daisy often calls Boolie, and since Boolie’s wife, Florine, is fashion-forward, her telephones are, too. They have a standard black dial phone in the 1940s, but the phone Boolie uses in the 1970s is harvest gold. It’s a teeny detail, but it’s evidence of how hard the crew worked to make everything perfectly fit the time. Boolie’s factory is another place where we can see the passage of time. At the beginning, it’s full of factory workers manually running the machines. By the end, the factory has many more machines with fewer people; these people are keeping an eye on the machines rather than physically running them. Even the songs used keep the passage of time in mind. The songs are always accurate for the year. Daisy sings songs that were written before the turn of the century, ones that a woman of her age would have learned as a child. When Florine throws her <GASP> Christmas party, one of her records is “Santa Baby.” Boolie is looking skeptically at it, as it’s the first year it came out. I suppose the music isn’t usually set decoration, but in this case, where it’s used to set the year and not just the feeling of a scene, I think it fits.
Makeup/Hair: Every single makeup artist who needs to age people for a movie needs to take note of the artistry of Driving Miss Daisy. Growing up watching this movie may be why I am so impatient of poorly-done aging. (I’m looking at you, Giant!). All of the actors get more wrinkly as the age, even Miss Daisy, who is so old to begin with. She becomes skinnier the way that some old people do as they age. Boolie gets chubbier and balder with the passage of time. Hoke looked like an old man to begin with, but the makeup (along with Freeman’s old man walk) manages to age him, too, with the wrinkles on his forehead becoming deeper and more pronounced. His hair slowly goes from grey to white. Flourine gets some wrinkles, but she also looks incredibly preserved, leading the viewer to wonder if maybe Florine got some work done. Her hairstyles change with the times perfectly. (Also, her makeup is so well-done that I didn’t even recognize Patti LuPone, even after I realized that she was in the movie.) Near the end of the movie, Hoke’s granddaughter drops him off at the Worthen home. She has an Afro. Again, a tiny little detail is snuck into the movie to show how much time has passed and how the world has changed.
Costumes: The costuming was so crucial for this movie. If the clothes hadn’t been right, no one would have believed that 25 years had passed throughout the movie. Daisy’s clothes don’t change much, of course, because she’s an older woman and is happy in the clothes she has. My great-grandmother was the same way; when I was in my 20s, she was wearing the same clothes I remembered from my childhood. Hoke wears a uniform, so his clothes don’t really change. But Boolie’s clothes – oh, they change. The first time we see him, his suit pants are high-waisted and his tie is very wide. Throughout the movie, the pants’ waists get lower, the ties get skinnier, and the colors of the suits vary as the styles change. He wears a hat at the beginning, but has given up his hats by the end of the movie. He starts wearing glasses as he gets older. While Florine is always wearing year-appropriate fashions, she’s not in the movie nearly as much as Boolie is. I can imagine her picking his clothes for him so that he is always stylish, and I can see him wearing whatever she tells him to because it’s just not worth the fight.
The Bad: The score itself isn’t bad; I once had a film teacher say it was “nice,” and you “can tell it’s nice, because it has lots of clarinet in it. Clarinets are nice instruments.” The themes are fun and positive. The thing that bothers me is that it’s always there. It’s like the filmmakers just couldn’t stand the silence. I realize that was how film music worked at the time, but I’m glad that’s not the fashion anymore.
The Ugly: It’s too nice of a movie to have anything ugly in it per se, but there is ugly beneath the surface. I just accepted the story as it was presented in the movie when I was young, but now I feel kind of uncomfortable watching it. There’s almost an undertone of “Isn’t the white lady wonderful because she made friends with a black man?” The only thing that makes me okay with watching the movie is that Alfred Urhy based his play/screenplay on the relationship of his white southern grandmother and her black chauffeur. I guess I would like to see the story from both sides: how did Hoke feel about the relationship? How did the growth of this friendship change or not change his life? Part of me wants to say it was just the South in the 1940s-1970s and to accept what’s there, but the rest of me wants to point out that Hoke has a life outside of being Daisy’s driver, and we don’t get to see any of that. It’s a two-sided story that only gets told from one point of view.
Oscars Won: Best picture; best actress in a leading role (Jessica Tandy); best writing, screenplay based on material from another medium; best makeup.
Other Oscar Nominations: Best actor in a leading role (Morgan Freeman); best actor in a supporting role (Dan Aykroyd); best art direction-set direction; best costume design; best film editing.