Driving Miss Daisy (1989, Bruce Beresford)
!!!!! AVOID !!!!!
As my grandmother would say, oh my fucking goodness. Imagine yourself in the second story bedroom of a house you’re cleaning out because its elderly occupant has died and you’re going through their personal effects. You find among lots of cool weird things (caches of old photos and invitations to teenage parties, etc.) something not particularly cool or weird at all: a box of impersonal, superficial Hallmark greeting cards sent to the man or woman or couple in question over the years, all riddled with hauntingly empty epithets: “It was great to see you at Christmas. Give my best to Delilah. See you next year. Love, Earl.” And on and on and such and such. That’s this movie. That’s this gauzy, goopy, infuriatingly polite excuse for cinema. Don’t yell at the Academy, folks; the shame here is that Driving Miss Daisy exists at all.
The setup, provided by a curiously Pulitzer Prize-winning off-Broadway play by Alfred Uhry, screams Lifetime movie, involving nothing more than an aging Jewish widow who’s still sharp enough but has become a danger behind the wheel. Her son is in a management position in a factory and enlists overenthusiastic African American stereotype Hoke Colburn as his mother’s new personal chauffer. Of course it all Means Something, so we get a laughable perspective on aging, the South and Civil Rights on down through the decades as the characters grow older and more familiar with one another, but never in any sense that rings out as something vivid or perceptive about the way people across racial and religious lines communicate now or ever. In fact, the story itself is inherently a cheat, since with every forward chronology we’re meant to simply accept that Daisy and Hoke have grown closer — there’s never an organic or earned element to their evolution, so it’s not just hammy but quite unreasonably manipulative.
What’s heartbreaking, though, is that the performances themselves are sub-community theater shit, and that’s with two principals who are so much better than this material; the only possibility is that Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman were talked into cynically simplistic, cartoonish performances by the otherwise obscure Aussie director Bruce Beresford — in the unlikely event you’ve heard his name since 1990, it’s probably because of either his involvement with the Ashley Judd vehicle Double Jeopardy or his as of last week no longer being the last person whose Best Picture winning film didn’t net a Best Director nomination — or maybe the play and corresponding script by Uhry are just that bad. [Edit: for a few different reasons, I’ve since come to regret the previous sentence; see here for a start.] You know almost as soon as we fade in that you’re getting a rather stupid and simplistic pseudo-classy movie, the “comic” “timing” on Tandy’s initial car crash being just painful in itself, but then Dan Aykroyd shows up to open his obnoxious damn mouth with his ridiculously offensive Southern “accent” and removes all doubt that will be a long ninety minutes. Really, you know it the instant his name appears — it’s not that I have anything against him, UFO conspiracist bullshit notwithstanding, but seeing him listed in a film like this that you know you’re supposed to find Inspirational, you just can’t help groaning.
But Tandy and Freeman can’t be acquitted here. Both are phenomenal actors but both of them approach their roles in the broadest, most insulting and stunningly obvious fashion possible. They’re on opposite tracks — Tandy is tolerable and occasionally merits a chuckle and grows more painful to watch as the film goes on, never managing to make this cipher into a person and consistently rendering her the batty old lunatic that initial stereotypes from trailers and TV spots would indicate. By the time she’s a wide-eyed dementia patient, it occurs to you how divorced the film she’s in seems to be from any kind of depth in its perception of emotion or relationships; honestly, it’s easy shots at easy targets throughout, and somehow Martin Luther King is involved. Freeman is terribly annoying at first in the screenplay’s insistence on delivering him as a classically subservient “yessuh, yessuh” black character in a white man’s movie — the script’s fault and the culture’s fault more than his, but still a performance style that was beneath actors in Freeman’s father’s generation; he becomes more likable, to Tandy and to us, and eventually almost seems like, well, Morgan Freeman — for my money, one of our best living male actors despite his often dubious career choices. Inevitably, the film gives him no life of his own; he mentions the existence of one but his world is never considered important except in terms of its utility to challenge Daisy’s semi-enlightened perspective upon racial minorities and, well, anyone who isn’t like her.
The more Driving tries to say something about what these two people can bring to one another, the more tin-eared and witless it seems. The scene in which Daisy abruptly learns that Hoke can’t read and teaches him to sound words out in a fucking cemetery is honest to god one of the worst things I have ever seen in a movie. Someone wrote that. It saddens me to see such great performers reduced to chess pieces in such an addlebrained, frankly idiotic screenplay. But what can they do? The story’s pointless, the direction lazy — Beresford’s idea of cinematic art is shooting both interiors and exteriors like they’re behind fifteen layers of, uh, “romantic” smog, I guess because this is the past or something and we should feel sentimental and things like that. But trying to cast romance upon a story that essentially rejects it wholesale (presumably Hoke lives some sort of fulfilled life but we’re not permitted to know about it) is unworkable. The play simply isn’t good movie material, whatever its merit. In the factory scene early on, Beresford sneaks in an Orson Welles shot a la The Trial and you just know he’s dying to break out of this humdrum material. He’s stuck and so are we. He’s stuck insisting to us that what matters about these impressions of Georgia circa Jim Crow is not that a guy like Hoke is forced to deal with racist nonsense from the cops, but that Daisy sees this happening and is mildly outraged. With respect to Tandy, Beresford, Freeman, Uhry, what reason do we have to care about the fact that some people live in safe seclusion from all forms of human misery? And what function does art serve that perversely celebrates that?
Consecutive Best Picture winners seldom have much to do with one another, but when you run across one like this whose Oscar win is its major (perhaps sole) claim to fame twenty-plus years later, you can’t help making comparisons. In 1989-90, we’re in the middle of one of the worst runs in the Academy’s history, soon to be broken by two of its most well deserved juggernauts, and I can’t help hearing Hans Zimmer’s ludicrously quirky synth score and pondering what it says about awards cinema in the late ’80s. Pandering, artificial, abysmal, it’s a perfect fit for this terrible movie. You’re meant to leave the theater uplifted, charmed, etc., especially by that are-they-seriously-doing-this finale in the rest home with Freeman feeding applesauce to Tandy (note to self: look that up and make sure it’s applesauce so as to avoid any corrections from the many devoted Driving Miss Daisy zealots out there in the night)… but as with its unholy sibling in self-serving Americana Forrest Gump, you mostly feel dead inside.