The 1980’s went out with a whimper as far as the Academy was concerned when they bestowed their highest honor on Driving Miss Daisy. Not unlike earlier winners from the decade like Ordinary People and Terms of Endearment, Driving Miss Daisy is a nice film with a lot of emotion but very little actual drama. The plot just meanders and misses every dramatic opportunity with which it presents itself. It is primarily a character-driven film and the performances by Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy are what make this film as good as it is. However this is not a great film.
The inciting incident for Driving Miss Daisy happens when the elderly Daisy Werthan (Tandy) tells her maid Idella (Esther Rolle) that she’s leaving for the market. She starts backing the car out of the driveway but becomes confused and pushes the gas pedal instead of the brake and crashes the car over the neighbors’ rock wall. Realizing his mother is too old to now to drive, Boolie Werthan (Dan Aykroyd) hires Hoke Colburn (Freeman) to be her driver. Daisy is a headstrong and stubborn woman who would rather just take the bus than have anyone driver her around, but Hoke proves to be just as persistent, and he eventually is able to at least get her in to the car.
That is essentially where the film moves into the second act and what follows is over an hour of chronicling their lives together as Hoke grows old and Daisy grows older. Daisy has a nice character arc as she goes from stubborn and hot-headed to (slightly) more open and compassionate, finally declaring to Hoke as Dementia is starting to set in, that he’s her best friend. Screenwriter Alfred Uhry wrote the script based on his own stage play and he did a marvelous job of developing Daisy as a character. She has a lot of depth and she certainly comes across as a real person. There are quite a few people who can relate to Boolie, as Daisy is as demanding a mother as anyone could have, and Boolie often, but not always succumbs to her demands, much to the chagrin of his own wife Florine.
As mentioned, Daisy herself is stubborn, hot-headed and often times just downright mean. But Uhry did a great job of making her likable by giving her depth. She may be all of the things that I just mentioned, but she’s also determined to maintain her own independence, and underneath her harsh exterior is a heart of gold. It also cannot be ignored how magnificent of a performance Tandy gave this role. For her efforts, she would not only win Best Actress in a Leading Role, but at the age of 80, she would become the oldest woman ever to claim that honor. And this was no sympathy vote or lifetime achievement vote either. She rightly deserved that award because she gave a powerful and emotional performance that helped to carry the film.
Equally as engaging, and no less deserving of an Oscar (if it hadn’t been for Daniel Day-Lewis) was Morgan Freeman playing the part of Hoke. For his part, Hoke doesn’t really experience a whole lot of growth during the film, but instead acts as the catalyst for Daisy’s development. I feel like Freeman’s performance of the jovial and wise Hoke was as fine a performance as Freeman could have given, but the character wasn’t as well-developed as was Daisy’s character. While he has a likable and affable personality, Hoke doesn’t seem to have any real flaws or skeletons in his closet. At one point he tells the story of the lynching of his friend’s father when he was a kid, but there’s never any reconciliation as to how that event has shaped who he’s become as a man today. The majority of this film takes place in the segregated South and while there is one scene where Hoke has to pull over to urinate because the bathrooms at their last stop were white only. However, there is never any real discussion or plot movement or character growth due to that occurrence.
For me, this is where the film ultimately doesn’t succeed as well as it could have. There is a small amount of bigotry in Daisy at the beginning of the film, although she claims more than once over the course of the film that she’s not prejudiced. The closest that Uhry and Director Bruce Beresford come is when Daisy thinks that Hoke stole a can of salmon from her pantry. Before that happens, however, Daisy believes that she has discovered the means by which to fire this man whom she never wanted around in the first place. She calls Boolie over to show him that the can has been stolen and makes a couple of generalized statements about how dishonest “they” are and how you can’t trust “them.” Hoke did in fact take it, but before Boolie can fire him, Hoke honestly confesses to taking the can and he has stopped by the store on the way to work to get a replacement can that he hands over to Daisy. This is an important moment in the film because this is the moment where Daisy starts to feel more accepting of Hoke, but the filmmakers missed an opportunity for some serious drama and tension.
Another such moment occurs later in the film when Hoke is driving Daisy to a family gathering in Mississippi. As they’re pulled over to the side of the road for a rest, a couple of state troopers approach them and demand to see Hoke’s driver’s license and they ask him where he got the car. Daisy tells the officers that the car is hers and that Hoke is her driver. After inspecting the license, the officers allow them to move on, only staying behind to lament the fact that an old Jewish woman and an old black man are traveling together than there’s nothing they can do about it. This is another missed opportunity for drama and tension.
The filmmakers also missed a more globally dramatic opportunity within the script. I believe that Daisy needed to start out the film much more bigoted than she was, and spending time with Hoke would have allowed her to grow and learn that African-American people are just as human and just as deserving of respect and dignity as anyone else is, regardless of color. Then the story of the lynching as well as the run-in with the police and many other scenes throughout the film would have benefitted greatly from that small change in the dynamic of their relationship. Also, making Hoke more sensitive to racial discrimination would have added tension to their relationship, and I believe this could have been done without taking away his gregarious nature. Nor would it have taken anything away from what the film ultimately became, but for my money it would have added an element of drama that would have pushed it from being merely a good film to a film that truly would have been worthy of winning Best Picture.
The other aspect that I didn’t particularly care for with Driving Miss Daisy was the overall storyline. This was a film that chronicled their lives over several decades, so there wasn’t a traditional narrative in the sense that it was about a character that had a particular goal. While there is a clear 3-Act structure in the film, the plot points didn’t really increase the drama the way they would in a more traditional 3-Act story. As mentioned, Uhry adapted the screenplay from his own stage play and the movie has more of a feeling of a stage play in its plot. To be honest, the plot is not very cinematic, and, as it’s chronicling their lives over several years with no clear goal for the main characters, it feels very similar to Terms of Endearment, in that it has a very disjointed and lacks the type of rising drama and tension that happens throughout the second act of a more cinematic film. Again, I really believe that adding overcoming bigotry as a more significant thematic element would have added a more dramatic feeling to the film. Also one of the strengths of the film is that there are a lot of humorous moments organically placed within the script, so I believe that the type of drama that adding overcoming bigotry would have added wouldn’t necessarily have darkened the film’s tone. It certainly would have made the film more interesting and engaging, however. Ultimately, this is a nice film. To quote Dom DeLuise as Emperor Nero in History of the World Part I, it’s “nice. Not thrilling. But nice…”
Did the Academy get it right?
No (Born on the Fourth of July). No (Dead Poets Society). No (Field of Dreams). No (My Left Foot). All four of those films were superior to Driving Miss Daisy and each would have been a more deserving winner. Personally I would have voted for Dead Poets Society as that was my favorite film of that year and a film that took greater advantage of the opportunities for drama and tension that it set up for itself. Born on the Fourth of July was obviously a very powerful and dramatic film that continued to show that Tom Cruise could be more than just a pretty boy as an actor. I’m a sucker for baseball movies, and Field of Dreams with its iconic “If you build it, he will come” is one of the best baseball movies to ever come out. Then what can be said about My Left Foot. It’s an amazing film and Daniel Day-Lewis delivers one of the great acting performances in the history of cinema as Christy Brown, the writer afflicted with cerebral palsy. I would also go so far as to say that Driving Miss Daisy probably should not even have been nominated for an Oscar and that the Academy whiffed in not nominating Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee’s breakthrough film that nailed the racial inequality themes that Driving Miss Daisy missed. Along those same lines, Glory is another film that came out that year that was more deserving of a Best Picture nomination as well.