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I think it’s wonderful the way things are changing.

Movie

Driving Miss Daisy
(1989)

 

The meticulous slightness of Driving Miss Daisy is precisely the reason it proved so lauded, and also why it presented a prime Best Picture Oscar pick: a feel-good, social-conscience-led flick for audiences who might not normally spare your standard Hollywood dross a glance. One for those who appreciate the typical Judi Dench feature, basically. While I’m hesitant to get behind anything Spike Lee, as Hollywood’s self-appointed race-relations arbiter, spouts, this was a year when he actually did deliver the goods, a genuinely decent movie – definitely a rarity for Lee – addressing the issues head-on that Driving Miss Daisy approaches in softly-softly fashion, reversing gingerly towards with the brake lights on. That doesn’t necessarily mean Do the Right Thing ought to have won Best Picture (or even that it should have been nominated for the same), but it does go to emphasise the Oscars’ tendency towards the self-congratulatory rather than the provocative.

Of course, the situation had come full circle by the time the Academy recognised Lee as Best Director, with Green Book having the cheek to take the top prize. Lee’s movie that year was the overrated – invariably the case with a Lee joint – BlackKklansman. The award came in tandem with a generally bilious response to the idea that a picture as retrograde as Green Book – retrograde in fashioning a race-relations tale of yesteryear, set yesteryear, and touching on far too many familiar, insufficiently progressive tropes and devices for the liking of many of the loudest detracting voices – should be recognised by an awards body that evidently wasn’t nearly woke enough, within the limited definitions of woke (ie, fail to meet the prescribed standards, and get yourself denounced and vilified, if not cancelled).

There are definite similarities between Driving Miss Daisy and Green Book – among them a Best Picture win without even a Best Director nomination – but the latter is also a much more engrossing, dramatically engaged and compelling piece. Driving Miss Daisy is dead set on a path of easy-going, observational charm that may have delighted many but certainly got on my nerves at the time; I still find it far too obvious, smug even, in its through line, despite the kudos it received for understatement and subtle readings beneath the amiable-adversarial interplay.

Director Bruce Beresford and screenwriter Alfred Uhry are at pains to point out that, for all Miss Daisy’s thawing, she remains a tetchy, irascible yet loveable old racist. Because the picture avoids grandstanding, the central relationship – between Miss Daisy and chauffeur Hoke Colburn (Morgan Freeman) – is very amenable, in a serf/master boundaries kind of way, something underlined by the ever-so aspirant-with-a-touch-of-whimsical-quirk Hans Zimmer score that will make your teeth hurt.

The picture offers only so much in the way of lessons, but in the context of the journey of its characters, that’s considered more than enough. Everyone is encouraged to come away suffused with a warm glow, as Beresford and Uhry, adapting his 1987 play, offer sops (the common ground of persecution) and cultural signposts (I don’t for a moment buy that Miss Daisy would be keen to go along to see Martin Luther King, but it makes for a clear Forrest Gump-esque marker of the era we’ve reached by that point).

Freeman had a double whammy in 1989 (a triple, if you count Lean on Me), with Hoke Colburn here and John Rawlins in Glory; while there were several prior tips (Street Smart’s Oscar nom, Clean and Sober), this was the year that furnished his overnight elder statesman gravitas (Hoke begins the film seven years older than Freeman was and ends it about the age he is now). His performance is fine, obviously, in that way all Freeman’s performances are; he does rather overdo the bad knees, as if he’s been taking notes from Clive Dunn on how to perform an old boy. The real problem is that, in the way a Freeman role is wont to, it reserves Hoke maximum dignity and wisdom; he’s all long-suffering, wry superiority (and seemingly entirely lacking a family of his own, until we learn he has a granddaughter in a reference at the end); he’s both a benign force of noble insight and a cypher who exists purely to reflect Miss Daisy’s learning curve.

Pauline Kael might have been expected to tear the stuffing out of Driving Miss Daisy, but she was reticently generous. As she put it of Hoke, “The black man is made upright, considerate, humane – he’s made perfect – so that nothing will disturb our appreciation of the gentle, bittersweet reverie we’re watching”. And yet, while she considered Uhry had written an “ingratiating play about race relations” replete with “virtually all manipulative bits”, Beresford “gives them a light, airy texture”. She noted of the picture’s better observational side, “It’s a time when a man like Hoke goes on weighing his words to the end of his days”. However, I’m unsure there’s a way to do that that doesn’t become the antithesis of everything Spike Lee wants to see in a movie broaching the subject of race in America. The argument is that the Freeman character’s performative obeisance is a get-along manoeuvre, and so the picture has much more depth and range than might appear, but you can feel the soft-purring engine of a movie too pleased with itself to be supplying that substantively. Which is why it reaches a destination where kindly Hoke is feeding Miss Daisy pie in a retirement home.

Collette Maude in Time Out called Driving Miss Daisy “Far too cosy to serve as effective social or political metaphor; better to regard it as a solid ensemble piece”. Embracing the latter can stave off the former only for so long, though. James Park, in the final Film Yearbook (it’s a shame the annual publication lasted only a decade), couldn’t disguise his lack of goodwill towards “a nice enough little movie”. Of the title character, he appraised “the film allows the audience to celebrate her journey to relatively non-racist enlightenment and the capacity we all have to change, while also looking back with some nostalgia at a world where different ethnic groups stayed firmly within their communities, and the races were kept as separate as the classes and the religious denominations”. It is a better time, a more peaceful time, for all that Hoke intrudes upon it with the memory of a lynching (although, that only comes up in conversation when things began to change, during the increasingly nasty and violent 1960s).

As Anthony Holden reported it in The Secret History of The Academy Awards, the frontrunners that year were Driving Miss Daisy and Born on the Fourth of July, the latter gradually losing ground thanks to Oliver Stone and Ron Kovic’s wearisome awards-circuit politicking. Born on the Fourth of July was a picture reminding voters of lots of bad things, from friendly fire, to misplaced patriotism, to grim sex, grim disability and yelling “Big fucking erect penis!” at your mother. Driving Miss Daisy was an antidote, an infusion of much gentler, halcyon days of nice clean cars, noble black servants and warmly insistent Zimmer-framed scores; suddenly the winning ticket was one of niceness, as the movie’s producer Richard Zanuck observed: “The news is that there are people out there who want more than rapes and car chases and violence”.

Added to which, it was an admirably modest affair, “the year’s fiscal Cinderella giving the voters a perennially welcome opportunity to vote for a well-acted exponent of liberal moral values over a violent, blood-stained epic”. Also in its favour: the Academy loves to push an envelope if it’s of the sentimental kind, hence Tandy receiving Best Actress at 81, the oldest win in that category, accompanied by many a remark of Miss Daisy that “My mother/ grandmother is like her”. It even elicited light-hearted ribbing (“the film which apparently directed itself” host Billy Crystal suggested, referring to the lack of a Best Director nod).

A brief mention of Dan Aykroyd’s performance, which finds him effortlessly segueing from broad comedy to reliable character acting. He’s good in a part that veers from subtlety to overegging (a bit like the movie as a whole), and includes the most winning description of Daisy (“You’re a doodle, mama”). It’s also quite possible the praise he received laid the seeds for transgressions to come, however, since the relatively light makeup work on aging Dan would be eclipsed by the disastrous full bloom of Nothing but Trouble a few years later.

Were the Academy crazy to give the Best Picture Oscar to Driving Miss Daisy? Probably no more than usual in their choices, although they particularly laid themselves open that year, such that Lee is inextricably wrapped up in the picture’s legacy. I’m reluctant to go to bat for Spike, as he’s one of the most overrated of “revered” Hollywood directors, but Do the Right Thing is easily his best movie (not robbed for Best Original Screenplay, though; the movie’s definitely more than the sum of such parts).

As The New York Times‘ Vincent Canby saw it, Lee missed out on additional Oscar exposure because “Do the Right Thing won’t play the game. It talks back. . . Do the Right Thing doesn’t call attention to progress, it asks for more. Now”. Which suggests, had Stone had been holding forth from the parapet with a megaphone at the time of Platoon, it might have been in for the same fate as Born on the Fourth of July; it’s easy to put Oscar off, unless they feel duty bound to virtue signal.

Lee later had the temerity to wag the finger when discussing the limited recognition received by the deeply average Selma. Did you know, he advised, that Do the Right Thing is being “taught in film schools all across the world”? That’s right. And “Nobody’s discussing Driving Miss mother fuckin’ Daisy”. That’s right, and nobody will be discussing Da 5 Bloods either. Or OldboyDriving Miss Daisy winning isn’t especially more egregious than Titanic or A Beautiful Mind taking home the top prize. It’s a certain kind of pat, inoffensive (except to Spike) moviemaking that hits an awards sweet spot from time to time.

What I do find interesting is that Driving Miss Daisy’s the last PG (US) offering to date to win Best Picture. That’s a far more lasting takeaway, I suspect, than commonplace undeserved statuettes. The likelihood of three PG nominees in the current environment, when there are up to ten vacancies, seems unlikely enough, let alone if there were a mere five, as per 1989; it should go without saying that either of the other two would have been much more deserving winners.

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