Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
Studio Line: Warner Bros.

Hoke Colburn sits in the front seat with his hands on the steering wheel, but the driver's seat is behind him. That's where Miss Daisy sits. She doesn't want a chauffeur and she won't give in. And neither will Hoke. For two people so different, they have a lot in common. And the bumpy road they travel ultimately leads to the friendship of a lifetime.

Director: Bruce Beresford
Cast: Morgan Freeman, Jessica Tandy, Dan Aykroyd, Patti LuPone, Esther Rolle, Jo Ann Havrilla, William Hall Jr., Alvin M. Sugarman
Academy Awards: Won for Best Picture; Best Actress-Jessica Tandy; Best Screenplay; Best Makeup. Nominated for Best Actor-Morgan Freeman; Best Supporting Actor-Dan Aykroyd; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration; Best Costume Design; Best Film Editing, 1990.
Box Office: Gross: $106.59 million.
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English Dolby Surround, French Dolby Surround; subtitles English, Spanish, French; closed-captioned; single side - single layer; 18 chapters; rated PG; 99 min.; $24.98; release date 9/3/97.
Supplements: Production Notes; Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD | Driving Miss Daisy: A Play - Alfred Uhry | Score soundtrack - Hans Zimmer

Picture/Sound/Extras: C/C+/D-

In 1990, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences demonstrated clearly why so many people dislike them. As John Harkness wrote in my worn and tattered copy of The Academy Awards Handbook, "In the year of Do the Right Thing, Hollywood chose to honor Driving Miss Daisy, an uplifting film about the good old days when blacks were faithful family retainers."

I don't know how well Do the Right Thing has aged - I watched it last fall and found it to seem dated in many ways - but there's no question that it provided an incendiary piece at the time, which is all that matters; when confronted by a strong, aggressive picture made by an opinionated black filmmaker, Hollywood retreated to the comforts of a well-meaning but paternalistic work shepherded by the white establishment.

Really, it seems unfortunate that another film that dealt with race relations; although the Academy would have taken flack for its lack of acknowledgment of DTRT in any case, but had, say, Field of Dreams won instead, I don't know if the oversight would have appeared as politically-charged. As it stood, this decision looked like a serious slap in the face of filmmakers who wanted to say something challenging about current events, and it reinforced why so many saw the Academy as a reactionary, backwards institution.

When the time comes - that is, when Criterion release their DVD - I'll detail my thoughts about Do the Right Thing. Right now, the subject at hand is Driving Miss Daisy, the film that provided such a glaring example of what was wrong with the Hollywood establishment in the late Eighties.

Alfred Uhry adapts his own play for the big-screen here, though the film's stage roots still show; some settings vary - it's not as claustrophobic as something like A Raisin In the Sun, another stage adaptation that spends almost all of its time on the same location - but the action remains very dialogue-intense and event-poor. Granted, DMD doesn't open up opportunities for vivid displays akin to those in Henry V, but I think it could have broadened its horizons to a greater degree.

In any case, the movie concentrates on the relationship between Miss Daisy (Jessica Tandy), an aging white woman whose son Boolie (Dan Aykroyd) hires a chauffeur for her when it becomes apparent her motor skills gave deteriorated. Miss Daisy accepts the presence of black driver Hoke (Morgan Freeman) reluctantly, but they slowly become friends and longtime companions (but not in the sense the gay community uses the phrase).

This is the sort of heartwarming piece that is supposed to make all of us feel good about relationships between the races, and to a degree, it is. There's certainly nothing overtly wrong with the movie. Not a whole lot happens in it; starting in the early Fifties, we follow Miss Daisy and Hoke for a period of about 20 years (I guess - maybe I'm just a dullard, but the exact passage of time often seemed unclear to me) and that's about it. They drive around together, they chat a lot, they appear to like each other - end of movie. Perhaps that's typical of real life, but I couldn't help but wish for something to actually happen; small changes occur along the way, and Miss Daisy gradually loses her mildly-racist tendencies, but nothing else of note occurs.

The civil rights movement receives some lip service, and Miss Daisy actually attends a dinner at which Martin Luther King speaks, but those events remain tangential to the plot at best. There's little to stir one up here; even when the pair are confronted by some obviously-racist cops, the worst thing one utters is to call Hoke "boy", and any implied threat dissipates incredibly rapidly.

Frankly, I feel uncertain as to what the actual point of DMD was. Oh, I'm sure it was made in that liberal "let's all get along" spirit, and that's great, but I seriously doubt it influenced anyone's opinions of other races. If anything, it could easily work in a negative way, as the film represents a time during which blacks "knew their places"; absolutely no one challenges the system in this film, as all of the blacks are quite content. Of course they are - Boolie and Miss Daisy treat them quite well, and Boolie continues to pay Hoke's salary well after his driving days have ended.

Unfortunately, that kind of person was the extreme exception in that period, and some may take the mistaken that DMD offers a representation that accurately displays the historical record. It doesn't, and that's what makes its message somewhat insidious. It says that if blacks just pipe down and drive around us white folk, we'll take good care of them and everyone'll be happy.

Yes, DMD pays some lip service to progress, through the semi-presence of Dr. King and also through Hoke's mention that his daughter teaches at Spelman College. However, the movie as a whole stands as an homage to the status quo, but not today's; no, it goes back decades to find a "better time".

Do I think the filmmakers consciously meant to show such a backwards and dated view of race relations? No, I expect they thought they were creating a nice little tale that shows how race doesn't matter when two people openly deal with each other, and that's true. Granted, there's not a whole lot of development in Miss Daisy - she wasn't exactly a card-carrying member of the Klan from the start - but some positives can be taken from it.

I remain convinced that these are outweighed by the negatives, however. I find it striking to note that A Raisin In the Sun, which predates DMD by 28 years but it offers a much more realistic view of "the black experience". Racism is such a profoundly minor component of DMD that I can't imagine what the filmmakers were thinking.

I also am not sure why a great talent like Morgan Freeman signed on for a borderline-demeaning role like Hoke. I adore Freeman and think he adds immeasurably to virtually every part he plays - except here. His portrayal of Hoke may be historically accurate, as it'd be incorrect to show such a character as well-spoken and literate. However, I couldn't help but cringe at times, such as when he utters, "I'm tryin' to drive you to de sto'!" Freeman's inherent dignity comes through in the character at times, and actually seems a little too strong; Freeman is such a powerful presence that I found it hard to accept Hoke as such a bland but good-natured servant. As much as I bemoan the fact that a great actor like Freeman has yet to snag an Oscar, I'm glad he didn't get one for his work as Hoke; when his time comes, it should be for a better character.

Tandy did win an Oscar for her portrayal of Miss Daisy, an occurrence that seems more closely related to her advanced age, her lack of prior victories, and the weak field that year. Overall, Tandy provides perfectly acceptable work in the role, but the part lacks any challenges, and it seems a stretch to consider her Oscar-caliber.

As Boolie - why must movies about the South always include characters with such asinine names? - Aykroyd became the first cast member of Saturday Night Live to receive an Oscar nomination. This occurred despite the fact Aykroyd's not very good in the role. He seems okay, I guess, but I thought little personality or emotion came through in his performance; Boolie never seemed like anything more than just another Aykroyd character to me; he's an accent with a little corn-pone attitude.

Historical footnote: Aykroyd remains the only person from the original crew to be so honored, though later performers like Joan Cusack and Robert Downey Jr. have also been nominated; to date, none have won an award. Actually, Randy Quaid has the earliest Oscar nomination of any SNL performer, but since it predates his stint on the show by more than a decade, I don't think it should count.

Personal footnote: my favorite thing about DMD comes from personal memories. I worked at a restaurant for a decade as I went through high school, college and grad school. Ellie was a long-time waitress from Germany, and she always referred to the actress as "Jessica Dandy" and the film as Riding Miss Daisy. Perhaps you had to be there, but these thoughts still entertain me.

Those remain my most positive associations with Driving Miss Daisy. As a film, it's a well-constructed but plodding piffle; the craftsmanship bears no overt flaws, but it doesn't do anything to excite or stimulate either. My problems with it relate to the movie's politics, which seem backwards, to say the least. I found the picture to provide a rather distasteful mix of paternalism and reactionary sentiment, and I don't think it serves a positive purpose.

The DVD:

Driving Miss Daisy appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. No, the aspect ratio doesn't match the one seen in theaters, which was 1.85:1; in their infinite wisdom, Warner Bros. decided to issue this award-winning film as a fullscreen affair. Why? I have no idea. In any case, I don't believe this is a pan and scan transfer; it appears to be an "open matte" presentation, which means we don't seem to lose any information from the sides of the picture. That's all well and good, but I still prefer the original theatrical dimensions.

Maybe I'm just grumpy because of the quality of the image. The film presents a very inconsistent picture, one that often looks terrific but encounters enough bumps along the way to make the overall impression only average.

Sharpness generally seems quite good, though this comes via some very obvious edge enhancement. I first witnessed this during the opening credits, which appeared unstable, and a fair amount of shimmering and jagged edges continue throughout the movie. Digital artifacts also rear their ugly heads, mainly through some occasionally nasty pixelization. Check out the shots of some trees at the beginning of chapter seven; their blooms appear very blocky and coarse. Print flaws are fairly infrequent, but I noticed some grain - which became periodically heavy during a few bright scenes - and signs of scratches and speckles.

Colors usually looked nicely bold and accurate; the only times I found the hues to seem less than satisfactory is when the other flaws interfered with them, like wen the pixelization rendered the trees unappealing. Black levels appeared acceptably dark, but shadow detail seemed quite inconsistent, particularly during interior scenes in Miss Daisy's house; many of these look fine, but quite a few others are overly thick and heavy.

It's important for me to note that despite all of the problems, there are many occasions during which Driving Miss Daisy looks absolutely great; many scenes - especially daylight exteriors - can offer brilliant colors and fine resolution. However, the faults of the image are too serious to be completely balanced by these fine points. DMD was one of WB's earliest DVDs, and they really need to give remaster it.

More consistently acceptable is the Dolby Surround soundtrack of the film. The audio lacks much ambition in its soundfield, but since Driving Miss Daisy was adapted from a stage production, that shouldn't be a surprise; this is the kind of movie that could easily get by with mono sound. The audio isn't quite that restricted, but it's close. Most of the sound sticks to the center channel, though music and some effects gently branch out into the front side speakers, and some effects - usually those of cars driving - even present panning. The surrounds also provide very light reinforcement of the forward channels, though not much.

Quality seems perfectly fine. Dialogue appeared clear and natural, with no problems related to intelligibility. Effects stay very subdued - the loudest sound has to be Miss Daisy's crash early in the film, and even that seems mild - but the appear clean and realistic. The score sounds smooth and adequately bright. There's little low end to be found, but there's little opportunity for noticeable bass; this is a really "talky" movie that only modest audio outside of that realm. For what it offers, it sounds fine.

Less satisfactory are the sparse supplemental features found on this DVD. We get the film's theatrical trailer, a listing of awards that DMD won, and very brief biographies for actors Freeman, Tandy, Aykroyd, Esther Rolle and Patti Lupone plus director Bruce Beresford. Maybe someday the fact that so few Best Picture winners have received strong DVD special editions will cease to annoy me, but not today.

Not that I find Driving Miss Daisy merits much of a fuss. The film seems pleasant and mildly entertaining, but it lacks much to make it truly compelling, and I disliked its sentimental treatment of the "good old days". The DVD provides inconsistent picture with adequate sound and few extras. This release came early in the days of DVD, and it needs a reissue; fans of the film may want to wait to see if that occurs before they bother with this fairly mediocre disc.

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