Warner Bros. // 1989 // 99 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // January 21st, 2013
The unforgettable classic on Blu-ray for the first time.
"I've never been prejudiced in my life and you know it."
Our story begins in Georgia in the late 1940s. After the elderly Daisy Werthan (Jessica Tandy, Nobody's Fool) wrecks her car while pulling out of the driveway, her son Boolie (Dan Aykroyd, Ghostbusters) determines that she needs a full-time driver and assistant. He hires Hoke Colburn (Morgan Freeman, The Shawshank Redemption), a genial African-American man who is more than qualified for the position. Alas, Daisy doesn't have any interest in receiving help from anyone her son has forced upon her. Though the relationship between Daisy and Hoke begins on a rather strained note, over the course of twenty-five years it slowly transforms into a deep friendship.
In some cases, winning an Academy Award can do more harm than good for a film's legacy. That's certain the case with Driving Miss Daisy, which was selected by the Academy as the Best Picture of 1989. Looking back, most will agree that it's not the best film of that year. For that matter, I suspect that quite a few will agree that it's not even the best racially-themed film of that year (both Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and Ed Zwick's Glory are superior achievements). Yes, the Academy made the safe, easy choice, as the Academy has done time and time again over the years. Still, the fact that the film is pleasant and easily digested shouldn't be held against it. The fact of the matter is that Driving Miss Daisy is a tender, funny portrait of two endearingly stubborn people.
The play by Alfred Uhry is an exceptionally intimate affair: only Daisy, Hoke and Boolie appear on stage. Uhry opened up the world of his story for the big screen, adding a handful of additional supporting players and actually staging things which were only referenced in the stage version. Much of the dialogue is lifted directly from the play, but Driving Miss Daisy is the all-too-rare cinematic adaptation of a stage production which actually feels like it was supposed to be a movie all along.
The film's presentation of the Jim Crow south is a relatively sentimental one, but that fact is offset by scenes which firmly (if quietly) remind us of the horrors the era had to offer. In one of the film's stronger scenes, Daisy (who is a Jewish woman) finds herself greatly distressed after a local synagogue is bombed. She's startled by the act of hatred, but Hoke's seen this sort of thing time and time again throughout his life. He tells her the story of the time a man he knew was lynched, and though she doesn't acknowledge it, the story unquestionably plants a seed in her mind.
That's one of the film's most dramatic moments, but much of the movie places an emphasis on gentle comedy. The push-and-pull nature of Daisy and Hoke's relationship is one of the film's chief pleasures. Though some have criticized the movie for reinforcing the stereotype of the subservient black man, Hoke is a man who constantly manages to establish his own ground rules for how things are going to proceed. In an era in which people of color were often saddled with such positions, Hoke strives to maintain his dignity regardless of his circumstances. Again, this isn't a particularly brave movie on the subject of race -- it's the sort of thing your mildly prejudiced grandparents would probably still be able to enjoy -- but it certainly isn't an endorsement of the backwards social attitudes of, "the good old days." As ever, much of what we take away from a story depends on what we bring to it.
The cast is exceptional, with Freeman in particular turning in a terrific performance. Morgan Freeman had previously established himself as a talented actor, but 1989 was the year which really forced people to take notice of his powerful, authoritative presence (he also had a key role in the aforementioned Glory). Though Tandy was the one who won the Academy Award (and to be sure, her cantankerous work is a delight), it's Freeman who delivers many of the film's best moments. He has the demeanor of a man who has spent his entire life being told what to do, but during a handful of crucial scenes he shifts gears and demonstrates that there are certain moments in which maintaining his self-respect is more important than satisfying his employer. Dan Aykroyd initially seems an unusual choice for the role of Boolie, but he quickly proves more than capable of handling the part. A confession he makes to his mother late in the film is a strong, character-defining moment.
Driving Miss Daisy (Blu-ray) has received a sturdy 1080p/1.85:1 transfer. The film has a very gauzy, conventionally "old-fashioned" look, so it was never going to pop with detail in hi-def. The rather thick grain structure has been left intact, and the image as a whole tends to look rather muted. A handful of scenes which accentuate brighter color serve to confirm that the movie is supposed to look the way it does. The DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio track is decent enough, preserving the dialogue, sound design and score (an uncharacteristically plucky, chipper effort from composer Hans Zimmer) with clarity. While some may grumble at the lack of a proper surround mix, this dialogue-driven film doesn't really merit anything more complicated than what it's received. Most of the supplements are recycled from the previous DVD release: an audio commentary with director Bruce Beresford (who didn't receive an Academy Award nomination despite the fact that his film won), Alfred Uhry and producer Lili Fini Zanuck, a trio of featurettes ("Miss Daisy's Journey: From Stage to Screen," "Jessica Tandy: Theatre Legend to Screen Star" and the memorably-titled "1989 Vintage Making-Of") and a trailer. New to this release: a thoughtful, welcome new featurette on the subject of race ("Things Are Changing: The World of Hoke and Miss Daisy") and attractive digibook packaging which includes lots of photos and behind-the-scenes info on the film.
Driving Miss Daisy remains a likable, well-acted film. It's easily the finest effort of Beresford's career and a stellar example of how to adapt an intimate stage play for the big screen.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Rated PG