Our review of Driving Miss Daisy (Blu-ray) DigiBook, published January 21st, 2013, is also available.
Driving Miss Daisy is a deceptively simple film. At its core it is a heartwarming tale of two unlikely companions who become dear friends and share a major portion of their lives together. It is a touching, human story that playwright/screenwriter Alfred Uhry based on his memories of his own grandmother and her chauffeur.
Hovering in the background of this relationship is a memoir of the American South in the three decades following World War II. It is a subtle reflection of the changes in culture, economy, and politics peculiar to that region in that era.
Facts of the Case
When Daisy Werthan (Jessica Tandy, Fried Green Tomatoes, The Desert Fox, The Birds) wrecks her car and finds herself uninsurable, her son Booley (Dan Aykroyd, The Blues Brothers, My Girl, Chaplin) sees hiring a driver as the only solution. Booley chooses Hoke Colburn (Morgan Freeman, The Shawshank Redemption, Unforgiven, Lean on Me) as the man for the job. Booley makes it clear that Hoke is not in for an easy time of it; Miss Daisy is adamantly opposed to the idea of hiring a chauffeur, and wants nothing to do with him. Fortunately for Hoke, he is employed by Booley; Daisy can say whatever she likes about him, but she is powerless to fire him.
Hoke eventually gets Daisy to soften a bit, and before long he is driving her everywhere. As she relents and allows herself to depend on him, a friendship grows between the two of them, or at least as much of a friendship as can develop between a wealthy Jewish woman and a poor black man in the South between 1948 and 1973. It is for the most part unstated, and Miss Daisy would of course never admit to such a thing, but there is a genuine bond that grows between them, tempered by Southern cultural expectations and shaped by the changing times around them. They grow old together over a period of 25 years, sharing their lives and becoming, if not affectionate, at least accustomed to each other.
There is something warm and satisfying about watching a film like Driving Miss Daisy. Alfred Uhry clearly remembers both his grandmother and her driver with affection, and he allows their personalities and characters to unfold in a very natural way in his script. The film remains true to the times in which these characters lived, not the times in which it was made; Uhry states in the commentary track that he resisted attempts to modernize the story, to make Hoke into an "angry black man," for example, or to allow Daisy to express their relationship openly.
The film received some criticism for these choices; in particular, Morgan Freeman was criticized for playing a subservient, illiterate black man working for a rich white woman. However, those who criticized him failed to fully understand the role, and the times in which the character lived. Those who did understand appreciated and were thankful for the portrayal of Hoke; Uhry relates that he once met tennis great Arthur Ashe at a party. Ashe thanked Uhry for having created a role that represented the millions of hard-working black men who supported their families in honorable but menial service jobs, much like Ashe's own father had done.
In a character study such as Driving Miss Daisy, the ultimate success or failure of the film rests largely on the talents of the cast. The cast of this film is an impressive collection of talents. Dan Aykroyd is always surprisingly good in serious, dramatic roles that go against the grain of his established comedy persona; he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work as Booley. The late Esther Rolle (Good Times) is excellent as Daisy's housekeeper Idella, giving a world-weary, dryly humorous performance.
Morgan Freeman was the consensus choice to play Hoke, not least because he originated the role on stage. Having grown up in the South himself, Freeman understood the role as perhaps no one else could. Few other actors could understand the basic honesty and goodness that can be found in such a seemingly simple, humble man. Freeman was rewarded with a Best Actor nomination for his work in this film, but lost out to Daniel Day-Lewis's performance in My Left Foot.
Jessica Tandy built up a respectable body of film work over the course of her career, but she is revered in her capacity as one of the greatest stage actresses of the twentieth century. She won a much-deserved Oscar for her work on Driving Miss Daisy. It is difficult in a role like this to identify one particular scene or one particular element of the character that cements her performance as great; the net effect of her work, however, is a very satisfying, richly portrayed character.
Warner Home Video's Special Edition of Driving Miss Daisyis a fitting tribute to a film that was nominated for eight Oscars and won four, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. By far the most interesting and insightful piece of extra content is the commentary track featuring Uhry with additional comments from director Bruce Beresford and producer Lili Fini Zanuck. The three commentators were recorded separately and their comments edited together into this feature commentary. Uhry, as the author of the material, is the most heavily featured. This is appropriate, as the entire film is made up of Uhry's personal memories and family history; unlike most films, he, rather than the director, is the true creative force behind the project. Uhry knows these characters better than anyone else does, and he is able to explain their world and their actions because, after all, it was his world too. This is a very informative and interesting commentary. Zanuck and Beresford also make solid contributions, discussing the more prosaic, nuts-and-bolts issues of securing financing and actually making the film. Zanuck in particular is a wealth of insider information on the business and logistical challenges of filmmaking; be warned, however, that her voice is far from pleasant to hear, and tends to grate on the listener after even a short exposure.
In addition to the commentary track there are three featurettes. One of these is entitled "Jessica Tandy: Theater Legend to Screen Star," and provides a nice if somewhat shallow overview of Ms. Tandy's career and achievements. Actress Frances Sternhagen, best known at present for her role as Noah Wyle's grandmother on E.R., contributes heavily to this featurette with many fond memories of her dear friend and colleague. Also provided is an original "making of" featurette from 1989, which manages to be a bit more insightful and explanatory than most things of this kind, elevating it from mere electronic publicity kit material. Both of these featurettes run about six minutes in length. The final, more substantial featurette is entitled "Miss Daisy's Journey: From Stage to Screen." This featurette would be fine as a stand-alone documentary, but after listening to the commentary track and viewing the other materials it seems a bit redundant, repeating a lot of the same anecdotes and observations. Perhaps the most interesting revelations concern Darryl and Lili Fini Zanuck in their efforts to secure financing and get the film made; it came as a bit of a surprise to learn that even the mighty Zanucks are not omnipotent and don't always get what they want on the first try. A theatrical trailer, cast and crew information, and a listing of Driving Miss Daisy's many awards and nominations round out the collection of special features.
Video quality on this release is acceptable but perhaps just a bit disappointing. Most of the flaws appear to be source-related, such as some relatively prominent film grain. Details appear to be a bit soft, but this seems to be due to choices in cinematography. There are some digital transfer-related issues, such as some very pronounced edge enhancement from time to time.
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround. There is a surprising amount of rear channel activity for this kind of film, including sounds of nature as Hoke and Miss Daisy drive through the country, or the noise of factory machines as the film visits Booley in his offices at Werthan Industries. Dialogue is the most important audio element in a film like this, and it comes through pleasantly and clearly. However, there are some major flaws in the audio, such as a pronounced analog hiss that is present at all times.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Driving Miss Daisy works best, whether as character study, social commentary, or memoir, when the relationship is allowed to unfold naturally between the two main characters without overt societal interference. The relationship in and of itself is a commentary on the evolution of race, gender, and class roles as the Old South transforms into the New South; when outside events and personalities, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., are brought in, the commentary feels a bit heavy-handed and forced. It does not seriously damage the film, but it is jarring at times.
The only other failing of the film is that at times the dialogue and delivery feel a bit too faithful to the material's stage origins. This is particularly noticeable in some of Aykroyd's lines; his delivery and timing feel a bit odd somehow, more like a stage play than the naturalism we have come to expect in film. Again, this is only a minor quibble, and does not seriously impair an otherwise excellent performance by Aykroyd as well as the rest of the cast.
Driving Miss Daisy is a lovely, character-driven film with touching performances by the entire cast. This DVD is a quality Special Edition from Warner Brothers, and gives the film the treatment it deserves.
Not guilty! All involved are released with the thanks of the court.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Miss Daisy's Journey: From Stage to Screen" Featurette
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