Driving Miss Daisy always falls in the bottom percentile of any Best Picture winners ranking. USA Today ranked it at number 88 of 93, and Rotten Tomatoes more generous ranking still has it at number 77. It’s been forgotten except as a punchline to bad Best Picture winners. When I told people I was highlighting it for this series, their responses went from “I remember liking it, but I don’t know if it would hold up,” to “Driving Miss Who?”
The main reason for the backlash, which existed even as it was named the Best Picture of 1989, is that it was released the same year as Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. Lee’s film is, without hyperbole, one of the best American films ever made. Whether examining race relations in America was Driving Miss Daisy’s goal or not (we’ll get to that later), the old-fashioned examination of a white Karen harassing a black man was corny even in 1989. Compared to the honest look at racism in American society Lee presented in his masterpiece, Driving Miss Daisy felt more like a film that belonged in 1949 than 1989.
And yet Lee’s film wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture. Lee did get an Original Screenplay nomination but lost to Tom Schulman and Dead Poet’s Society, further showcasing how conservative AMPAS was at the time and remains to this day.
Is AMPAS’s out of touch conservativism Driving Miss Daisy’s fault? No, and that’s a bit of a shame because I enjoyed it far more than I thought I would.
Daisy follows the story of the later life of Daisy Werhan (Jessica Tandy), a wealthy lady living in Atlanta who is unable to drive after crashing her car and not being able to get a new insurance policy. Her son Boolie (Dan Akroyd in an Oscar nominated performance…no, I’m not making that up) hires Hoke Colburn (Morgan Freeman) to be her personal driver. At first, Daisy hates Hoke, but they eventually come to an understanding and remain friends for the next 25 years, as both characters age and witness a changing world around them.
So, what do I make of Driving Miss Daisy? It’s not great and it certainly isn’t the Best Picture of any year, but its leads were charming (as you’d expect from Morgan Freeman) and the film is well paced. At 98 minutes, it doesn’t overstay its welcome the way some Hollywood epics do. It also served as a bit of a time capsule for me. I laughed at the references to “The Piggly Wiggly on Highland Avenue” and hoped Freeman would drop Daisy off to return her rentals to Videodrome, a video store that still exists on Highland Avenue. That is a personal preference, but it helped establish the world the characters were living in. This sort of story isn’t some far off memory. It’s very recent history.
In addition, a lot of the criticism of the movie is misguided. Driving Miss Daisy is not an effective commentary on race relations, but it was never meant to be. Daisy certainly can be jaw droppingly prejudiced. “They’re like having children in the house,” she says of Hoke and her black housekeeper Isabella in one scene. Her son even compares her to famously racist Georgia Governor Towlridge. But she resents Hoke not because he’s black, but because of what he represents. In losing her car, she loses her independence and must depend on others for the first time in decades. And there’s nothing she can do to stop what’s happening to her.
Hollywood, with its focus on the young and sexy, don’t want to discuss people growing old unless its in a movie about characters who have already lived through the process. To be fair, Driving Miss Daisy doesn’t get around that issue. Yes, its easy to empathize with her, but what does this story have to tell everyone about aging? The film really doesn’t convince me that I may one day be a “Daisy,” angry at the world for allowing me to get old. But I admire Driving Miss Daisy for at least trying. It’s an important part of life that no one wants to face. Yet, like Daisy, one day we won’t have a choice. It could have been handled more effectively (I like the way The Curious Case of Benjamin Button explores that theme), but it at least tries.
Yet the relationship between the two characters is odd, especially at the beginning. Hoke sticks around to do housework, even when Daisy is abusing him and tells him to go away. So, what drives Hoke to stay? Is it just the money he’s being paid? Does he genuinely like her? I don’t know and the movie doesn’t bother to explain at that moment. Another scene reveals that Hoke is illiterate and Daisy later gives him a textbook to help teach him to read and write. It’s a touching gesture but it makes no sense in context. How was he reading the street signs and how did he know where he was? We know he can find the Piggly Wiggly – can he read the sign? Or how does he adjust? The movie didn’t fully explore these characters, especially Hoke. I want more intimacy with the characters.
The movie is based on a play and watching it feels like I should be watching this material on stage. I’ve a feeling it would have been a lot more effective that way. Plays do give more of an intimacy that movies can’t because you’re in the same room as the characters. However, as Do The Right Thing shows with its grand scope and its layered characters, movies can also do things plays can’t. Even Amadeus, another Best Picture winner from the 1980s that was based on a play, does things theater can’t do with its flashback structure and its elaborate production design that made you feel like you were in 18th century Vienna. Driving Miss Daisy would have been just as effective – perhaps even more so – as a recording of the original off Broadway play rather than as a movie.
That’s really all there is to say about this movie. It’s an adaptation of a play – a play that I think might be rather good. The movie is constrained by the original material. But it’s not a train wreck. I’ve mentioned the movies flaws. I’ve also mentioned what the movie does right. I’ve seen worse, but I’ve seen better.
But what does this say about AMPAS and the Oscars? I’ve mentioned before that they’re very conservative. Not politically, but they tend to reward more traditional films rather than the films that move the medium forward. Did 2001 win Best Picture? Bonnie and Clyde? Pulp Fiction? Citizen Kane? What about something like Toy Story, which revolutionized animation? No. They go for what they recognize. That’s why films made with the 90s/early 2000s indie aesthetic are winning Best Picture now. Sometimes this does recognize the best film of the year (Moonlight), but sometimes it’s a disaster. As I write this, The Power of the Dog is the likely Best Picture winner of the 2022 ceremony. (NOTE: COPA, a film I have not seen, ended up winning the top prize. But many of the other choices – Will Smith for Best Actor, Belfast for Best Original Screenplay, “No Time to Die” for Best Original Song – were the safe, traditional choices. AMPAS may be getting better but still needs to work out some problems.) I admired the film’s craft, but I found it boring to sit through. It wasn’t nearly as engaging as Titane or even Nightmare Alley. Yet AMPAS votes for things like that because it’s familiar and comforting. It was the same with Driving Miss Daisy. That, combined with Do the Right Thing’s very overt themes on American racism, ensured the true “best picture” of 1989 wouldn’t be given the award. It’s a shame but I can’t say it’s a new story.
Still, would I recommend watching Driving Miss Daisy? Yes, if you enjoy this sort of old-fashioned play as a movie aesthetic. The performances are good and much of the criticism toward the material is misplaced. But even under those conditions it doesn’t stand out from other films like Amadeus. My advice would be to wait and see if your local community theater puts on a performance of it instead.