June 11, 2018

Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
Grade: 68/100

Director: Bruce Beresford
Stars: Morgan Freeman, Jessica Tandy, Dan Aykroyd

What it's about. Set in Atlanta between 1948 and 1973. Jessica Tandy is a mettlesome Jewish widow. Dan Aykroyd is her easygoing grown son, the wealthy owner of a textile factory. Tandy is too addlepated to drive, so he hires the courtly and able Morgan Freeman to be her chauffeur and reliable companion.

Aykroyd warns Freeman that Tandy is difficult. But he puts up with her obstinacy and class distinctions for many years. As Tandy ages, she begins to increasingly rely upon the kindly Freeman. Esther Rolle, the familiar matriarch from "Good Times", plays Tandy's maid. Patti Lupone is Aykroyd's wife, who treats servants as poorly as Tandy herself.

How others will see it. Driving Miss Daisy was based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Further foundations for its quality came from hiring critical favorites Tandy and Freeman. Aykroyd had mostly been associated with bad movies (The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, and Ghostbusters were exceptions) but his casting helped draw the under-40 crowd to the theaters. Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant, Tender Mercies) was also a proven art house film director.

Still, it was a surprise that Driving Miss Daisy grossed more than 100M in U.S. theaters alone, and a further surprise that it won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actress (Tandy), along with Best Adapted Screenplay (Alfred Uhry) and Best Makeup. It had five additional Oscar nominations, including Best Actor (Freeman) and Best Supporting Actor (Aykroyd's sole Oscar nod).

Today at imdb.com, it has 84K user votes, surprising for a film with a predominantly AARP cast. The user rating of 7.4 out of 10 is high but unremarkably so (for example, Freeman is second billed in the Shawshank Redemption, which has a whopping 9.3 user rating). Women over 45, my favorite demographic due to its independence, gives the film a somewhat higher 7.8.

Driving Miss Daisy was the last PG movie to win the Best Picture Oscar. Thus, the imdb.com user reviews rapture about the movie as a character study without the need for any science fantasy, crime, or adventure subplots. The growing affection between Tandy and Freeman is also discussed, despite their differences in race, religion, and economic class. What isn't mentioned is that behind their friendship is the salary that Akroyd continues to pay him. Without the weekly check, Freeman wouldn't give her a passing thought.

How I felt about it. Morgan Freeman first became a familiar face through the PBS kiddie show "The Electric Company", which ran for six seasons. But 1989 was his second breakthrough, the year he made Glory, Driving Miss Daisy, and Lean on Me. After that, he appeared with regularity in A-list movies, though the #MeToo movement and advancing age might put him to pasture.

The story goes that Akroyd made the film for union scale, something he certainly did not do for Doctor Detroit. Perhaps he suspected that he might get an Oscar nod, which he did, or was angling for other supporting dramatic roles, which actually happened (My Girl and My Girl 2.)

In any event, he is at his most likable here. Unlike Lupone or Tandy, he has many people on his payroll, and thus knows how to treat them: as reliable people seeking an honest living, instead of servants without lives, feelings, or common sense.

Since Freeman and Akroyd are already cool people, the odd man out is Tandy, who lives on her son's charity, and increasingly depends on the more able Freeman. Yet she puts on airs like she is better than either, if not everyone. Even in the nursing home at the end of the movie, she remains ornery, but by then everyone knows it is merely a bluff, and that she regards Freeman as her best friend.

Still, Tandy's recognition of Freeman's importance to her only comes with the onset of dementia, when a lifeline out of confusion becomes paramount. Tandy won a Best Actress Oscar for playing an unsympathetic character.