Skip to main content

I think it’s wonderful the way things are changing.

Driving Miss Daisy

(SPOILERS) The meticulous slightness of Driving Miss Daisy is precisely the reason it proved so lauded, and also why it presented a prime Best Picture pick: a feel-good, social-conscience-led flick for audiences who might not normally spare your standard Hollywood dross a glance. One for those who appreciate the typical Judi Dench feature, basically. While I’m hesitant to get behind anything Spike Lee, as Hollywood’s self-appointed race-relations arbiter, spouts, this was a year when he actually did deliver the goods, a genuinely decent movie – definitely a rarity for Lee – addressing the issues head-on that Driving Miss Daisy approaches in softly-softly fashion, reversing gingerly towards with the brake lights on. That doesn’t necessarily mean Do the Right Thing ought to have won Best Picture (or even that it should have been nominated for the same), but it does go to emphasise the Oscars’ tendency towards the self-congratulatory rather than the provocative.

Of course, the situation had come full circle by the time the Academy recognised Lee as Best Director, with Green Book having the cheek to take the top prize. Lee’s movie that year was the overrated – invariably the case with a Lee joint – BlackKklansman. The award came in tandem with a generally bilious response to the idea that a picture as retrograde as Green Book – retrograde in fashioning a race-relations tale of yesteryear, set yesteryear, and touching on far too many familiar, insufficiently progressive tropes and devices for the liking of many of the loudest detracting voices – should be recognised by an awards body that evidently wasn’t nearly woke enough, within the limited definitions of woke (ie, fail to meet the prescribed standards, and get yourself denounced and vilified, if not cancelled).

There are definite similarities between Driving Miss Daisy and Green Book – among them a Best Picture win without even a Best Director nomination – but the latter is also a much more engrossing, dramatically engaged and compelling piece. Driving Miss Daisy is dead set on a path of easy-going, observational charm that may have delighted many but certainly got on my nerves at the time; I still find it far too obvious, smug even, in its through line, despite the kudos it received for understatement and subtle readings beneath the amiable-adversarial interplay.

Director Bruce Beresford and screenwriter Alfred Uhry are at pains to point out that, for all Miss Daisy’s thawing, she remains a tetchy, irascible yet loveable old racist. Because the picture avoids grandstanding, the central relationship – between Miss Daisy and chauffeur Hoke Colburn (Morgan Freeman) – is very amenable, in a serf/master boundaries kind of way, something underlined by the ever-so aspirant-with-a-touch-of-whimsical-quirk Hans Zimmer score that will make your teeth hurt. The picture offers only so much in the way of lessons, but in the context of the journey of its characters, that’s considered enough. Everyone is encouraged to come away suffused with a warm glow, as Beresford and Uhry, adapting his 1987 play, offer sops (the common ground of persecution) and cultural signposts (I don’t for a moment buy that Miss Daisy would be keen to go along to see Martin Luther King, but it makes for a clear Forrest Gump-esque marker of the era we’ve reached by that point).

Freeman had a double whammy in 1989 (a triple, if you count Lean on Me), with Hoke Colburn here and John Rawlins in Glory; while there were several prior tips (Street Smart’s Oscar nom, Clean and Sober), this was the year that furnished his overnight elder statesman gravitas (Hoke begins the film seven years older than Freeman was and ends it about the age he is now). His performance is fine, obviously, in that way all Freeman’s performances are; he does rather overdo the bad knees, as if he’s been taking notes from Clive Dunn on how to perform an old boy. The real problem is that, in the way a Freeman role is wont to, it reserves Hoke maximum dignity and wisdom; he’s all long-suffering, wry superiority (and seemingly entirely lacking a family of his own, until we learn he has a granddaughter in a reference at the end); he’s both a benign force of noble insight and a cypher who exists purely to reflect Miss Daisy’s learning curve.

Pauline Kael might have been expected to tear the stuffing out of Driving Miss Daisy, but she was reticently generous. As she put it of Hoke, “The black man is made upright, considerate, humane – he’s made perfect – so that nothing will disturb our appreciation of the gentle, bittersweet reverie we’re watching”. And yet, while she considered Uhry had written an “ingratiating play about race relations” replete with “virtually all manipulative bits”, Beresford “gives them a light, airy texture”. She noted of the picture’s better observational side, “It’s a time when a man like Hoke goes on weighing his words to the end of his days”. However, I’m unsure there’s a way to do that that doesn’t become the antithesis of everything Spike Lee wants to see in a movie broaching the subject of race in America. The argument is that the Freeman character’s performative obeisance is a get-along manoeuvre, and so the picture has much more depth and range than might appear, but you can feel the soft-purring engine of a movie too pleased with itself to be supplying that substantively. Which is why it arrives at a point where kindly Hoke is feeding Miss Daisy pie in a retirement home.

Collette Maude in Time Out called Driving Miss DaisyFar too cosy to serve as effective social or political metaphor; better to regard it as a solid ensemble piece”. Embracing the latter can stave off the former for so long, though. James Park, in the final Film Yearbook (it’s a shame the annual publication lasted only a decade), couldn’t disguise his lack of goodwill towards “a nice enough little movie”. Of the title character, he appraised “the film allows the audience to celebrate her journey to relatively non-racist enlightenment and the capacity we all have to change, while also looking back with some nostalgia at a world where different ethnic groups stayed firmly within their communities, and the races were kept as separate as the classes and the religious denominations”. It is a better time, a more peaceful time, for all that Hoke intrudes upon it with the memory of a lynching (although, that only comes up in conversation when things began to change, during the increasingly nasty and violent 1960s).

As Anthony Holden reported it in The Secret History of The Academy Awards, the frontrunners that year were Driving Miss Daisy and Born on the Fourth of July, the latter gradually losing ground thanks to Oliver Stone and Ron Kovic’s wearisome awards-circuit politicking. Born on the Fourth of July was a picture reminding voters of lots of bad things, from friendly fire, to misplaced patriotism, to grim sex, grim disability and yelling “Big fucking erect penis!” at your mother. Driving Miss Daisy was an antidote, an infusion of much gentler, halcyon days of nice clean cars, noble black servants and warmly insistent Zimmer-framed scores; suddenly the winning ticket was one of niceness, as the movie’s producer Richard Zanuck observed: “The news is that there are people out there who want more than rapes and car chases and violence”.

Added to which, it was an admirably modest affair, “the year’s fiscal Cinderella giving the voters a perennially welcome opportunity to vote for a well-acted exponent of liberal moral values over a violent, blood-stained epic”. Also in its favour: the Academy loves to push an envelope if it’s of the sentimental kind, hence Tandy winning Best Actress at 81, the oldest win in that category, accompanied by many a remark of Miss Daisy that “My mother/ grandmother is like her”. It even elicited light-hearted ribbing (“the film which apparently directed itself” host Billy Crystal suggested, referring to the lack of a Best Director nod).

A brief mention of Dan Aykroyd’s performance, which finds him effortlessly segueing from broad comedy to reliable character acting. He’s good in a part that veers from subtlety to overegging (a bit like the movie as a whole), and includes the most winning description of Daisy (“You’re a doodle, mama”). It’s also quite possible the praise he received laid the seeds for transgressions to come, however, since the relatively light makeup work on aging Dan would be eclipsed by the disastrous full bloom of Nothing but Trouble a few years later.

Were the Academy crazy to give the Best Picture Oscar to Driving Miss Daisy? Probably no more than usual in their choices, although they particularly laid themselves open that year, such that Lee is inextricably wrapped up in the picture’s legacy. I’m reluctant to go to bat for Spike, as he’s one of the most overrated of “revered” Hollywood directors, but Do the Right Thing is easily his best movie (not robbed for Best Original Screenplay, though; the movie’s definitely more than the sum of such parts).

As The New York Times' Vincent Canby saw it, Lee missed out on additional Oscar exposure because “Do the Right Thing won’t play the game. It talks back. . . Do the Right Thing doesn’t call attention to progress, it asks for more. Now”. Which suggests, had Stone had been holding forth from the parapet with a megaphone at the time of Platoon, it might have been in for the same fate as Born on the Fourth of July; it’s easy to put Oscar off, unless they feel duty bound to virtue signal.

Lee later had the temerity to wag the finger when discussing the limited recognition received by the deeply average Selma. Did you know, he advised, that Do the Right Thing is being “taught in film schools all across the world”? That’s right. And “Nobody’s discussing Driving Miss mother fuckin’ Daisy”. That’s right, and nobody will be discussing Da 5 Bloods either. Or Oldboy. Driving Miss Daisy winning isn’t especially more egregious than Titanic or A Beautiful Mind taking home the top prize. It’s a certain kind of pat, inoffensive (except to Spike) moviemaking that hits an awards sweet spot from time to time.

What I do find interesting is that Driving Miss Daisy’s the last PG (US) offering to date to win Best Picture. That’s a far more lasting takeaway, I suspect, than commonplace undeserved statuettes. The likelihood of three PG nominees in the current environment, when there are up to ten vacancies, seems unlikely enough, let alone if there were a mere five, as per 1989; it should go without saying that either of the other two would have been much more deserving winners.

Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

People still talk about Pandapocalypse 2002.

Turning Red (2022) (SPOILERS) Those wags at Pixar, eh? Yes, the most – actually, the only – impressive thing about Turning Red is the four-tiered wordplay of its title. Thirteen-year-old Mei (Rosalie Chiang) finds herself turning into a large red panda at emotive moments. She is also, simultaneously, riding the crimson wave for the first time. Further, as a teenager, she characteristically suffers from acute embarrassment (mostly due to the actions of her domineering mother Ming Lee, voiced by Sandra Oh). And finally, of course, Turning Red can be seen diligently spreading communist doctrine left, right and centre. To any political sensibility tuning in to Disney+, basically (so ones with either considerable or zero resistance to woke). Take a guess which of these isn’t getting press in reference to the movie? And by a process of elimination is probably what it it’s really about (you know in the same way most Pixars, as far back as Toy Story and Monsters, Inc . can be given an insi

I can’t be the worst. What about that hotdog one?

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) (SPOILERS) It would have been a merciful release, had the title card “ The End ”, flashing on screen a little before the ninety-minute mark, not been a false dawn. True, I would still have been unable to swab the bloody dildoes fight from my mind, but at least Everything Everywhere All at Once would have been short. Indeed, by the actual end I was put in mind of a line spoken by co-star James Wong in one of his most indelible roles: “ Now this really pisses me off to no end ”. Or to put it another way, Everything Everywhere All at Once rubbed me up the wrong which way quite a lot of most of the time.

We could be mauled to death by an interstellar monster!

Star Trek Beyond (2016) (SPOILERS) The odd/even Star Trek failure/success rule seemed to have been cancelled out with the first reboot movie, and then trodden into ground with Into Darkness (which, yes, I quite enjoyed, for all its scandalous deficiencies). Star Trek Beyond gets us back onto more familiar ground, as it’s very identifiably a “lesser” Trek , irrespective of the big bucks and directorial nous thrown at it. This is a Star Trek movie that can happily stand shoulder to shoulder with The Search for Spock and Insurrection , content in the knowledge they make it look good.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998) An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar. Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins , and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch , in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whet

We’ve got the best ball and chain in the world. Your ass.

Wedlock (1991) (SPOILERS) The futuristic prison movie seemed possessed of a particular cachet around this time, quite possibly sparked by the grisly possibilities of hi-tech disincentives to escape. On that front, HBO TV movie Wedlock more than delivers its FX money shot. Elsewhere, it’s less sure of itself, rather fumbling when it exchanges prison tropes for fugitives-on-the-run ones.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

He's not in my pyjamas, is he?

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) (SPOILERS) By rights, Paul Mazursky’s swinging, post-flower-power-gen partner-swap movie ought to have aged terribly. So much of the era’s scene-specific fare has, particularly so when attempting to reflect its reverberations with any degree of serious intent. Perhaps it’s because Mazursky and co-writer Larry Tucker (also of The Monkees , Alex in Wonderland and I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! ) maintain a wry distance from their characters’ endeavours, much more on the wavelength of Elliott Gould’s Ted than Robert Culp’s Bob; we know any pretensions towards uninhibited expression can’t end well, but we also know Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice have to learn the hard way.

There is a war raging, and unless you pull your head out of the sand, you and I and about five billion other people are going to go the way of the dinosaur.

The X-Files 5.14: The Red and the Black The most noteworthy aspect of this two parter is that it almost – but not quite – causes me to reassess my previous position that the best arc episodes are those that avoid tackling the greater narrative head-on, attempting to advance the resistant behemoth. It may be less than scintillating as far as concepts go, but the alien resistance plot is set out quite clearly here, as are the responses to it from the main players.