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Release Year: 1989
Genre: Comedy, Drama, History
Director: Bruce Beresford
Writer: Alfred Uhry
Literature's been pushing up Daisies for 140 years.
You've got Daisy Miller, Daisy Buchanan, and Daisy Mae Yokum. (Okay, so maybe that last one's not literature.) Add to that garden Miss Daisy Werthan, the most cantankerous and complicated of them all: an elderly Southern belle and the star of our film about race and friendship in mid-20th-century Atlanta.
Based on the stage play of the same name and released by Warner Bros. Pictures in 1989—twenty-five years after the Civil Rights Act—Driving Miss Daisy looks at the life of an affluent Jewish Georgia widow and her relationship with her black chauffeur, Hoke. It follows stubborn old Miss Daisy from 1948-1973, as she struggles to adjust to a new social order where blacks step out of their traditionally subservient role in the segregated South.
Across the country, (white) moviegoers flocked to see Morgan Freeman, as Hoke, drive Jessica Tandy, as Miss Daisy, around Atlanta. Critics loved it, too. Driving Miss Daisy won the Oscar for Best Picture; Jessica Tandy won as Best Actress, becoming the oldest woman to win the award at an impressive 80 years old. (Source)
Although Morgan Freeman was nominated, he didn't win; director Bruce Beresford wasn't nominated at all. But those were minor controversies compared to Driving Miss Daisy's reputation, emerging years later, as one of the worst Oscar-winners of all time. Even though it was based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which also earned playwright Alfred Uhry an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, Miss Daisy was scorned by many critics for being too tame on racial issues and downplaying the upheaval of the civil rights struggle of the '50s and '60s. (Source)
But the strong performances by Freeman and Tandy keep Miss Daisy driving almost thirty years later. Whether as an entertaining movie or an interesting historical artifact, it's still a deeply felt film about an unlikely but evolving relationship.
Many people would simply say you shouldn't care about this movie at all because of its whitewashed look at race and sepia-toned nostalgic view of segregation-era South when happy blacks served grumpy whites with a smile.
But it takes bravery to drive full-speed into any race discussion, don't you think?
More pointed films like Mississippi Burning (1988) and Do the Right Thing, which came out the same year as Driving Miss Daisy, were generally overlooked by the Academy.
Like Miss Daisy herself, Academy voters, and many Americans then and now, want to take it slow. Driving Miss Daisy, in which Miss Daisy only goes about 35 mph, may be more their speed. This film is a good way to learn how to drive before getting into rush hour traffic. It's the Driver's Ed course of race relations, whereas films like Mississippi Burning, Do the Right Thing, or modern films like Dear White People (2014) and Selma (2014) are the NASCAR drivers on the track, navigating trickier turns and tighter corners. Together, these films help show how to talk (and not talk) about race in the United States.
But how about this: even though the film was criticized for its soft-focus, humorous, almost nostalgic look at the era of segregation, it tricks us into confronting our reactions to racism. Just as we're going happily along smiling at Daisy's impatience with Hoke or enjoying Idella's sassy-black-maid character or marveling at Hoke's ability to put up with his cantankerous boss lady, it hits us. Behind all the banter are very difficult realities of race and class.
If the movie came right out and hit us hard over the head with the issues, we wouldn't have to think so much; we'd be told what to think. The film's approach to racism is more intimate. In getting to know Miss Daisy and Hoke, we see the subtle ways in which racism and prejudice infiltrate their way into the thinking of otherwise good and reasonable people. How it's easy to consider someone as "the other," and how deep knowing is the antidote for that.
Like Daisy, we discover something about ourselves in a deeply personal way.
Werthan Bag (now Werthan Industries) is a real company, founded in 1868 in Nashville. According to their website, they're one of the biggest manufacturers of pet food bags. (Source)
Morgan Freeman played Hoke in the original run of the play. Strangely, Warner Bros. wanted Eddie Murphy for the role of Hoke, because who better to play a tender, aging chauffeur than the star of Beverly Hills Cop? (Source)
For Christmas—but definitely not a Christmas gift—Miss Daisy gives Hoke a book called "Zaner Method Writing." It's a real book, created by Charles Paxton Zaner, who founded the Zanerian College of Penmanship in 1888. In 1888, people still wrote with "pens," things that made marks with ink on paper. (Source)
Idella loves her soap operas. In one scene, she's watching the long-running half-hour soap The Edge of Night, which featured Lori Laughlin in an early role. (Source)
The rabbi of the bombed temple in Atlanta, Jacob Rothschild, was an outspoken opponent of segregation. He co-hosted the gala dinner and MLK speech that Daisy attended (without Hoke). Some people believed that the interfaith consensus against violence that followed the bombing was one of the reasons why Atlanta was able to peacefully desegregate its schools and public facilities during the civil rights era, while violence tore apart many other cities in the south. (Source)
The film's got an 82% fresh rating—almost as good as Daisy's pickles.
In Canada, Daisies Drive You
There's no website for Driving Miss Daisy, but if you're senior citizen in Canada who needs a ride, give Driving Miss Daisy Senior Services a call.
Based on Uhry's play, Driving Miss Daisy is periodically revived on stage, like in 2011 with James Earl Jones.
What TV show?
Even Dame Joan Plowright couldn't save this failed 1992 pilot for a Miss Daisy TV show.
Much Ballyhoo about Something
Paul Rudd—yes, that Paul Rudd—made his Broadway debut in Alfred Uhry's play The Last Night of Ballyhoo, so he's a natural to interview the playwright and ask him about his experience translating Daisy from stage to screen.
Ebert gives Driving Miss Daisy two thumbs up. We hope he kept those thumbs at 10 and 2 while driving, though.
Time for a Review
The New York Times praised Miss Daisy for being theatrical yet realistic, like Miss Daisy herself.
The Bad Old Days
Morgan Freeman said that when white southern audiences came backstage after the 1987 off-Broadway production of Daisy saying it reminded them of their childhoods, he was worried that the play was causing nostalgia for the era of segregation. But he checked with some black friends, and they said it was just about a relationship between two people. They all remembered a grandpa or uncle like Hoke.
Failure to Launch
Can't get enough Miss Daisy? The failed TV sitcom pilot has the music, the car, and actors who look nothing like the characters in the movie.
Driving Over Miss Daisy
Driving Miss Daisy was the subject of many parodies. One of our favorites is this, from the John Ritter comedy Stay Tuned (1992).
Jabbering with Jessica
After this interview with Jessica Tandy, you'll be saying to yourself—she was British? It's called ACTING.
Someone keep an eye on James Earl Jones, because Morgan Freeman says he would have killed anyone else who would have gotten the role of Hoke.
Rare and Wonderful
Siskel and Ebert spoil the whole movie.
Miss Daisy… She Wrote
Watch the full performance of Angela Lansbury as Miss Daisy, aired on PBS. Shockingly, no one is murdered in her presence.
Driving Miss Daisy was revived in Houston in 2015. Speaking with Houston Public Radio, with an authentic Southern accent, the director says it's still relevant today.
Playing at the movie theater in Daisy's town is Scudda-Hoo! Scudda-Hay! It's not a weird Southern catchphrase, it's a real movie featuring Natalie Wood and Marilyn Monroe.
A Sturdy Ride
…and we don't mean Miss Daisy. They don't make cars like this anymore.
Here's the original poster for the film, which reveals a ton about the characters in one subtle image.