Ever notice that every blockbuster film has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote the The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
Miss Daisy wants the world to never change. She wants to stay in her house, making pickles and playing mah jongg. When she leaves, she wants to drive herself along the same route to the same Piggly Wiggly. And she wants to eat in the dining room while the help eats in the kitchen.
When Daisy backs the car into a ditch, it's quite an adventure. She never drives above 20mph forward, so going that fast backward would be exhilarating if it wasn't so scary and embarrassing.
Hoke will end up changing Miss Daisy's life for the better, but she doesn't know that yet. She's angry at him for taking away her independence, even though she's doing just fine losing her independence on her own. She's so stubborn that she considers walking everywhere instead of allowing her son to hire a driver.
Hoke knows how to fix an elevator, drive a stick shift, and make cranky old white ladies slightly less cranky. As we said, he'll change her life, making her chill out a bit and realize that she isn't as progressive as she thinks she is. He isn't just a car driver, he's a good navigator for life.
Daisy needs a lot of prodding to get into Hoke's car. Too bad he left his cattle zapper at home. Instead, he follows her in the car until she finally relents and gets in. Once she's on the road with Hoke, there's no turning back.
There are few tests as strenuous, deadly, and challenging as the one that threatens Daisy and Hoke's professional relationship. Are you sitting down? She thinks… he has… stolen a 33-cent can of salmon.
Hey, it's intense for her. Most of the tests involve Daisy being a stubborn old coot and being proven wrong.
The inmost cave is a place often filled with a terrible danger. In Driving Miss Daisy, that place is Alabama, just like in real life. The trip to Alabama is a true test, because Daisy's very anxious about making it to the birthday party on time, but she must put her fate in Hoke's hands.
Traveling through Alabama is an ordeal, with racist cops and segregated bathrooms. Daisy reveals a personal memory to Hoke, which is a first for her. And both Miss Daisy and Hoke are tested, forcing Miss Daisy to realize that although she thinks she and Hoke are different, they're on the same road together. We were going to say "in the same boat," but wrong metaphor for this flick.
Near the end of the trip, Hoke finally stands up to Miss Daisy, and she seems to respect him more as a result. This may be the first moment where she realizes he is more than just a driver, but a potential friend. Also, she gets birthday cake. Yum, cake.
During the road back, the hero must choose between her own personal objective and that of a Higher Cause. Miss Daisy's personal objective is to say things are changing in the right direction with regard to civil rights and racial justice. After all, Dr. King was invited to speak in Atlanta. But Hoke forces her to re-evaluate her limited perspective.
Miss Daisy and Hoke garden together after a long winter. This short scene shows us that she and Hoke are becoming friends, not just employer and employee. She's accepted him in a different way and has let him into her life more intimately.
The elixir in this case is pumpkin pie. Okay, it's actually friendship—or at least tolerance—when Hoke visits Daisy in the nursing home. She doesn't want Hoke to chat with Boolie—she tells Boolie he's come to see her. Daisy's nearing the end of her life, but Hoke brings some hope that her final days won't be spent alone.
Atlanta, Georgia isn't a small town, but it has the hallmarks of a small Southern town, like everyone being all up in everyone else's business. Miss Daisy's concern about her privacy is a response to the fact that when anything happens, the whole town knows about it in ten minutes—and this is half a century before text messaging.
In the 1950s, Atlanta was a booming city that prided itself on being a progressive town compared to many of its neighbor in the south. It advertised itself as "The City Too Busy to Hate." People rushed to support the temple after the bombing and raised money for its repair. Dr. King was invited to speak there. Still, Jews were often denied access to the most elite social clubs, and racial segregation was alive and well. (Source)
The movie is very much old South, with its segregated neighborhoods, scenes that look hot and humid even though you can't feel them, and a grocery store called the Piggly Wiggly. For you Yankees, that's a real place. You don't get much more Southern than the Piggly Wiggly, even though there's now one in Minnesota. Shocking.
The film takes a brief detour into Alabama—Hoke's first trip out of Georgia. Hoke comments that "Alabama ain't looking like much so far." Alabama's where Hoke and Miss Daisy encounter a pair of racist cops, making them miss the relative safety of Atlanta.
In one later scene, Miss Daisy listens to Martin Luther King, Jr. speak, and the movie plays a clip of his actual speech in Atlanta, in which he says, "segregation has placed the South socially, educationally, and economically behind the rest of the nation." Miss Daisy doesn't take her place on a picket line, but the real-life struggle for civil rights plays out in the film's background.
Driving Miss Daisy is a story told pretty straightforwardly—no flashbacks or flash-forwards, no narrative tricks.
It follows Daisy's life from 1948 until 1973. The movie's first thirty minutes or so span only a few months, but then the film starts to jump through time, showing us vignettes of only a few days in the lives of its characters every few years. It does this without the use of montage, a typical movie technique to show the passing of time.
Instead, we see time advancing by the use of makeup, adding wrinkles to Jessica Tandy, gray hair to Morgan Freeman, and making Dan Aykroyd look, well, the way Dan Aykroyd looks today. The time shifts, although chronological, can be confusing at first, but the film subtly cues you into the years using dialogue or news stories. It has a dramatic structure very similar to the play it was adapted from.
Old age. Death. Racism. Fried chicken. These are all weighty topics befitting a Pulitzer Prize-winning play (which Driving Miss Daisy is based on). Conflict is the heart of drama, and conflicts abound in the film—between between races, classes, and ideas. But the film tempers the darker themes with its use of humor, making it both comedy and drama.
While Driving Miss Daisy isn't exactly a knee-slapper, the film has its share of gentle humor, provided mostly by Miss Daisy and her reactions to the other characters. The Golden Globe awards divide their categories into Drama and Comedy categories, and Miss Daisy was submitted as a comedy, not as a drama. The film won Best Motion Picture, Comedy that year. (Best Drama was awarded to Tom Cruise's Born on the Fourth of July.)
First thing the title tells us? It's not Daisy Werthan—it's Miss Daisy. Right off the bat, we know that she's a fancy southern lady who's got to be addressed properly by her servants.
She's definitely Miss Daisy to her driver, whom the title tells us is the other big part of the story. Miss Daisy's greatest struggle is slowly relinquishing control of her life and letting someone else drive her, whether literally (Hoke behind the wheel) or figuratively (taking care of her).
Hoke becomes a "driving" force in Miss Daisy's life, that's for sure.
Hope you like tearjerking endings.
At the end of the film, Miss Daisy's suffering from dementia and confined to an old folk's home. It seems nice for a retirement home. It's clean, beautifully furnished, and the pie looks good. But to see a lady who wanted so much to be in control of her life to be so dependent, no longer able to live in her beautiful home—well, that's plain heartbreaking.
She hasn't quite lost everything though; she still has her friend Hoke. It's not easy for Hoke to visit; he's too old to drive now, too, and relies on taxis or his granddaughter to bring him. But he still comes; it's an act of devotion.
In that scene at the nursing home, Daisy's entirely dependent on Hoke. He even has to help her eat her pie, and he does it in the same kind way he's always treated her. The scene shows us how much she's depended on him all along; she was just too proud to admit it.
In that sweet but get-out-your-handkerchiefs scene of him feeding her, we re-evaluate what we've thought about their relationship and recognize how much the gentle, patient Hoke has been in the driver's seat all along. He's managed to help her be as independent as long as possible without being condescending or controlling. The very last scene is an image of him driving her for the first time long ago, in the red Hudson automobile. He's treated her as "Miss" Daisy to the end.
Driving Miss Daisy deals with some dark themes, but it does so with a sunny demeanor. That's the South for you—sugar-coating the dark truth.
The film includes one explicit racist statement. It is exceptionally shocking, because although there is underlying racial prejudice throughout the entire movie, it's usually denied by Miss Daisy, who swears she's never been prejudiced. Her prejudice is much subtler than the Alabama cop who describes Hoke with the N-word.