Sunday, December 13, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Driving Miss Daisy" (1989)

Left to right: Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman in Driving Miss Daisy
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Driving Miss Daisy
Release Date: December 13, 1989
Director: Bruce Beresford
Written By: Alfred Uhry (Screenplay & Play)
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Jessica Tandy, Dan Aykroyd
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Running Time: 99 minutes

Oscar Wins: 4
-Best Picture
-Best Actress (Jessica Tandy)
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Best Make-Up

Oscar Nominations: 5
-Best Actor (Morgan Freeman)
-Best Supporting Actor (Dan Aykroyd)
-Best Art Direction - Set Direction
-Best Costume Design
-Best Editing

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Born on the Fourth of July
-Dead Poets Society
-Field of Dreams
-My Left Foot

And the winner is...

Among the Best Picture winners to receive a lot of flack, director Bruce Beresford's Driving Miss Daisy ranks among the most controversial. It is't because of an abrasive take on its subject, but that it beat several other films who, 25 years later, have been more revered and studied by film scholars. While not a bad film, the legacy of this film about racial understanding has likely not aged well in comparison to more confrontational and aggressive takes on the subject. With solid performances by Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy, it is a film that likely will have trouble ever escaping its status as a bad Best Picture winner, which is more of a testament to how great 1989 was for film than its actual content. Whatever your thoughts, it's hard not to embrace the film being part of The Academy's love of "message movies." It feels important, but is it?

Writer Alfred Uhry originally wrote "Driving Miss Daisy" as part of an Off Broadway production. The story about the relationship between a Jewish woman and her black servant over 25 years was meant to be the first in a trilogy of stories regarding the Jewish experience in America, better known as The Atlanta Trilogy. While he would make those stories ("The Last Night of Ballyhoo" and "Parade"), neither would capture as much acclaim as his first. The story was so successful that would lead to Uhry receiving the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1988. It wasn't long after that it was adapted into a film, written in fact by Uhry himself and directed by Bruce Bereford, of whom did five films set in the south during his career, starting with 1983's Tender Mercies and ending with 1996's Last Dance.

Unlike most films to win Best Picture, the production history of the film is not widely publicized nor features any interesting information from what's given. Uhry based the story on his own grandmother's relationship with her servant, whose children appear in the film as extras. The studio went through a series of actors for the various parts, even once contemplating a potential Eddie Murphy and Bette Midler vehicle. They eventually decided on Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy respectively. The part played by Patti LuPone, Florine, was not actually in the play and was written into the film by Uhry. Why was this? It was because the writer felt that LuPone looked good in a costume.

The film was a box office success, earning $145 million during its run. Even then, its chances at the Oscars didn't seem to be favored. When nominated for Best Actress, Tandy was so convinced that she wouldn't win that she bet a friend $100. She later reported that it was the best bet she ever lost. To date, Driving Miss Daisy is the only Off Broadway film to win Best Picture, and the second to be adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. It was also the first year that Billy Crystal hosted the ceremony, who claimed that Driving Miss Daisy was "the film that directed itself." This was because Bereford failed to earn a Best Director nomination for his work. As of 2015, Driving Miss Daisy is one of only four (the others being Wings, Grand Hotel, and Argo) to win Best Picture without even a Best Director nomination. When Tandy won, she became the oldest at 81 to win Best Actress. 

While a decent decade for Best Picture winners, Driving Miss Daisy's legacy would go on to be mired in negativity. Much like the controversy around Crash's win several decades later, many hold the belief that the film won Best Picture more for being a safe message movie than having any real artistic or cultural value. Among the many films lobbied as being better is Do the Right Thing, which infamously failed to get a Best Picture nomination. The film's aggressive take on race relations remains consistently discussed, with many even claiming that it's still relevant. Many go so far as to believe that that film's director Spike Lee has a bitter relationship with The Academy, choosing to outwardly criticize their lack of diversity. Even when accepting his Honorary Oscar in 2015, he made a point of acknowledging the cultural diversity problem within Hollywood. 

Even beyond this, Driving Miss Daisy is a film that gets flack for being the lesser of the five that were nominated. Between staggering war dramas (Born on the Fourth of July), iconic teacher films (Dead Poets Society), sports classics (Field of Dreams), and brutally wrenching performances (My Left Foot); it was lacking something. While it would be easy to excuse Driving Miss Daisy if the contenders were subpar, the nominees have actually had the legacy of being important to the culture in some capacity. While Driving Miss Daisy is still occasionally talked about, it's definitely not as much as quoting the "Carpe diem" scene from Dead Poets Society. In fact, the lack of available information, and lack of other award groups nominations, makes this even more puzzling as to why it won. 

Driving Miss Daisy may be one of the lesser Best Picture winners in most people's opinions, but it still has plenty of charm and talent to offer. It was among the few early great Morgan Freeman performances. It also features a good message that may not be executed as well as other films, but still has its intentions in the right place. It may not be the first, or even 20th, film that people think of when they think of Best Picture - but at least it was a film trying to be something greater while being more wholesome to universal audiences. Is it the best? Not exactly. Is it the worst? Far from it. It's just a film that had stiff competition, and that's more of a testament to that year than any shortcomings of the film.

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