With guaranteed Oscar nominations for career-crowning performances by Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy, Warner Bros.’ “Driving Miss Daisy” is a touching exploration of 25 years of change in Southern race relations (1948-73) as seen through the relationship of an elderly Jewish widow and her stalwart black chauffeur.
Bruce Beresford’s sensitive direction complements Alfred Uhry’s skillful adapation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play. The gemlike Zanuck Co. film should be a good b.o. performer.
The rare kind of story whose small observations suggest large social truths without pretension, “Driving Miss Daisy” manages to make its two central characters memorably individualized even as it uses them to illustrate profound social developments.
Freeman, re-creating his Obiewinning role of Hoke Colburn, and the veteran Tandy as Daisy Werthan triumphantly and indelibly bring these characters to life.
Set in the relatively tolerant city of Atlanta, where white matrons in the pre-Civil Rights era could pride themselves on their lack of prejudice while still acting as bossy as all get out to their black help, “Daisy” effortlessly evokes the changing periods on a limited budget.
This is one play that not only shows no strain in being opened up for the screen, but actually improves in the process. Since forward motion is partly what it’s about, and the settings through which Hoke and Daisy pass are so germane, Uhry’s expansion of his intimate three-character play enhances his themes and broadens the audience’s social perspective on the characters.
Tandy is a powerful stroke of casting, for she is not only the right age for Daisy but also has the flinty, stubborn, somewhat chilly personality that keeps the film from falling into easy sentimental traps.
Her Daisy is a captious and lonely old stick, living a bleakly isolated widow’s life in her empty old house, and her inability to keep from tyrannizing Freeman, housekeeper Esther Rolle, and other black helpers gives the film a current of bitter truth, making her gradual friendship with Freeman a hard-won achievement.
Freeman’s Hoke is the essence of tact, a man whose lifelong habituation to a white person’s slights has given him a quiet, philosophical acceptance of his role in life and a secret sense of amusement toward whites’ behavior.
A lesser actor might have been tempted to view Hoke from the outside, to graft a contemporary sensibility onto him, to wink at the audience or indulge in implausible outbursts.
Freeman has the wisdom and compassion to absorb himself into situations which can only be paintill for a black actor to recall, remaining true to history and paying tribute to the people who lived it.
It’s a satisfying road from Daisy rebuffing Hoke’s attempts to ingratiate himself in 1948, to his refusal to keep driving when he wants to relieve himself on a 1955 journey, to the infirm old woman finally taking his hand in 1973 and murmuring, “Hoke, you’re my best friend.” His habitual and laconic “Yassum,” repeated in different keys, becomes the moving emblem for the character.
Dan Aykroyd, shedding his smart-ass comic persona, is fine as Daisy’s longsuffering son Boolie, who forces Hoke onto his mother and runs diplomatic interference between them throughout.
Pulling off the difficult task of growing from young manhood to late middle age, Aykroyd is a sympathetic audience surrogate figure, yet a man whose liberal instincts can’t quite transcend the limitations of his time and place.
Uhry is less successful fleshing out the script with characters who didn’t appear in the play. Patti LuPone is never allowed to develop Boolie’s social-climbing wife Florina beyond a vulgar caricature.
Rolle has some choice moments in a sort of Hattie McDaniel part as Idella, but her funeral scene doesn’t become the emotional epiphany it should be despite soloist Indra A. Thomas’ superb rendition of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”