Director Bruce Beresford and Jessica Tandy on the set of 'Driving Miss Daisy' in 1989.
Director Bruce Beresford and Jessica Tandy on the set of 'Driving Miss Daisy' in 1989.
Courtesy of Subject

When My Dad Won Best Picture: 'Driving Miss Daisy' Director and Daughter Reflect on the (Still Controversial) Movie, 30 Years Later

Australian filmmaker Bruce Beresford’s kid, then a rambunctious toddler and now a Hollywood Reporter staffer, interviews her father about the making of his chauffeur drama, which triumphed three decades ago at the Oscars.

By the time I was 3 years old, I knew my way around a movie set better than my preschool. I knew the craft services table was where I could find my favorite snacks. I knew the makeup trailers were where I could hear the liveliest conversations. And I knew that my father, Bruce Beresford, was something called a director, a guy who made movies. The only thing I got wrong back then, in my befuddled toddler brain, was that I thought he made all the movies. Like, in the world.

But in the summer of 1989, while I was watching him on a set in Atlanta, he was making just one picture. He was shooting Driving Miss Daisy, which went on to win four Oscars (including best picture, best screenplay and best actress for Jessica Tandy), made Morgan Freeman a star and — although I obviously wasn't aware of it at the time — became something of a lightning rod of racial politics in the 1990s. Mostly what I remember from my time on the set was the day I got dressed up for a brief nonspeaking role as a neighbor girl (I was no Tandy, but I killed it). But I had very little concept of the plot, which my dad — an affable Australian who sometimes called me Cordelia (the name of my much taller and curly-haired older sister), wore funny ties and listened to opera music at full volume — described to me as a story about "an old lady who couldn't drive her car anymore."

So, on the eve of the 30th anniversary of its Oscar wins, I seized the opportunity to interview my 79-year-old father for The Hollywood Reporter — where I'm now an associate editor — about his time on Daisy, the movie that earned him international acclaim and gave our family the sort of celebrity status that has always made me both incredibly proud and — to be honest — a little bit uncomfortable.

***

"The first time I heard of Daisy was in a call from the producer Richard Zanuck," my dad is telling me over the phone from his home in Sydney. He's talking loudly, but not because of a bad telephone connection or the onset of deafness — he has a very specific "phone voice," several decibels above what feels natural. "He sent me a copy of the play, not a film script," he continues, adding that he was captivated by the "great truthfulness" of the well-observed relationship. "I read it and a few days later asked if I could make a film of it."

If only it were that easy. The road to bringing Alfred Uhry's 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning play to the big screen was fraught with problems, starting with the fact that the narrative centers on the friendship between an African American chauffeur and an elderly white woman (characters inspired by Uhry's grandmother Lena Fox and her driver Will Coleman) in the deep South. "An old black man and an old Jewish lady chatting in the kitchen" is how Dad puts it. I have always admired his ability to be straightforward.

Commercial success was thought unlikely because it was an adaptation of a small-scale play where the most dramatic incident is, in Dad's words, "One character accuses another of stealing a tin of salmon out of the cupboard." Repeatedly, he was told that no director — not even the one who had previously directed such notable films as Tender Mercies and Breaker Morant — could possibly make this compelling enough to sustain an audience's interest. To make matters worse, the film lacked star appeal, at least as far as the studios were concerned.

Zanuck had suggested Tandy, the Broadway star (she played the original Blanche DuBois on Broadway in A Streetcar Named Desire) best known for appearing opposite her real-life husband, Hume Cronyn, in 1985's Cocoon. Dad thought she was "a great actress," and also exactly the right age. "Many actresses who wanted the role were too young," he says, "like Lauren Bacall." Morgan Freeman had played the role of Hoke in Uhry's stage play, but Dad had some initial misgivings about his age as well (Freeman was 52 at the time). "When I first met Bruce, it was backstage at the play, and I remember saying, 'Do I get the part?' " Freeman tells me. "He said, 'You're a little young for it.' I thought, 'OK, so much for that.' Traditionally, stage actors don't get the part when it's turned into a movie."

If it could be turned into a movie. "One producer called me and said he'd like to be involved in any film I make except this one!" Dad recalls, laughing. "Daisy was turned down by virtually everyone in Los Angeles."

Despite the fact that my dad is prone to spectacular exaggeration — "ghastly" is one of his favorite words, even for the most minor inconveniences — this was not one of those occasions. After some digging at the American Film Institute, I learned that Daisy was rejected by Walt Disney Studios, 20th Century Fox, Universal, Paramount and Columbia. The only place that was willing to roll the dice was Warner Bros. Says my father: "I suspect they lacked enthusiasm but found it difficult to refuse someone with Zanuck's track record."

Daisy was financed by Canadian producer Jake Eberts, who read the script, adapted by Uhry (who ended up winning an Oscar for the screenplay), while on vacation at a ski resort. A budget of about $7 million ($14.4 million today) had to cover 25 years of plotline, which ruled out the option of building sets. Every location was real, given "exemplary detail," Dad says, by set decorator Crispian Sallis.

Casting Daisy's son, Boolie, was an unexpected headache. "Warners [wasn't] overjoyed at either Morgan or Jessica and insisted on a 'name' actor. I thought this would be a fairly simple matter, but was stunned to find there seemed to be no actors, or their agents, who considered the part to be worthwhile." Despair had set in, until one night Dad got a call from Dan Aykroyd, who offered to do the role even when warned about the "minuscule" salary.

Dad's memories of the film's 31 shooting days include "terribly funny, often very dirty" on-set jokes from Tandy, who was 80 at the time and frail. "She was supposed to work only a few hours a day, but this proved to be impossible because of the schedule as determined by the budget," he recalls. Throughout those long days, she often stayed in character, keeping her distance from Freeman, just as Daisy would have. But Dad says she was cheerful, cooperative and never fluffed a line. "The only complaint I can remember is, at the end of a long day's shoot, she turned to me and said, 'Mother is tired now, dear.'"

Daisy received wildly enthusiastic reviews upon its Dec. 13, 1989, release, although I never got around to reading any of them until I started writing this piece. One that stood out to me is by Roger Ebert, who noted, "It is an immensely subtle film, in which hardly any of the most important information is carried in the dialogue and in which body language, tone of voice or the look in an eye can be the most important thing in a scene." The subtlety that Dad injects into his work is in contrast to his real life, where he is unabashedly direct with the people he knows well. "It looks like the barber made a mistake," he once told my wife as she showed him her new haircut at the dinner table. "What is that terrible music?" he often asks me as I play the sounds of my beloved rock bands.

Although Daisy was nominated for nine Oscars, grossed $145.8 million worldwide (nearly $300 million today) and became the toast of Hollywood, very few of the producers who rejected the project ever got in touch with Dad to congratulate him. "I wasn't submerged with people calling me and saying, 'What have I done?' " he says, later remembering that he did run into one who confessed, "I can't believe I turned it down."

But controversy clouded the film in subsequent years, revolving around the central, inescapable fact that the movie was about an African American chauffeur driving a white woman — and also that Dad's film was embraced by the overwhelmingly white and male Academy over Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. Revisiting the 62nd Academy Awards in a New York Times article published in the lead-up to last year's Oscars, in which Peter Farrelly's Green Book (about a white chauffeur driving a black passenger) was competing against Lee's BlacKkKlansman — critic Wesley Morris declared that Daisy was "not the best film of 1989," and that Lee "dramatized a starker truth." He correctly predicted that "2019 might just be 1990 again."

I asked my dad about the controversy, which he in a typical, downplaying Australian way calls "sort of absurd," adding: "It didn't seem to me to be that evil. Hoke had a job. It wasn't as if he was a slave; he could have gone at any time. He was a proud man who was anything but subservient." Dad goes on to explain that Uhry included "charming little touches" in the script, such as Hoke and Daisy eating in different rooms. This, he emphasizes, was all true, and a reflection of black-white relations of the period. "But it wasn't [only] prejudice — it was just the fact that it was her house and he was working there, so she didn't have dinner with him every night."

I ask him how he feels when people say that Do the Right Thing should have been awarded best picture over Daisy. "It was a good film. I liked it," he says. "Should it have? I don't know, perhaps it should have. No matter, I am proud of my film."

So, by the way, is Freeman. "It was such a different story, such a different approach — it's about a relationship between a man and a woman over a long period of time. It kind of reminds me of these French movies about love. It was literally a love story. I maintain it was one of the best jobs I ever had in the movies. I think [the controversy was] ridiculous."

Alfred Uhry feels much the same way. "After the film was so successful, there was a lot of nasty press going on, people saying that I'd written a sort of fantasy about pre-Civil War," he tells me from his home in New York. "I thought, there is no fantasy involved in those two people. You can't write the present into the past." Still, like Dad, he concedes that Do the Right Thing was pretty great, too. "I feel like those things are a throw of the dice," he says. "It doesn't mean that Miss Daisy was better. Having won the Oscar, I realize how random something like that is. I just lucked out. It's not like winning an Olympic gold medal, where you really are the fastest."

Since Driving Miss Daisy, I've been on the set of all but two of Dad's 17 other feature films, and I know that none of them were easy to make. Daisy is not special in that regard. But of directing, he tells me often, "It's more fun than a real job." Being the child of a filmmaker can be a lot of fun, too, although not always. As the daughter of Bruce Beresford — one of the best-known Australian directors — I've often been afforded a surprising status in the starry eyes of film buffs and even casual fans. "Congratulations!" I am sometimes told after the release of a film by my father, despite the fact that my only contribution was distracting crewmembers from their jobs on set. During my graduate studies at AFI, a teacher once charged up to me. "I'm sorry," he spat. "I didn't know." I stared at him, perplexed. What was he talking about? "I didn't know he was your dad," he said awkwardly. I realized the man was apologizing for not including my screenplay in a pool of greenlit projects, as though my name would have gotten my work through had he known earlier.

Perhaps because movies dominated my childhood, they play a big role in my adulthood as well. That's the best part of being a director's daughter. Films are one of the many great loves I share with my father, along with kayaking, pickled onions, poetry, Turkish gözleme, flea markets, Belgian beer and giggling quietly about the amusing fashion sense of strangers. Without fail, every single conversation I have with him ends with the same question: "Seen any good movies lately?"

This story first appeared in the Feb. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.