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On Dec. 13, 1989, Warner Bros. debuted Driving Miss Daisy in theaters nationwide. The acclaimed film went on to nab four honors at the 62nd Academy Awards, including best actress for Jessica Tandy and best picture. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy, two actors with considerable resources — and considerable idiosyncrasies as well — purr along in this tandem vehicle with enthusiastic ease. Adapted from his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Alfred Uhry’s comedy-drama hints at revelations of character more often than it actually provides them.
While Bruce Beresford’s careful, respectful direction ensures a suitably opened-up and efficient production, the director is content to let the material speak for itself.
Nevertheless, the sight of such confidently talented performers taking a pair of colorfully sketched characters over a quarter-century of a contentious relationship is bound to have solid appeal. Driving Miss Daisy appears to be headed for considerable popular success. Freeman and Tandy seem like sure bets for awards come next spring.
Set in a well-to-do section of Atlanta, the film opens in 1948 with Daisy Werthan (Tandy), a physically slight 72-year-old Southern Jewish dowager, accidently driving her new car into a neighbor’s yard. Her businessman son, Boolie (Dan Aykroyd), against his mother’s wishes, hires a courtly black man in his early sixties, Hoke Colburn (Freeman), to server as his mother’s driver.
Daisy, who already bosses around a silently unflappable maid (Esther Rolle), at first actively resists the new arrangement, before finally settling into a pattern of mild verbal abuse and increasing physical and emotional dependence.
The action is played out episodically, with errands and trips undertaken by the mismatched pair serving as self-contained actions. The thematic development, signaled by the advancing signs of age in the two players (more marked with Freeman than Tandy), is contained in the subtle shifts in their relationship — the patient Hoke parrying the verbal assaults of his passenger with subservient, aw-shucks humor early on, but eventually with more forceful assertions of his own dignity.
While the small inconveniences and routines of daily life take up a large part of the film, Uhry and Beresford still make use of big scenes when they want to make sure their point is understood. Thus, a trip through Alabama, which turns out to be a more blatantly racist and threatening region than Georgia, is used to cement the two closer together in recognition of their mutual outsider status.
And the final settling of their friendship is played out with customary emotional fervor, against the backdrop of the old-age home where Hoke visits the incapacitated Daisy. Over the years, the pair encounters the whole of the seismic social changes that occurred in the South, and while they do impinge indirectly on their relationship, it is during this trip that the interaction of character and background comes off most naturally, with the least sense of authorial connivance.
The fitful development of the script aside, the movie is dominated entirely by Freeman and Tandy, who manage to retain individual star-quality while acknowledging the other’s presence. Basically, each scene breaks down into a brief setup, a furious emotional demonstration by Tandy, a clash between the two actors and a closing wry pronouncement by Freeman. Yet every one of these dramatic maelstroms manages to appear fresh because Freeman and Tandy somehow manage to come up with new approaches, meting out complementary aspects of their characters.
Driving Miss Daisy has a warm, soft look that contributes to the overall nostalgic atmosphere. Yet Beresford has carefully avoided the damaging, languid rhythms that often accompany such a feel, and the film moves along with a steady, supportive canter. The production design — aside from the many auto interiors, anyway — is suitably evocative of sepia photographs and heavy furniture.
A broad-beamed Aykroyd provides reliable support as the put-upon Boolie, settling affably for his straight-man status. Rolle, as the maid Florine, and Patti Lupone, as Boolie’s social-climbing wife, have parts that really don’t amount to more than light flavorings, and their appearances are brief and functional. — Henry Sheehan, originally published on Dec. 11, 1989
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