Our third warmup for the Oscars on Sunday was Driving Miss Daisy. The 1989 film features Morgan Freeman and the late Jessica Tandy as two stubborn old people, both facing different types of segregation in the deep American south in the 1950s and ’60s. The film tracks their growing friendship over 25 years, a fraught period in American history, and holds out the possibility of understanding across racial lines, at least between Blacks and Jews.
Driving Miss Daisy won four Academy Awards, including best picture.
Tandy received the best actress award for her role of Daisy Werthan, a wealthy, strong-willed Jewish widow. At the age of 80, the veteran actress took the character from a sprightly widow in her 60s to a frail, confused woman in her 90s.
As Daisy’s chauffeur Hoke Colburn, Freeman reprised the role he originated in the Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play. He is every bit Tandy’s match, and the chemistry between them is wonderful to watch.
The choice of Miss Daisy for best picture award was controversial. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which turned the spotlight on a New York race riot on the hottest day of the year, was nominated for only two Oscars (supporting actor and original screenplay) and went home empty-handed. Lee was vocal in his anger at losing the Oscar race, and he accused Americans of being more comfortable with how Miss Daisy handled race than his film did. He acknowledged that Freeman was a great actor, but attacked him for accepting a part that depicted a Black in a subservient role. The New York Times asked if Miss Daisy had a “subtext that summons up a longing for the good old days before the civil rights movement.”
Miss Daisy leans heavily on sentimentality, but it shouldn’t be condemned for not taking a stronger stand on race relations. It’s an immensely nuanced film that portrays people caught in the terrible ironies of their times.
Over time, Daisy comes to admire Dr. Martin Luther King, and she attends a gala dinner where he is the guest speaker. “Things have changed,” she observes. Yet, although she has an extra ticket, it never occurs to her to invite Hoke to come in to the dinner with her. “Things haven’t changed all that much,” he mutters.