Blu-ray Review: Driving Miss Daisy

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One of the safest Best Picture choices in Oscar history, Driving Miss Daisy arrives on Blu-ray for the first time, nearly a quarter-century after its original release. The simple, decades-spanning tale of a friendship between an elderly Jewish widow and her African-American chauffeur is a not an easy one to dislike. Still, this was 1989—the year Spike Lee’s incendiary, polarizing, and challenging Do the Right Thing was released. Though Lee was thrown what amounted to a consolation prize with a Best Original Screenplay nomination, his confrontational classic was otherwise ignored by the Academy.

Simply put, despite being generally good-natured, Driving Miss Daisy ultimately deals with the issue of racism in America almost exclusively from the perspective of white people. It’s the kind of film that seems intended to help assuage white guilt more than anything else. Older folks all across America, many of whom harbored deeply-rooted prejudices against people of color, flocked to Miss Daisy and came out feeling like honorary civil rights activists. Snickering sympathetically as Miss Daisy learned to accept that her driver Hoke was, in fact, every bit her equal as a human being, audiences succumbed to the film’s easy charms and soft-pedaled message of racial tolerance.

Driving Miss Daisy outside (134x200).jpgInitially set in 1948, the plot revolves around the aging Miss Daisy (Jessica Tandy) and her inability to safely drive herself around at the age of 72. Her businessman son Boolie (Dan Aykroyd) insists on hiring a driver. Hoke (Morgan Freeman) is just the man for the job—an easy-going gentleman who is determined to crack Miss Daisy’s icy fa├žade. Over the course of 25 years, Daisy and Hoke develop an extraordinarily close friendship. Daisy even experiences some of the bigotry that Hoke has dealt with his entire life when her synagogue is bombed (though she stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the connection).

Tandy (81 at the time) was, rather predictably but also deservedly, showered with accolades—including the Best Actress Oscar—for her portrayal of the loveably cantankerous Miss Daisy. For Freeman, 1989 was his breakout year, not only for his Oscar-nominated turn as Hoke, but also for his roles in Glory and Lean on Me. Unfortunately, his hammy work in Driving Miss Daisy amounts to little more than an extended takeoff on Richard Pryor’s classic standup character, Mudbone. Not only was Freeman much more effective in his other two roles that year, he would of course go on to become one of Hollywood’s most distinguished and beloved actors.

The problem with Hoke as a character has nothing to do with Freeman’s affable performance. It’s that Hoke was consciously conceived more as a plot device than a full-blooded character. There’s absolutely nothing off-putting about Hoke, which renders him unbelievable. People have flaws. Daisy is certainly allowed to be fallible. That’s exactly what makes Tandy’s performance so endearing. She comes across as a real person, even when we don’t necessarily appreciate her occasionally foolish pride. Hoke, on the other hand, is merely a cardboard cutout. It’s as if Alfred Uhry, in his Oscar-winning screenplay (adapted from his own play of the same name), was fearful that even the slightest rough edge would leave audiences unable to sympathize with Hoke.

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Warner Brothers has wisely retained the somewhat grainy period look of Driving Miss Daisy for their 1080p, AVC-encoded Blu-ray. The golden nostalgic glow of Peter James’ cinematography is intact, though the inherent softness may catch viewers used to today’s modern digital sheen off guard. Interiors have a distinctly underlit, shadowy look that naturally reduces the amount of fine detail. Textures are occasionally a bit lost, smothered by the soft-focus lighting. Audio is a similarly low key affair, as we are given a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix. In a home video landscape where 5.1 surround mixes are seemingly a given, it’s initially shocking to see a major release limited to 2.0 simplicity. Still, it sounds fine, with dialogue and Hans Zimmer’s memorable score presenting no problems.

Rather generously for a catalog title, Warner has produced a new half-hour featurette, “Things are Changing: The Worlds of Hoke and Miss Daisy.” It’s an excellent piece, with screenwriter Uhry, star Freeman, author Morocco Coleman (grandson of the real-life inspiration of the Hoke character) among the many participants. Surprisingly, considering the film earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination, Dan Aykroyd was not interviewed. Carried over from a previous DVD release is a commentary by director Bruce Beresford, co-producer Lili Fini Zanuck, and Uhry, as well as a trio of featurettes. The disc is housed in a hardcover digibook that has some attractive photos and short articles.

Driving Miss Daisy is a harmless and enjoyable—if, in the end, lightweight—yarn. The highlight is Tandy’s rather uncompromising characterization of the title character. Warner’s Blu-ray does the film justice with a solid (though unremarkable) high definition presentation.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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