Reflecting on 31 years of Bruce Beresford film ‘Driving Miss Daisy’
'Driving Miss Daisy'
Having lost my grandfather a few days back, I have been recuperating quite well. That was until I came across this film that made me lose my self-restraint. If you are looking for a movie that is a sweet and heartfelt mix of friendship and the trials and tribulations of old age, then Bruce Beresford’s 1989 flick Driving Miss Daisy should be your go-to film. While Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing was a contender for the Best Picture Award at the 62nd Academy Awards, Beresford’s film took home four Oscars, which was considered a controversial win. Having been nominated for nine awards, Beresford received no nomination which was quite surprising. However, this film which stars Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman in lead roles and is no-doubt a feel-good tear-jerker which abounds in poignant issues with effortless ease.
The film revolves around the 72-year-old retired schoolteacher and a Jewish widow Daisy Werthan whose son Boolie Werthan is a successful businessman. Daisy is a stern and self-sufficient woman who refuses to acknowledge her need for help due to her advancing age. When she crashes the car into their neighbour’s yard, Boolie buys her a Hudson Commodore and appoints a chauffeur, the good-natured black man Hoke Colburn. Daisy, who is not comfortable with anyone but Idella, her housekeeper, initially rejects Hoke’s help. Hoke is, however, relentless in his pursuit as he tries to busy himself with the affairs of the house, much to the annoyance of the mistress.
Eventually, Daisy gives in and accepts Hoke as her chauffeur and, gradually, they strike up a sweet and playful friendship peppered with bickering and constant reprimanding by Daisy. Daisy, whose son is busy with his work, would have been battling loneliness had it not been for Hoke. After Idella dies, Daisy and Hoke grow closer, and their bond strengthens. However, with age, Daisy gradually suffers from dementia which makes her son put her in “perpetual care”. Hoke visits her along with Boolie one Thanksgiving, the film ending on a heartwarming scene in which the aged Hoke feeds a slice of apple pie to Daisy while she looks at him lovingly. Set over twenty-five years, the film gives a brilliant and intimate insight into the culmination of friendship between the unlikeliest people — a Jewish woman and a Black man — connecting over their shared experiences of the inevitability of ageing and the search for companionship.
Beresford is conscious of the era his film is set in as well as the problems plaguing the society. While the film is subtle in addressing the issues of racism, the latter has a pervasive presence. From Daisy doubting Hoke of stealing salmon because “they’re like children; they want something, they take it” to Hoke being denied the liberty of using the restroom at the gas station as well as the two police officers who laugh at the unlikely duo, the problem looms large. Although Daisy says she is not “prejudiced’, she is quick to point fingers when her can of salmon is missing. However, I would not call her an overt racist white woman, she is understanding and caring with Idella and, eventually, with Hoke. This would probably arise from the complex of doubting the have-nots. However, when the police officers approach their car disrupting the quietude of their sumptuous meal of stuffed eggs on their way to the Mobile, they poke fun at Daisy’s name and eye Hoke suspiciously. Later they say, “An old n****** and an old Jew woman riding down the road together. Now that is one sorry sight.” The anti-semitic and anti-racist slurs in their voices are at a peak; this weakens both Daisy and Hoke’s nerves temporarily as they momentarily lose track of the road, going off-route.
Similarly, when Daisy’s synagogue is burned down, she is unable to believe in its truth value. When Hoke recounts an incident that occurred at Macon which he witnessed as a young boy, a time when his friend’s father was lynched by angry white men and left hanging from a tree, Daisy refuses to see the connection between the two events (“That’s ridiculous! The temple has nothing to do with it”) which makes the clever Hoke reply: “Yes ma’am if you say so”.
While some critics have criticised Morgan Freeman’s character for being too servile with too many “Yassam’s”, personally, I would agree with Roger Ebert’s observation that Morgan freeman is “a revelation” in the role of Hoke, and would vehemently disagree with the critics. While Hoke pours down “Yassam” incessantly, he is not totally obsequious. He is convincing and commands respect. Hoke knows his own worth and is quite slick in asking for an increment. He is intelligent enough to go up to Boolie and tease him into increasing his payment by saying his cousin’s wife had asked him to “name your money” so that she could hire him. Hoke takes a stand when he needs to. A perfect example of that would be the moment he needed to relieve himself while driving Daisy to her brother’s birthday. When Daisy refuses to permit him to stop, asking him why he did not make use of the service station, in a clear and unfaltering voice, Hoke informs her, “You know the coloured can’t use the toilet at any service station, Miss Daisy”. He refuses to ask for her permission to “make water” like he is “some child”. “And I ain’t just a back of the neck you look at while you go where you got to go. I am a man. I’m near 70-years-old. And I know when my bladder’s full. Now I’m going to get out of this car and go over there and do what I got to do… Now that’s all there is to it.” He stands up for himself, and even Daisy is devoid of sharp retorts, stunned by the conviction in his voice.
Jessica Tandy delivers a career-defining performance and wins the well-deserved Oscar in her 80s, becoming the oldest recipient of the Academy Award. She plays the stern and severe Miss Daisy, who is extremely independent. Having struggled in her initial days at Forsythe Street, something she uses as a reference time and again to reject monetary help and treatment like “the queen of Romania”, she does not like being viewed as the rich lady. She wants to put it across to Hoke that she is not another rich white woman. She is human and compassionate enough. Her son Boolie is a good person, so is she. She is a Jewish version of Scrooge having an immense dislike for Christmas. Although she tries hard to be nonchalant and ignorant, she loves and cares for both Hoke and Idella. When Hoke leaves her for a minute to relieve himself, she suddenly feels frightened and alone. Her dilating pupils resonate with the thumping of her heart, the fear becoming evident. Yet when Hoke checks on her, she refuses to show her weakness, remaining steadfast. Strong-willed and determined, this beautiful woman takes the story forward.
Hoke and Daisy have a beautiful friendship. Although Daisy despises Hoke nosing around her house looking for things to do, she soon realises how indispensable he is. She, however, strikes up a beautiful chord of friendship with Hoke at the cemetery when the latter tells her that he cannot read. In a heart-wrenching scene, Hoke unashamedly admits his inability to read, which evokes the teaching instincts in Daisy. She teaches him to identify the name and later gifts him a book of writing that he needs to practice from, while repeatedly saying she is a Jew who does not give Christmas presents. Hoke, who understands Daisy even better than Boolie, lets the old lady have the higher ground as he revels in her wrath and calm.
Hoke is Daisy’s friend during loneliest times. After Idella passes away, Daisy notices the mass presence at her funeral and admits to Hoke that Idella was indeed lucky. Perhaps Daisy knew deep within that it would be Hoke and none else who would care for her in her last days. Even during the snowstorm, this old man braves the blizzard to take care of the lonely Daisy. Even after she slowly starts to lose track of time towards the end of the film, she holds Hoke’s hands to say “Hoke, you’re my best friend”. In this tear-inducing moment, she clutches his hand, which is sure to move the hardest of hearts to tears. The sheer helplessness and vulnerability in her voice reflect her gratitude at Hoke’s presence in her life. In the retirement home, as they playfully holler insults at each other reminiscing the good old days, Boolie tells Hoke that “she wants you all to herself”. Being reunited with her friend provides solace to Miss Daisy. As Hoke feeds her the apple pie, she chimes in a “highway robbery”, something she said previously. Daisy, who is thankful for Hoke more than anything in her life, looks content. As they sit in comfortable silence, their image slowly fades from the screen cementing the immortality of their platonic friendship that transcended the boundaries of race and age. Here are two friends, lonely and old, holding on to what little is left of each other in the form of memories and friendship. It reminds me of how fulfilled and loved my grandfather must have been while he left, how he held on to my grandmother’s hand during his final breath and the comfortable silence they shared at their last meal together, basking in the glory of their sixty-two-year long friendship.