Wednesday, December 16, 2009

1989: Driving Miss Daisy vs. The Field

I finally got around to seeing 1989's Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Driving Miss Daisy. I was 13 when it came out, and my only impression of it then was that it was "an old people's movie." I wasn't too far off. The youngest person in this movie is probably Dan Akroyd, in his 40s at the time.

Still, that doesn't make it a bad movie. In fact, I quite enjoyed it. Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy are great, and I particularly dug Freeman's soft, deferential Southern cadence. It takes a very insular view of race relations in the deep South without resorting to stereotypes. Miss Daisy doesn't think she's a bigot, but she does have a habit of saying "those people."

You probably know the rest. Freeman's character is hired to drive her because she's getting older, and she's initially resistant. A bond is slowly formed, they become lifelong friends, she drops all prejudice, and he ends up feeding her in the old folks home in a touching final scene. It's a sweet little film, and not heavy-handed like another film I could name that won Best Picture in 2005.

However, it's not Best Picture material, particularly not in a year with as many quality films as 1989. You know what's amazing? If you're anything like me, you're probably looking at all the posters listed above, and you're saying, "No way. It lost to Glory? And Do the Right Thing? What were they thinking? Here's the crazy thing: The two most enduring, relevant films of that year weren't even nominated.

I admit that I've only seen Do the Right Thing twice, and not recently, so I can't make the best case for its merits. As far as I'm concerned, it's still Spike Lee's best, most impassioned work. Although it does lose points for introducing the world to Rosie Perez (but gains some back because she goes topless).

Glory, however, is one of my 10 favorite films ever. I watch it at least once a year; it holds up extremely well. Even moments that could've felt forced and trite are delivered with such poetry by Freeman and Denzel Washington (who won Best Supporting Actor) that they are weighted with emotionally validity. Freeman's undressing of Denzel is a particularly outstanding monologue:

[Trip and Searles are about to fight when Rawlins steps in]
Rawlins: Look, goddamn it! The whole world gotta stomp on your face?
Trip: Nigger, you better get your hands off me!
Rawlins: Ain't no niggers around here! Understand?
Trip: Oh, I see, so the white man give you a couple a stripes, and suddenly you start hollerin' and orderin' everybody around, like you the massa himself! Nigger, you ain't nothin' but the white man's dog!
[He starts to walk away, Rawlins stops him and slaps him]
Rawlins: And what are you? So full of hate you want to go out and fight everybody! Because you've been whipped and chased by hounds. Well that might not be living, but it sure as hell ain't dying. And dying's been what these white boys have been doing for going on three years now! Dying by the thousands! Dying for *you*, fool! I know, 'cause I dug the graves. And all this time I keep askin' myself, when, O Lord, when it's gonna be our time? Gonna come a time when we all gonna hafta ante up. Ante up and kick in like men. LIKE MEN! You watch who you call a nigger! If there's any niggers around here, it's YOU. Just a smart-mouthed, stupid-ass, swamp-runnin' nigger! And if you not careful, that's all you ever gonna be!

I've always thought that one of Glory's best attributes is its magnificent score. I own the soundtrack and can listen to it beginning to end, then press play again when the cd runs out. This is where Driving Miss Daisy really loses points, by the way. It's got that 80's keyboard sound; totally out of place with its mid-1900's setting. It completely dates the film.

Glory is also one of the few movies I can show students that they all "get," even though it doesn't talk down to them. Heck, I don't even get complaints that it was made "back in the day." As a plus, it's one of the few historical Hollywood epics that is actually fairly accurate as to its source material, according to my Civil War professor at Davis, anyway.

Unlike Glory and Do the Right Thing, the other two posters I put at the top of the entry did earn Best Picture noms, and both of them would be better choices than Daisy (the other two nominees were Dead Poets' Society, which I find overwrought and more than a little homoerotic, and My Left Foot, which also fits the definition of "nice little movie").

Field of Dreams is definitely corny and saccharine, but it does capture the beauty of baseball and its role in American history and culture (I still prefer Major League as my favorite baseball flick). Twenty years later, people aren't saying "Now, drive slow to the Piggly Wiggly." But they do say "If you build it, he will come." If you say the line "Hey, dad. Wanna have a catch?" to the right man, his eyes will well up.

Born on the 4th of July
has its issues (it's too long by 20 minutes), but Oliver Stone's biopic of paraplegic Vietnam vet Ron Kovic perfectly captures the naivete of small-town, patriotic Americans and how they were sucked into a war they didn't understand by a government who didn't understand it, either. It also exposed the dirty little secret of how we treat our soldiers when they return from war. The veteran's hospital scenes alone make this a worthy film.

Apparently, the Academy wanted something safe this year. Driving Miss Daisy is the last non-rated "R" film to win the award. Clearly, they preferred a submissive, polite black man to the angry, violent version, either in the Civil War or modern-day Brooklyn.

Nolanometer Final Grades:

Glory: A+
Do the Right Thing: A-
Field of Dreams: B+
Born on the 4th of July: B+
Driving Miss Daisy: B


megan said...

I found "Driving Miss Daisy" endearing, mostly thanks to Morgan Freeman's jolly closed-lipped chuckle. Every time he would laugh, I couldn't help chuckling as well. I also loved Miss Daisy's feisty personality, and I can only hope that I'll be that ballsy and stubborn as an aged woman. Even still, it certainly is an "old person" movie...

Kaboom32 said...

If I run out of movies before the 31st, I'm going to write about Glory. Since I watch it six times a year, I probably know it better than any other movie. It's probably the only movie for which I could lead a shot-by-shot discussion. The scene that you quoted always leads to a good discussion, even with eighth graders.