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At the 1989 Academy Awards ceremony, something odd happened; sandwiched between such fierce competition as Born on the Fourth of July, My Left Foot, and Dead Poets Society was a modestly produced character study about a white Southern woman and her black driver growing old together in Atlanta - Driving Miss Daisy. It turned out to be the winner of that year's Best Picture Oscar. Starring Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman, the film traces the lives of two unlikely friends over twenty-five years.
Driving Miss Daisy also brought Tandy a Best Actress Oscar, making her the oldest recipient of an Academy Award (she was five months older than previous record holder George Burns who had won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Sunshine Boys in 1975). Freeman was nominated as well, for Best Actor, but lost to Daniel Day-Lewis (My Left Foot). In all, Driving Miss Daisy was nominated for nine awards but most of the talk that year was about the lack of one nomination.
Director Bruce Beresford, a member of the Australian "New Wave" directors, was in good company with Dead Poets Society's Peter Weir and first gained acclaim with Breaker Morant (1980), an unflinching account of a military murder trial during the Boer War. Beresford would garner another success with Tender Mercies (1983), starring Robert Duvall. Making Driving Miss Daisy, however, would prove to be the most difficult challenge. As Beresford explained it, "When we were trying to get the money together for the film, one reason that was consistently given for not investing in it was that everyone kept saying no one could direct it well enough to entertain an audience for 100 minutes essentially watching three people chatting in the kitchen." When Driving Miss Daisy became not only a massive box office success, with global audience appeal, and the winner of the Best Picture Oscar, it became glaringly obvious that a major oversight had occurred: Beresford had not even been nominated for Best Director. It has happened only twice before in Oscar history, a Best Picture win without a Best Director nomination for the films, Wings (1927) and Grand Hotel (1932). Beresford later mused: "So when the film was a big success, I thought now at least they will see that maybe it was directed reasonably well because it was entertaining. But then everyone sort of said to me, 'Oh well, the direction was non-existent. It doesn't look like there was any effort involved at all.' Ultimately though, it didn't really matter." Beresford's love for the project superseded the desire for any awards, or any compensation of any kind: he did not receive any pay for the work, because, in his own words, "Nobody wanted to finance it. Finally they said, 'We'll give you the money provided you take no director's fee.' I agreed because I had such faith in the product. I knew it was going to be a wonderful film."
Alfred Uhry, writer of the screenplay, also authored the Pulitzer-winning play on which the script was based. An Atlanta-based writer, Uhry also penned Mystic Pizza (1988), the film that launched Julia Roberts' career. He would earn an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for Driving Miss Daisy. Supporting actors Dan Aykroyd, Patti LuPone, and Esther Rolle all took advantage of opportunities to digress from their usual roles. Aykroyd, of Saturday Night Live fame and The Blues Brothers (1980), earned a Supporting Actor nomination for his unusual turn into drama with Driving. Singer/Actress LuPone took a break from theatrical performances and musical recordings to perform a role that Uhry reportedly created just for her in the film version. Rolle is best remembered as the mother from the 70s television sitcom Good Times. The two leads, Tandy and Freeman, were lauded for their effective portrayals of realistically aging over a twenty-five year time period. Naturally, cosmetics helped - the film did win for Best Make-up, but it was the actors' performances that made the progression of time so convincing. In an infinitely memorable quote, Morgan Freeman explained the secret of his success in a later interview: "Years ago my acting instructor told me that in order to play age well, you had to imagine that your testicles are made out of Christmas balls." Young actors, take note.
Producer: Richard D. Zanuck, Jake Eberts
Director: Bruce Beresford
Screenplay: Alfred Uhry
Art Direction: Victor Kempster
Cinematography: Peter James
Editing: Mark Warner
Music: Hans Zimmer
Cast: Morgan Freeman (Hoke Colburn), Jessica Tandy (Miss Daisy Werthan), Dan Aykroyd (Boolie Werthan), Patti LuPone (Florine Werthan), Esther Rolle (Idella).
C-99m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Eleanor Quin