Adapting plays to the movies is always an iffy prospect. If the story is "opened up" too much, with extra characters and locations, it can lose its intimacy. If the story remains too close to its stagebound roots it can become cinematically dull.
But every now and then a stage adaptation comes along that manages to be faithful to the play's best interests and yet open it up just enough to make for a cinematic treat, and such is "Driving Miss Daisy."
Led by riveting performances from Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy, this Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy-drama is utterly enthralling, though also quite spare and intimate.
Director Bruce Beresford, an Australian who seemed right at home in America's South with "Tender Mercies" and "Crimes of the Heart," has returned triumphantly to that area in creating this wonderfully delicate masterpiece, largely through the fine performances of his stars.
Tandy is the title character, a wealthy 72-year-old Southern matron, a Jewish woman in the Christian Bible Belt of 1948 as the film begins. After an accident with her car, she is nagged into allowing a driver to be hired by her protective son Boolie (Dan Aykroyd, who is also convincing and never resorts to any of the shtick you might expect).
Boolie hires Hoke (Freeman), a black 60-ish widower and chauffeur whose patience seemingly knows no limits. At first Miss Daisy wants nothing to do with Hoke. She is a stern, stiffnecked woman with pride as big as all outdoors, and she's humiliated by her inability to drive herself. Not one to give up easily, however, Hoke, after sitting around the house with nothing to do for his first week of employment, follows her in the car as she walks to the store one day. Embarrassed, she reluctantly climbs into the back seat.
Thus begins a tenuous relationship that will span the next 25 years in the changing South. And they will change with it.
But this isn't a movie about people who make some remarkable lifestyle switch in the last five minutes. Rather, Alfred Uhry's touching and very funny screenplay, based on his own play, shows the gradual change that creeps inside these characters.
Miss Daisy, though she considers herself a liberal Southerner, exclaiming repeatedly, "I am not prejudiced," hangs on to longtime traditions. When she thinks Hoke has taken something from her she says, "These people are always stealing things." And when she has an extra ticket to a dinner honoring Martin Luther King, she doesn't even consider that Hoke might like to attend. During the latter scene she comments that she's glad to see things change. But Hoke mutters, "Things haven't changed all that much."
Needless to say, Morgan Freeman, who continues to grow as one of the American movies' finest actors, and Jessica Tandy, who is certainly one of our national treasures, will be remembered come Oscar nomination time. And Aykroyd will surprise you as a character who ages 25 years in a very natural and realistic manner.
"Driving Miss Daisy," which is rated PG for a single profanity uttered by Aykroyd, is an extremely moving film with some hilarious moments. And though the screenplay obviously offers the humor, it is the actors' inflections and twists on words that give the comedy its real impact.
Beresford has also managed an incredibly authentic look to his period piece. It's fascinating, for example, to notice in the background during a scene on an old country road that old-style cars are driving by while Hoke and Miss Daisy exchange casual dialogue in the foreground. It would have been much easier to keep all traffic out of the shot, but Beresford goes the extra mile here, as he does throughout the film.
It's easy to see why "Driving Miss Daisy" is on so many national critics' top 10 lists, those who saw the film before 1989 came to a close. This is indeed among the year's very best pictures.