Stage To Screen: Driving Miss Daisy

Driving Miss Daisy has been one of my favorite movies since the eighth grade. I don’t remember what it was about the film that got me, but right from the first, I loved it. It’s over twenty-five years later, though, and I’ve never read the play that it was based on until now.

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Dana Ivey with Morgan Freeman in the original production. (Source: Playwrights Horizons)

Written by Alfred Uhry, who drew from his grandmother’s experiences with her own chauffeur, Driving Miss Daisy won the 1988 Pulitzer prize for drama and the original cast included Morgan Freeman as Hoke, Dana Ivey as Miss Daisy, and Ray Gill as Miss Daisy’s son, Boolie. The play premiered off-Broadway at the Playwrights Horizon Theater on April 25, 1987, initially for a three-week engagement, but as word of mouth spread, the play ended up running for three years. Two years after its debut, of course, the feature film came along, with Mr. Uhry writing the screenplay.

If anyone isn’t familiar with the plot of Daisy, it is a gentle story about a feisty, elderly Jewish lady whose son hires a black chauffeur for her when it becomes clear that she can’t drive anymore. It examines class differences, racism, and how these were being overcome in the mid-century South in the midst of segregation and upheaval. Jewish people weren’t regarded much better in the South at that time than black people were, and in a way they were just as cut off from society. There are no violent scenes, but just two people who learn from each other and build a strong bond, while watching the South experience its many growing pains.

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Source: Wikipedia

After Boolie hires Hoke, Miss Daisy is resistant to her new normal, but she has met her match. Hoke is determined to earn his paycheck, even if it comes on hard terms. Hoke and Daisy’s first outing is to the Piggly Wiggly, but not without a struggle. In the play, Daisy only agrees to going to the grocery store when Hoke says he’ll hose down her steps. In the movie, Hoke drives slowly alongside Miss Daisy as she stubbornly walks to the streetcar, and she finally relents because the neighbors are giving her funny looks. From then on, Daisy tentatively tolerates Hoke’s presence in her life.

Miss Daisy’s tolerance gives way to respect and friendship over the twenty-five years Driving Miss Daisy covers. She has a rocky start, though–in the beginning, she has to get over her embarrassment at having a chauffeur. Miss Daisy says she doesn’t like to act as if she’s rich, but her bigger hang-up is admitting her loss of independence. Not only that, but Miss Daisy barely trusts Hoke, and accuses him of stealing from her when she finds a can of salmon missing in her pantry. Hoke buys her another can, which absolutely floors her, and Miss Daisy has no choice but to admit, at least to herself, that Hoke is not a malicious sort. She begins to enjoy having him around, though it takes roughly a decade, and is touched when Hoke does nice things for her, such as driving over with coffee from 7-Eleven (Krispy Kreme in the film) to keep her company during an ice storm. Miss Daisy finds her own way to give back to Hoke as well. When she learns that Hoke can’t read, she teaches him. She even begins to have a slightly motherly attitude towards him, and later admits that Hoke is her best friend.

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Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy in the film.

For his part, Hoke has an unspoken role of shepherd. The fact that Boolie hired him and not Miss Daisy allows him to do his job on his own terms, as Boolie trusts him and considers him an equal. Hoke is determined to give Boolie his money’s worth, and works hard doing various jobs around the house even before he’s allowed to do what he was hired to do. Hoke is no milquetoast–he stands up to Miss Daisy when she’s being a twerp, but he does it in a loving and humorous fashion. He’s also a reality check for Miss Daisy about the practicalities of segregation, even something as seemingly small as being able to take a pit stop on a road trip. Hoke doesn’t pull any punches, either. He understands that he and Daisy are in similar situations as far as how they are perceived in the South. He tells her after The Temple is bombed about finding his friend’s dad lynched when he was a boy. Miss Daisy is horrified, and finds it very tough to accept that they aren’t as far apart as they seem.

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Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones in the 2010 Broadway revival. (Source: PBS)

 Driving Miss Daisy is a play with minimal effects and scenery, even though a big part of it is, well, driving. The obvious thing to do for the movie was to open it up and give it vista. We see the characters drive to the store. We see them drive to Mobile, Alabama for Miss Daisy’s uncle’s ninetieth birthday. We see Miss Daisy at temple and visiting her son and his wife, Florine for Christmas. The play, on the other hand, seldom shows the arrival at these places, just the traveling to them. There were some transition scenes added in the film, such as Hoke helping another character, Oscar get out of a stalled elevator, or Hoke puttering around the house and talking to Idella while waiting for Miss Daisy to come around and let him drive her somewhere. Speaking of Idella, she and other supporting characters are seen and contributing to the action in the film. In the play, Idella, Boolie’s wife, Florine, his secretary, Miss McClatchy and the rest are merely alluded to in conversation or talked to on the phone but never seen, which kept things simple for the stage.

The opening up of the play for the movie allowed the story’s themes to be presented even more strongly. One of the best examples is when Miss Daisy goes to hear Dr. Martin Luther King at an Atlanta hotel. She talks airily in the car about how wonderful it is that things are changing, and breezily asks Hoke if he’ll go hear Dr. King with her. Hoke has none of it, telling Miss Daisy that if she really wanted him to go with her, she should have asked him like a regular person instead of waiting until they’re on their way. Miss Daisy is ticked off at this, and the play cuts to the next scene. However, in the movie, we get to see Miss Daisy marching into the hotel and then solemnly sitting at her table listening to Dr. King’s speech, while Hoke sits listening to it in the car (Sorry the video quality is so bad here):

In this way, the movie drives home (pardon the pun) that it wasn’t enough for good people of that time to just allow the changes to roll around them, but to be the change that was needed. It was actually a disservice to history for people to remain quiet when they could bring dignity and courage to the fight to end segregation in the South. Miss Daisy flattered herself that she was above the turmoil, and told herself that it was enough to embrace Hoke as her chauffeur, but the actuality was that she had to take an active part in showing Hoke that he was her equal.

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Alfred Uhry’s grandmother’s former home on Fairview Road in Atlanta. (Source: Druid Hills High School)

Unfortunately, in the more than twenty-five years since the film won Best Picture, some have questioned whether or not Driving Miss Daisy deserved its Oscars. Some, like Spike Lee, as noted in this rather amateurish and nonsensical article from Yahoo, are still sore to this day that their movies didn’t win, and chalk Miss Daisy‘s victory up to “soft competition.” Well, Mr. Lee, show us your Pulitzer, and then you can talk. Not every movie about race has to feature violent mobs, overt hatred and ugliness. Sometimes social change is as simple as individuals learning to accept and value each other as they are, and Driving Miss Daisy beautifully examines what was undoubtedly the experience of many families in the United States.

Check back here on Friday for the first of our three Fabulous Food posts, two of which will be latched on to this: 

Food in Film Banners

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Anyone who reads these might want to eat first. Or at least have a snack handy. See you on Friday! 🙂 


Bibliography

Uhry, Alfred. Driving Miss Daisy. New York: Dramatists Play Service, Inc., 1987

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