You know, it’s funny. I’ve done the Killtoberfest horror movie marathons for three years running now, and I intend to keep that going; but I’ve noticed that one result is that, outside of October, I tend not to seek out horror movies. I guess I save them up. But I happened to catch one today that I hadn’t seen in a long time. I wanted to rewatch it because it was mentioned on an episode of the excellent podcast The Canon. They were discussing Do The Right Thing, and they brought up this other 1989 film as the movie that took all the Oscar attention that should have gone to Spike Lee’s movie. Frankly, I think they’re off base, and this second viewing confirmed it for me. Both as a tense, thrilling horror film and as a terrifying racial allegory, 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy deserved every award it got. Spoilers ahead. This is The Screening Room. Welcome.
In 1989, Alfred Uhry adapted his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play about the relationship between a sadistic black chauffeur and the elderly white woman he targets, with Australian Bruce Beresford (probably best known at the time for the Aussie war drama Breaker Morant) directing. Also held over from the original play was Morgan Freeman, in the role of Hoke Colburn. Although Freeman got his start in children’s television, he was likely cast in the original play due to his intense turn as Fast Black, a violent pimp, in 1987’s Street Smart. There are elements of Fast Black in Hoke, the two characters sharing a deep inner coldness and a tendency toward violence against women, but in Daisy, Freeman pushes far beyond that earlier role, making Colburn a character as chilling and frightening as any other great movie villain. It’s a performance that recalls to me no one more than Robert Mitchum as both Max Cady in the original Cape Fear and the killer preacher in the classic Night of the Hunter. The resemblance is more than superficial, as there are elements of both of those films in Daisy. All three movies play on our fear of a dangerous, hateful person who seems normal, even wholesome on the outside, whose privations and machinations go unnoticed by a hoodwinked authority. It’s no coincidence that all three take place in the South, either, as that region’s affinity for the Gothic and the outre seems to grow right out of the soil, as if there were some poison there that that has always hid itself behind genteel manners, softly twanging accents, and oversweet tea.
Let me back up a little, because some of you may not have seen this, or seen it in quite some time, despite its critical reputation. So let’s do a little more plot summary than usual. To start with, to what is Miss Daisy being driven? Why, insane, of course.
The film never specifically indicates what is that inspires Hoke’s actions toward old Daisy Werthan (played by Jessica Tandy–a performance that won her an Oscar, and which I’ll discuss later on). In fact, like Cape Fear and a number of other classic psychological horror movies, Daisy starts out as a noir, and a particularly slimy one at that. In the Atlanta suburbs, Boolie Werthan, owner of a struggling textile mill, comes up with what’s either the best or the worst idea of his life. Boolie’s been scheming to get his hands on his aging mother’s money ever since it became apparent that the old girl wasn’t going to give up the ghost anytime soon, and when said mother totals her car, Boolie is handed just the opportunity he needs. (Boolie, by the way, is played ingeniously by Dan Akroyd as a small-town moron constantly exasperated with everyone else’s lack of intelligence. Surely one of his best roles.) Boolie colludes with a black man named Hoke (who, eerily enough, seems to wander into the film out of nowhere–he’s at the mill, but doesn’t work there–he has no job at all, in fact–and has no apparent reason for being there). The plan: Hoke will be Boolie’s mother’s new driver, whether she likes it or not, allowing Boolie to exert whatever control he needs by proxy in order to pry old Daisy out of wealth and home. It’s a grimy little scheme, but like any great crime film, there’s a twist not of plot but of personality. In his blind greed, Boolie has engaged the services of a man neither he, nor we in the audience, fully understand. Hoke agrees to his part almost immediately, maybe because of the $65 a week chauffeur’s salary Boolie promises him, maybe because of the vague eventual payout Boolie also references… or maybe he already senses what this position of power will allow him to do.
What exactly being Miss Daisy’s driver lets Hoke do to Daisy unspools in a flatly structured, almost deadpan series of increasingly horrifying incidents over the next 70 minutes. Tandy plays Daisy as a strong, independent woman who swears she doesn’t need Hoke or anyone else to drive her around, but it’s her transformation throughout the film into a totally cowed and broken woman that won her the Oscar. As the movie goes on and Boolie’s character mostly fades into the background (ready at the end to swoop in and deposit Daisy in a nursing home, all the better to sell her valuable property), the film really becomes a two-hander, featuring scene after scene in which Daisy tries to maintain her personal boundaries and Hoke finds ways around them. Look at the early scenes in their relationship, when Daisy has not yet even accepted the basic premise of Hoke’s employment–he simply hangs around, quietly insinuating himself into the household, cleaning here, talking to the maid there. Try as she might, Daisy can’t get him to go away, and so is reduced to forbidding him to work, a state whose fundamental economic absurdity eventually breaks down her resistance. She lets him drive her to the store, and from then on, she’s doomed. Hoke seems to know it, too; the first thing he does is take her to the store along an unusual route (claiming that it’s three blocks faster–already, he’s undermining her confidence in her ability to move in the world on her own), as if toying with his prey. Much later in the film, he’ll get them lost on purpose in the eerily empty Georgia countryside and blame it on her. Can you hear the grinning sadist in his voice?
Daisy (distressed, pointing to the map): Here. Here, you took the wrong turn at Opelika.
Hoke: Well, now, you took it with me, Miss Daisy. And you’ve got the map.
He’s so damn nice, is the creepy part (until he’s not, and then that’s a whole other kind of scary). He smiles. He laughs, often at things that aren’t funny. He’s unflappably polite, offering up “yessirs” and “yessumms” that, by the end, seem to bear some dark, bitter anger no one else can read. For a creature so obsessed with control to constantly be signaling obeisance to the people he pretends to serve is one of the film’s great ironies, and ties into the main theme of the story. Take an early moment in the film, when Daisy enters a room to find Hoke and two other men laughing about her:
Daisy: What’s so funny?
Hoke: Nothin’, Miss Daisy. We jus’ carryin’ on.
That ‘aw shucks’ aspect is one of Hoke’s greatest weapons. Even Boolie is fooled by it. Another sequence has Daisy struggling to come up with a reason besides her own fears to get Hoke fired, until she realizes that (surely to fuck with her) Hoke has deliberately disobeyed a direct order from her (not to eat anything but the food set out for him) in the smallest way possible (eating one of her nine cans of salmon). Boolie, frustrated at this stumbling block in his scheme, is ready to throw his hands up and get rid of Hoke–and that’s when Colburn enters with a fresh can of salmon from the store and a smirking apology and explanation for the “theft.” It’s here that the film moves into its main theme: where Cape Fear‘s psychopath used the law to his advantage, standing just beyond where the police could reach, Daisy‘s villain preys on upper class white guilt. Remember, the true horror of the film is not that Hoke comes to control every aspect of Daisy’s life, but that he takes her mind as well, gaslighting her to the point where, chillingly, she ultimately comes to identify with her captor, even calling him “her only friend”. That process is driven, pardon the pun, most powerfully by the way Daisy’s shame over both her wealth and the Southern racism that seeks to victimize Hoke force her to allow and excuse his actions, no matter how controlling or isolating they might ultimately be.
I firmly believe that some of the best and most effective horror out there taps into deep-seated social taboos–films like Deliverance, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Candyman, and even the first half of Kevin Smith’s Red State gain a considerable amount of power from the way they express or invert broad social conflicts like race, class, and sexuality, taking real hatred, bigotry, or simple social discomfort into the realm of shocking violence. Driving Miss Daisy fits squarely into that tradition, turning period fears about the rise of black people and civil rights into a story about that righteous movement subverted for the personal ends of a cheerfully sadistic sociopath. Daisy’s capture begins in earnest when she tries to get Hoke fired over the stolen salmon:
Daisy Werthan: They’re like having children in the house. They want something, they just take it. Oh, he’ll never admit this. “No, ma’am,” he’ll say, “I don’t know nothin’ about that.” Well, I don’t like it, I don’t like living this way! I have no privacy!
As Hoke reveals that he’s already purchased the replacement can, Daisy visibly swallows twice.
She’s not just afraid now that her attempt to get Hoke out of her life has failed; I believe this moment starts her on a path of overwhelming guilt over her own complicity in the contemporary racism of her society. She’s already primed for this kind of guilt; having grown up dirt poor, she feels ashamed of her wealth, and takes efforts to avoid conspicuous consumption. Hoke, of course, immediately takes advantage of this; he fakes illiteracy in order to garner sympathy from a woman he already knows used to be a schoolteacher (and so would be especially touched by just this disability). Later, when a chance trip takes them on a drive into Alabama, racism will prevent Daisy from being rescued, when the cops who stop them assume the old woman is in control of her ‘n-word’. And immediately after that, in the film’s key scene, Hoke uses racism to enforce his will on her. She’s already upset, because Hoke got them lost (and blamed it on her) and she feels she’ll let down her family by being late for this important event. Hoke decides to provoke a confrontation:
Hoke: We going to have to pull over.
Daisy: What’s wrong with the car?
Hoke: There ain’t nothing wrong with the car. I got to be excused. I got to go make water.
Daisy: You should have thought of that at the service station.
Hoke: You know colored can’t use the toilet at any service station, Miss Daisy.
Daisy: There’s no time to stop. We’ll be in Mobile soon. You can wait.
Hoke: Yes’m. No.
Daisy: I toId you to wait!
Hoke: I heard what you said. How do you think I feel having to ask you, ”Can I go make water?” Like I’m some child.
(Note how Hoke here uses the same word, ‘child’, that Daisy used when accusing him of stealing.)
Daisy: You ought to be ashamed.
Hoke: I ain’t no child, Miss Daisy.
(Here Daisy struggles to regain the moral high ground, while Hoke continues to jab at her psychological weak point.)
Hoke: And I ain’t just a back of the neck you look at while you go where you got to go. I’m 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. I’m taking the key with me, too.
For a long little while, Hoke leaves her totally alone–and totally helpless, in a car she couldn’t drive even if she had the key, in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere in Alabama.
This is when she breaks. Poor Daisy cries out for Hoke repeatedly, and when he returns, smugly triumphant, she doesn’t admit the change yet:
Hoke: You all right, Miss Daisy?
Daisy: Of course I am.
But this is the clincher in their abusive relationship, the point when Daisy admits to herself, if not Hoke, that within the isolating confines of his “service”, she fears being without him more than she fears the man himself. At this point, an hour into the movie, Hoke has won.
The rest of the movie is a descent into humiliation and Stockholm Syndrome for poor Miss Daisy. Tandy plays her as a an extremely dignified woman losing all of her dignity step by step, even as she learns to love the yoke around her neck. Hoke begins to control every aspect of her life, further tightening the screws along the way. He tells her the “right” way to cook her evening meal (she sadly follows his instructions as soon as he leaves the room), kills her maid (off-screen), and bombs her temple (Daisy’s one remaining source of strength and independence). In the crowning achievement of his campaign of terror, he even manipulates her into going to see Martin Luther King Jr speak. (It’s a speech about how evil is abetted by the inaction of good people, a blackly ironic commentary about all the people who never saw what Daisy was going through.) A woman who has been so thoroughly victimized by a black man actually ends up feeling as though she has done him a great wrong! The strain is so intense that it breaks her mind completely; she’s thrown back to her days as a schoolteacher, frantically searching the house for papers she must have graded decades ago. Getting the news on the phone, Boolie fakes concern, and later comes to put her in a home (which Hoke chillingly threatens her with beforehand: “Now, you want something to cry about, I’ll run you to the state home, let you see what’s lying around out there”).
In the end, the two men, now older and richer, shake hands in Daisy’s house, which is as emptied of her furniture and personal things as her poor, damaged mind is of the independent personality she once held. The handshake between this evil black man and this evil white man is like a dark parody of the promise of desegregation. Together they visit old Daisy Werthan, practically skeletal now in age and defeat, in the elderly care home where Boolie has dumped her. With utterly chilling care, Hoke feeds Daisy a slice of Thanksgiving pie. He beams at her, secure in his triumph; she beams back at him, completely and utterly broken. He’s taken everything from her. He’s left her in a state so abject she can’t even refuse to be fed, and the film fades out over a shot of the car in which Hoke Colburn drove Daisy to it.
As you can see, there’s a lot to unpack in this fantastic, creepy film. I didn’t even get into the movie’s visual strategies, from the ironically gorgeous soft-focus period cinematography to Hoke’s unnervingly cornball costumes (he’s all bow-ties and tweed) to the film’s use of foreground/background juxtaposition to trap Daisy in her social context (as in the beautifully eerie shot when Hoke stops the car in Alabama and the camera frames them as dwarfed by several black men on a porch shot ominously, facelessly from the back) or to isolate her from her support structure (Boolie, for instance, tends to face obliviously away from Daisy in foreground while she quails in background).
Nor did I really touch on the way the film’s regressive politics are somewhat balanced by an unusual portrait of an elderly villain and victim in a genre so dominated by teenaged characters. Then, too, much of the film can be read as a misogynist sick joke, a strain of the male desire for dominance over women that enters the film by way of its noir influences.
But I think what I’ve written here shows sufficiently that Driving Miss Daisy, far from being another Oscar misstep, is one of the Academy’s boldest choices. Rather than going with the broadly racial-minded Spike Lee film (itself a great movie, don’t get me wrong), the voters chose a much more subtle and insidious racial statement to make, nominating and awarding a film that somehow manages to depict honestly the social changes this country went through during those decades while also giving voice to the taboo fear of change itself, of aging and loneliness and the destructive power of (white) guilt. And Daisy‘s Best Picture win was the start of all too short-lived period of the Oscars recognizing the rarely-awarded horror genre, which they would do again in 1991 with The Silence of the Lambs and for the last time with 1994’s Forest Gump, about a mentally challenged man who stalks a woman named Jenny for decades.
I can imagine another world in which Driving Miss Daisy is taken entirely at its surface, interpreted as the boring, vapid, feel-good story about a racist old white woman learning to love her servant that it appears at a glance to be–an interpretation the villainous Hoke Colburn would have loved to take advantage of. In that alternate reality, the soft-focus period look and seemingly unironically cheesy score would have seemed grating, even insulting, to fans of Lee’s riotous, incendiary drama about contemporary race relations. It would seem to the people of that universe as though Do The Right Thing, intensely relevant even decades after its release, had been shoved aside by a cowardly Academy for the (apparently) much safer and more self-congratulatoryDaisy, that a movie about today’s complicated racial struggles had been overlooked in the rush to laud a film that comfortably wags its finger at the barbaric past while cheering on progress made decades ago. But that would be a much sorrier universe than ours. Thankfully, we, at least, know the truth as well as the terror of Driving Miss Daisy.