Worst Best Picture: Is Driving Miss Daisy Better or Worse Than Crash?

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Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1989 winner Driving Miss Daisy. Is it better than Crash?

I was a history major in college. In every good discussion of race through American history, someone always mentioned that context was king. It’s easy to say “times were different and people were worse,” but you have to be able to put yourselves in some historical shoes to really get it. It’s not just about America’s troubling past, it’s about why people believe what they believe and act like they act.

A movie like Driving Miss Daisy does a lot of “what” without a lot of “why.” It’s a story you probably know to some degree: Morgan Freeman drives an old white lady around. That’s basically it. The old white lady (Jessica Tandy) in question is also Jewish, which I wasn’t aware of going in, but most of the “otherness” of the movie is all in white vs. black.

I gave it away in the intro, but if you had to guess what year a movie about an older black man driving an older white woman around as they learn about cultural differences and how to overcome them came out, would you have said 1989? The year the Berlin Wall reopened? That’s the craziest part, to me. The movie spans a few decades around the 50s and 60s, which helps to complicate the “should I feel this gross watching this?” element of it all.

It’s not a racist movie. The duo talks about MLK. They experience racial violence and are disgusted. They get stopped by racist cops. They share experiences over most of the twilight of their lives. It’s not racist, but it’s… awkward.

There’s just not a lot going on here. The lesson seems to be that if you’re already not racist in Georgia, you won’t be extra racist to Morgan Freeman. It just feels so unnecessary and so hokey outside of a few genuinely touching moments. It’s not quite sunny enough to feel as surreal as Gigi but it certainly is on-the-nose enough about race to feel at home on the shelf with Gentleman’s Agreement. The journey isn’t “mean racist lady” to “nice old lady,” it’s “mean old lady who hates Morgan Freeman” to “somewhat less mean old lady who loves Morgan Freeman.”

Watching this in 2014 is weird, but not for the same reason a lot of these are weird. With this one you just start to wonder what people will think about 1989 that people then needed this movie. It’s a well done buddy movie with an interesting pairing — James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury are playing the duo now, and man, what? — but it ends up feeling pretty slight compared to some movies on this list.

The Best Part: The near-universal love for Morgan Freeman is deserved. He’s pretty spectacular in this role. He’s warm and hopeful, but he’s also a complete character. He’s loyal to the characters he’s sided himself with, but he’s not above making a play for a raise through leverage. He’s fascinating, and he’s what saves this from being a full-on weird relic.

The Worst Part: Dan Aykroyd was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as the son who hires Morgan Freeman. I’ll admit I’m sour on Aykroyd a little now because he’s become somewhat of a professional weirdo and hasn’t been in a good movie for a very long time, but he’s still downright bizarre in this movie. His Southern accent involves lots of “o” sounds, and he’s given the unfortunate task of violating “show don’t tell” to remind the audience they’re watching a movie set in Georgia. He keeps walking on screen and announcing things like, “You sound like Governor Talmadge!”

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? The character of Miss Daisy is Sandra Bullock’s character from Crash, but with some sort of a lesson. I talk about this part of Crash a lot. If you’re curious, most of her part of the movie is actually on YouTubeCrash is all built on people going from bad to worse in one way or another, but only poor Sandy goes from worse to… no change at all. They don’t redeem her or punish her. She’s just left as a constant device. Miss Daisy’s character doesn’t have much of an arc, either, but at least her relationship with her chauffeur does. Once again, the world of Crash is a meaner place than a movie where two cops call Morgan Freeman “boy.”

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night |

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

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