Over/Under: ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ vs. ‘Gran Torino’

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I was only eight  in 1989, but from what I remember it was pretty much the year of Batman and Driving Miss Daisy; two movies that my 8-year-old self was less than impressed by. Perhaps we’ll talk about Batman at a later date, but today I want to talk about Miss Daisy, a movie that won so many awards and got so much critical praise that it made even those of us who had yet to sprout pubes aware of who Jessica Tandy was. The hype on this thing must have been huge to get me to tear my attention away from G.I. Joe and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles long enough to watch a film about a couple of old people driving around, but it did.

The other movie I want to look at is from 2008. It’s Clint Eastwood’s acting swan song, Gran Torino. This one was well-liked, from what I can tell, but it didn’t get the hype or attention that I imagined it would once awards season rolled around, and consequently I don’t think as many people saw it as should have. I mean, with this one’s racial themes and its focus on old people you’d think it was a shoo-in for baiting the Oscars into giving it recognition. Perhaps it had too many racial slurs and too much gunplay to get embraced by the intellectual bourgeoisie that make up the Academy though. Give something a little color and suddenly it can’t be viewed as “serious material.”

What do they have in common?

They’re both about prickly old codgers who have grown accustomed to their ways and who use a generally grumpy demeanor to push people away. In Driving Miss Daisy, we get Jessica Tandy’s Daisy growling at her new chauffeur because she doesn’t want to admit that she can’t drive herself around anymore. In Gran Torino we get Clint Eastwood’s Walt, who growls at pretty much everyone because he doesn’t want to accept that his neighborhood is changing both demographically and in its values. There’s a lot of race stuff going on in both as well. Daisy is learning to live in a world where her black employees are quickly becoming her only company, and Walt is struggling to understand his Hmong neighbors, who won’t stop trying to talk to him and giving him presents. And these are great movies when it comes to car porn. In Driving Miss Daisy we get plenty of long looks at a gleaming ’48 Hudson Commodore, and in Gran Torino it’s the same thing with a ’72 Ford Gran Torino.

Why is Driving Miss Daisy overrated?

This movie is nice. It’s slow and pleasant, not unlike a weekend drive through the countryside might be. But important? A watershed moment when it comes to art about race? No, I don’t buy that. This movie is much too nice for that. Half of the characters we meet are Jewish, the other half black, and generally everyone is tolerant, wise, and a joy to be around. Sure, the relationship between Daisy and Hoke (Morgan Freeman) is strained at first, but there aren’t any characters in this movie that are bigots, any that even have real prejudices. For a film that eventually invokes footage from a famous Martin Luther King speech, that seems pretty safe. Were the writers afraid that we wouldn’t like Tandy’s character if she was legitimately mean or racist in the beginning? No risk, no reward. If none of the characters get painted in a negative light, then nobody here has anything important to learn, and the journeys that the characters take end up feeling insignificant.

This movie can be pretty boring, too. Some of the back and forth is clever enough to cause a smirk or two, but until the third act rolls around nothing at all happens. Daisy goes to the store, she plays mahjong, she goes to a birthday party… this really is just time spent driving an old lady around to do boring old lady things. The big conflict of the second act is whether or not Hoke stole a can of salmon, and it gets wrapped up in about five minutes. Am I watching a movie that has something to say or is this a training video for being a chauffeur? Sometimes it was hard to tell the difference.

And for a movie that only had an hour and thirty-nine minute runtime, this one felt like it was well over two hours. We’re an hour in before Daisy’s housekeeper dies and her and Hoke really have to start spending time alone. That felt like it should have been the establishing conflict that set things into motion, but instead it came around when we were already approaching the home stretch. And what is Dan Aykroyd doing in this movie? We keep going back to his character, but his story arch ends up having very little impact on the Tandy and Freeman bonding story that makes up the heart of the film. Why not just have the son character be a small part and really dig into the relationship this script was primarily concerned with? The gray powder that’s eventually in Aykroyd’s hair was pretty much my only indication that years had been passing though, so maybe hiring a recognizable actor whose aging we would notice was the point of him getting so much screen time. I mean, really, how big of a timespan are we covering here? Nothing happens! Or, maybe things happen, but they’re subtle. Too subtle. By the end of the film Daisy is taking an interest in the civil rights movement, but she still won’t even admit she likes Hoke. They get no big bonding moment before she starts to lose her mind, and maybe that’s bittersweet and appropriate to the era, but for a movie about little other than two people coming together, it feels like an empty experience.

Why is Gran Torino underpraised?

This movie has a real edge to it, especially for something directed by Clint Eastwood. His character is a real bastard; scowling, growling, and tossing racial slurs at everybody. During the first act you don’t like him at all, and you’re not even sure if he’s going to be worth redeeming. But they pull it off, and since he starts out so abrasive, the feat looks all the more impressive. That applies to a lot of the other characters as well. The first glimpses we get of the neighbors see them chopping the head off of a chicken in a weird backyard ceremony and having douchebag gang members as relatives. Nobody here seems like anyone you’d want to spend time with at first, but once you learn more about them they start to charm with their idiosyncrasies. It pretty effectively recreates the experience of becoming adjusted to another culture.

The aggression and hate that this movie taps into is more visceral than I was expecting as well. There’s some real tension that gets built as people keep trying to interact with Walt. You don’t know if somebody is going to get shot, if Walt is going to get increasingly racist to the point where it becomes unacceptable, or what; but clearly it’s all leading to shit going down, and watching is a nail biting experience. The hate we get out of all the kids is very unpleasant to watch. There’s so much senseless aggression and hate among the pockets of today’s youth that don’t have any good work to do, and tragically it often explodes into violence. In fact, the kids in this movie get so intimidating and violent that I can’t imagine any other aged actor who could have stood up to them and made it believable; but Eastwood gives great, grizzled, action movie swagger, and more than proves he still has it. Nobody growls, “Get off my lawn,” quite like he does.

This movie just goes deeper than something like Driving Miss Daisy. It shows how nice it can be when people from different backgrounds come together, sure, but it doesn’t stop there. This one asks the hard questions too. It explores the dark side of people, it asks what should be done when people are too broken and willfully ignorant to be anything but a hindrance to everyone around them. It shows the heartbreak and despair that a closed off heart leads to. Those that are unwilling to accept others for who they are, or that try to force the world into their idea of what’s acceptable inevitably cause pain and suffering. Gran Torino gets bleak. Violent acts go down, people are seriously hurt. This one answers the easy questions that Driving Miss Daisy does in its first half, but then it moves on to more complicated material.

Evening the odds.

Say what you will about which of these movies you think is better than the other, but Tandy got an Oscar for her performance and Eastwood didn’t get shit; even with the awesome song in the end credits that he co-wrote and sings a few lines of. You don’t hear Tandy doing any crooning in her movies. Eastwood is the working man’s actor. Somebody should give him a variety show.

If you’re not too busy driving around with elderly in your life, why not read more Over/Under?

Weaned on the genre films of the 80s. Reared by the independent movement of the 90s. Earned a BA for writing stuff in the 00s. Reviews current releases at templeofreviews.com

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