How 'Driving Miss Daisy' Became One of the Most Scorned Best Picture Winners Ever

Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy in ‘Driving Miss Daisy’

“When Driving Miss Motherf—-ing Daisy won Best Picture, that hurt,” director Spike Lee told New York Magazine in 2008. “[But] no one’s talking about Driving Miss Daisy now.” The filmmaker is hardly alone in his disdain for Bruce Beresford’s 1989 Oscar-winning adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play. And in fact, the few discussions that Daisy inspires nowadays often begin — or end — with a question: Was this the worst Best Picture selection ever made?

The choice caused controversy and skepticism even at the time, with the New York Times asking if the film had a “subtext that summons up a longing for the good old days before the civil rights movement.” And in the 25 years since it was released on Dec. 13, 1989, Daisy’s reputation has hardly improved. So how did the divisive little movie manage to win the most prestigious prize in cinema? And does it deserve the scorn it continues to attract today?

To its producers, Daisy probably didn’t seem like a magnet for controversy: Alfred Uhry’s play, the source material for the movie, debuted off-Broadway in April 1987. Centering on the decades-long relationship between a wealthy, white Southern woman named Daisy and her African-American chauffeur, Hoke, it would run for nearly three years, and win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1988. But Cocoon producers Richard and Lili Zanuck were well ahead of the curve, buying the movie rights almost as soon as the first reviews hit.

Studios were resistant, but eventually the Zanucks persuaded Warner Bros. to green-light the picture. Australian helmer Beresford — who’d recently come off such critically acclaimed dramas as Tender Mercies and Crimes of the Heart — was picked to direct, with Morgan Freeman reprising the role he originated on stage, and veteran actress Jessica Tandy stepping in as Daisy. For the most part, Beresford’s film was warmly received by mainstream critics, with Roger Ebert calling it “a film of great love and patience.” The good notices set the path for Oscar success: At the ceremony in 1989, it won four prizes, including Best Picture and Best Actress for Tandy.

The film had soft competition in the Best Picture race that year: Its rivals included similarly middlebrow crowd-pleasers like Field Of Dreams and Dead Poets Society. But among the films that missed out were Lee’s firebrand drama Do The Right Thing (which presenter Kim Basinger praised as telling “the biggest truth of all” from the Oscar stage) and Steven Soderbergh’s indie sensation Sex Lies & Videotape. This was a Hollywood in transition, stuck between safer 1980s fare and the Sundance fueled revivals of the 1990s that would come with the arrival of Tarantino & Co. just a few years later.

Whereas Lee and Soderbergh’s works were blunt-force objects — tackling race and sex head-on — Daisy was decidedly restrained. In fairness, it has its moments of complexity, most notably in the film’s best scene, as Hoke attacks his employer’s hypocrisy over not inviting him to attend a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. But on the whole, it’s a soft-focus, mostly unchallenging Stanley Kramer-esque take on race relations with a simplistic and rose-tinted view of the past, one that rarely lets Freeman or the other Africa-American actors break out of stereotype.

Quite rightly, the African-American community was skeptical of Daisy: Public Enemy attacked the movie on the track “Burn Hollywood Burn,” and the film was skewered more than once on hit TV comedy In Living Color. But it was Lee who led the attack: “[Freeman] still plays a subservient role,” the filmmaker told Jet. “The clock is being turned backwards.” (At the time, the Freeman denied that he was “evoking nostalgia” with the movie, but would later call the film “a mistake” that led to him being typecast as “noble, wise, dignified.”)

Driving Miss Daisy certainly isn’t a great movie: It’s notably lacking in style; Beresford leans on sentimentality too often; the African-American characters are mostly caricatures; and Hans Zimmer’s synth score sounds woefully dated. But it is well-meaning, and that quality may have been the key to its awards-season success.

The Academy Awards have always been a flawed system, but the 1970s and 1980s had seen challenging pictures like The Godfather, The Deer Hunter and Platoon take the top prize. By the time of Daisy’s arrival, though, the tide began to turn, with an emphasis on feel-good, big-message movies. Driving Miss Daisy can be seen as a precursor to the kind of comforting, uplift-above-all-else, self-congratulatory Best Picture winners that were to come, when Dances With Wolves could beat Goodfellas, Forrest Gump defeat Pulp Fiction, and Crash win out over Brokeback Mountain.

There had been curious choices for Best Picture before, but Driving Miss Daisy's win arguably stands as the moment when voters began to pick symbolic choices over true cinematic classics. So Daisy's poor reputation remains intact — in part because of its own flaws, and in part because of the high-minded, low-risk movies that came in its wake.

Watch a trailer for Driving Miss Daisy:

Photo credits: Everett