Friday, October 8, 2010

BPFTOI: Driving Through the Best Years of Miss Daisy's Lives

"Best Pictures From the Outside In" is back. But, oh fiddle, because the series is so infrequent we have to keep explaining it. It's a joint production between Mike at Goatdog's Blog, Nick at Nick's Flick Picks and Nathaniel at The Film Experience. We began in 2008 pairing the most recent winner No Country For Old Men with the first winner Wings and we've been working our way inward ever since from both ends of the Oscar chronology. Get it? Got it? Good. We've now reached 1946 vs. 1989.

 These men have been through enough Daisy. Let Hoke take the wheel!

NATHANIEL: Just when you get used to things a certain way...

Nothing is more certain in life than change so it's something of a human mystery as to why we're always so surprised or discomforted by it. In the Oscar winners The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Driving Miss Daisy (1989), we have four protagonists who are dealing with it from the comforts and, this is a fine point, new discomforts of their own homes. When I say "dealing with it" I sometimes mean not dealing with it all. It's a testament to this double feature that there's quite a lot of truth in the coping mechanisms presented, up to and including the coping mechanism of not coping. Sometimes we all just need a little time.

(Oscar sometimes needs a lot of time, which is why he likes to reward social issues movies like Daisy that take place in the rearview mirror.)

Since I mentioned four protagonists, allow me to introduce them. I'm referring to the three World War II veterans Al (Fredric March), Fred (Dana Andrews) and Homer (Harold Russell) who are returning to the homefront in The Best Years of Our Lives and the widowed Jewess (Jessica Tandy) of Driving Miss Daisy who is holed up in her estate when she's suddenly deemed unfit to drive. I stop at four because, Morgan Freeman's Lead Actor nomination aside, I can't buy Miss Daisy's chauffeur as anything like a fifth protagonist. Though he's quite literally driving, he's incongruously but a passenger.

Miss Daisy wants Hoke to drive at the speed of walking but I want the both of you to answer the following question like you've got a lead foot and somewhere else to be. (Let's just get it out of the way and drive on). How offensive (or not) did you find Hoke and/or the movie's complete lack of interest in his story and how much of that was mitigated by the entertainments of Grumpy Old Woman?

MIKE: It's not just uninterested in Hoke's story, it's uninterested in the entire story of the black freedom movement in the three decades after World War II. The only mention we get of anything approaching the Civil Rights Movement is a 1966 speech by Martin Luther King, more than an hour into the film. The only racist violence we hear about is the bombing of a Jewish synagogue. The only racist encounter we see occurs on a trip to Alabama --so I guess Atlanta in the 1960s was a little model of cooperation, as long as the help stayed in the kitchen and didn't grumble under their breaths too much. But there was a TV in that kitchen--surely SOMEONE saw SOMETHING going on that poked a teensy hole in the "slow and steady evens the races" model this film is pushing. And that ending--"You're my best friend, Hoke"--is one of the few times you'll ever see me moved to praise the recent Best Picture winner Crash, because I sort of think Crash knew how ridiculous it was when Sandra Bullock says the same thing to her beleaguered housekeeper. But here in Miss Daisyland, there's no such thing as self-examination. Meanwhile, out in the world, while the Academy was praising carefully crafted, Old Left films about gradual social change, Spike Lee was tossing garbage cans through windows trying to get people's attention. The Academy noticed, of course--the white dude in Do the Right Thing got a Supporting Actor nomination. This film, and this window into the Academy's soul, both make me sick.

 Hollywood Race Relations: Sincere or Ridiculous?

NICK: That's a tough act to follow, so my only option is to surprise even myself by at least playing devil's advocate for Driving Miss Daisy. Just to be clear, I don't think it's a good movie, and along with Field of Dreams and Dead Poets Society, it serves as proof that AMPAS somehow Rip Van Winkle'd its way through one of the stronger years for commercial film in the 1980s. (Then again, the directors and the actors and the writers and the nominators in almost every single category had better ideas than the high-fructose consensus that emerged in Best Picture, so maybe 1989 just proves the liabilities of how the Best Picture slate is determined.) Daisy's images are almost unrelievedly similar and boring. The editor often falls asleep. The score gets hilariously bombastic and misused after that pleasingly shuffle-along title melody. The biggest problem for me is that the script and the direction seem so damned tentative about pressing further into almost any of the story ideas or thematic issues it raises.

But I have to say, on that score, the script doesn't seem inclined to poke around Miss Daisy's backstory or the dilemmas of being Jewish in mid-century Atlanta any more than it wants to poke around Hoke's past or his private life. I don't think she's any more of a "protagonist" than he is, really. When the movie clicks at all - and it does for me, just a little bit, in its closing scenes - it's because I actually do think it hints at the thinness of the bond between these characters, who never know each other very fully even as they gradually feel warmer to each other or get more involved in each other's lives. Daisy's "You're my best friend" is, after all, uttered amid a bout of dementia, and Freeman doesn't imply that Hoke agrees here at all. The golden close-up on their clasped hands is a bit much. But almost immediately Daisy cuts to a very dark long-shot unlike almost anything else in the movie, which makes Daisy herself and this plaintive exchange both look awfully feeble and cold.

NATHANIEL: Well, when your only other option for Best Friendship is your obtuse son with the wandering suthehn accent and your silent housekeeper, isn't chatty Hoke a good option? At least he'll laugh at your jokes.

NICK:  That generous sense of humor helps this movie a lot. It's one of the hundred or so ways in which Freeman manages to bat back at the cloying and insulting potentials in this script and make Hoke (for me) an intriguing, legitimate character. In terms of what Mike pointed out, I do also appreciate that quick, earlier moment when he rebuked Daisy's idea that race relations were "totally changing" in the era of King.

MIKE:  I totally agree that there should be more to this discussion than just DMD's racial politics, but I keep getting dragged back--Hoke's sense of humor reminds me of the skit in the middle of Public Enemy's "Burn Hollywood Burn" about the casting director looking for a black actor willing to play a "controversial" character (a butler who chuckles under his breath). But you were saying.

NICK: I do agree it's demented to vote this Best Picture, and a particular slap in the face in the year of Do the Right Thing (or Crimes and Misdemeanors, or When Harry Met Sally..., or Roger & Me). But I think the movie finally shows at least some sobriety and tact about exactly what kind of relationship these two have. I don't think Daisy does a very good job even at being the basically safe movie it is, but I don't know that it's fair to ask it to be Do the Right Thing, either. I'm much more annoyed by movies of this era like Mississippi Burning, which styles itself as exactly the kind of bold, historically minded, race-focused protest picture you want Daisy to be and actually distorts the record and omits black perspectives even more than Daisy does.

 "Well, I'll be. We got 9 nominations and 4 Oscars! Do The Right Thing went 0 for 2"
That Hoke... such a kidder. Wait, that was a joke, right? That didn't actu ---oh god.

NATHANIEL: I'd actually love to excuse the Academy's love of this whole mini genre of minority struggle narratives coopted to tell stories of tolerant white people (see also the previous Best Picture's episode!) as dementia. At least then, they'd have an excuse. But it's a wider problem than just Oscar taste level. Critics, media and audiences tend to embrace these films in large numbers, too.

MIKE:  OK, off the topic of racial politics, there are some things I like about this film. That snappy little jingle that pops up in the score when it's not being bombastic is tops for me. I think I like Hoke, mostly because of the gravitas Freeman brings to the character, which keeps him from drowning in the script. The glowing cinematography got old, but there's some darkness that verges on the wildly experimental, given the film's overall conservativeness: that weird "oh my god look at all our reflections in the mirror" bit during Tandy's first "spell" seems like it's dropped in from a different film, but the long, dark shot at the end that Nick mentioned is a sobering way to close things. And I sort of like Dan Aykroyd, despite the wandering accent, for his genial longsufferingness. As for Jessica Tandy, I couldn't really separate her performance from the film: it seemed like one of those "oh no this old lady's gonna die soon" awards that happened a few times (some deserved, some not) in the 1980s.

NATHANIEL: You know how difficult it is for me to praise Jessica Tandy here (given the Oscar tragedy that played out... that unspeakable tragedy that I'm always speaking about) but I do think she does fairly good work with the innocuous material. Not Oscar nomination worthy good but good all the same. I like that you can see cracks growing in her "I'm not prejudice" mantra. She's not exactly self aware but she's not exactly not either and you can see that this annoys her more than it moves her towards actual change or self examination. That feels, to me, like a cool acknowledgement of the way people often process their own failings.

And this movie can take any tiny cold snap anyone can gift it with. The cinematography was so golden soft that I felt it was constantly trying to tuck me in for bed with a very warm blanket or roll me right up into a papoose so that I'd never have to feel anything uncomfortable or chilly ever again.

But I like the chill since it helps me appreciate the warmth.

War heroes in the round: The Airman, The Soldier and The Sailor return home.

Speaking of which, how about the versatile cinematography and shot composition in The Best Years of Our Lives? I swear to god... it was like entire miniature movies in every scene. Warmth and chill and other glorious complements everywhere I looked.

NICK:  Totally! The approach to lensing, shot structure, and editing in The Best Years of Our Lives is just so inspiring. I remember being not prepared at all when I first saw the movie, because I wasn't used to looking for technical virtuosity or intense formal variety in projects that look on the surface like unpretentious domestic soapers. This is the kind of movie that Hollywood so often shoots so boringly--relying entirely on actors to drive home all the emotional beats in the script, as though trying to convey feeling through focus, camera movement, lighting contrasts, or whatever would somehow undercut those emotions. Which is funny, because just within this series, William Wyler's own Mrs. Miniver seems like a good example (as, frankly, does Driving Miss Daisy) of exactly that sort of punch-pulling movie. Still within this series, though it's nothing like The Best Years of Our Lives, American Beauty was another example that if you explore middle-class domesticity with formal flair and visual invention, the ticket-buying populace really can get excited about it.

 William Wyler in the 1940s. Did any director ever have a decade this good?
6 Features | 2 Best Pic & Dir. Winners | 3 Best Pic & Dir. Nominees |
1940s Haul for Wyler Features: 47 nominations | 18 wins
| 1 Honorary

I don't absolutely adore Best Years the way I did on first pass, but if you compare it to the chilly, self-conscious formalism of Wyler's Little Foxes in '41 or the unambitious warmth of Mrs. Miniver in '42, it's just amazing that he's able to rifle through his entire bag of technical gambits and still make the Derrys and the Stephensons and the Camerons and the Parrishes at least as dear to us as the Minivers were. More so, really.

MIKE:  I'm with you guys 100%, except the part where Nick doesn't absolutely adore Best Years like he did on first pass, because I think I love it even more this time around. It vaults into my handful of best Best Picture winners ever (which might seem like damning with faint praise). What jumped out to me most this time around was Gregg Toland's use of deep focus, which he had knocked out of the park a few years earlier in Citizen Kane. He uses it with such versatility here, and it's amazing how many different things it can do depending on the context of the scene. My two favorites were (1) the barroom scene where Harold Russell and Hoagy Carmichael were playing the piano in the foreground, Fredric March was nervously in the middle ground, turning from the piano to the far, far distant background where Dana Andrews is giving Teresa Wright the heave-ho via telephone. It's like there's a million miles between them! And (2) the wedding scene (which still makes me cry) with Andrews's face in the foreground, the happy couple in the middle, and an angelic-looking Wright in the background. Here, the focus pulls everyone together, emphasizing their closeness.

One filmmaking technique = Two entirely different feelings.

And I love your "unpretentious domestic soaper" line, Nick, because the film does feel episodic. You could "tune in" for a couple of scenes and then go do your laundry, then come back and watch a different section of the movie. Not many films feel like they can work as a whole or as bite-sized, but still self-contained, chunks. And even though it's following more than a half-dozen characters, it manages to make them more fully formed than Daisy did with three. (And the extended running time only partly explains that.) Who's your favorite? Mine is Dana Andrews's Fred, who uses Andrews's unique bruised masculinity better than any of his other performances.

NATHANIEL: Hear hear on Dana Andrews. His performance felt like a marvel of internal distress signals to me... which made his inappropriate romance with Teresa Wright so relatable; she was tuned to his frequency. Her erotic attachment to him is not as simple as "I can save him" but that element is definitely there. Fortunately, despite all the potential cliches this team is working with I feel like they just nail down the core truths of certain familiar tropes with such precision and force. One scene that really knocked me over with its expressiveness in both performance and direction -- all the filmmaking tools Nick mentioned -- was Dana's solo moment in the cockpit where he lets himself access the war memories he's been keeping at bay. I found it to be such a beautifully judged emotional climax but used as transition into the last sequences where the storylines thread back together for the wedding.

 This cockpit has seen heavy fire; this pilot is all burned out.

You know, I think today's audiences (and I'd include myself here) are missing out whenever they dismiss earlier entertainments as "simpler times". Just because the movies didn't have body counts, profanity or sex scenes, doesn't mean they weren't extremely adult in tone. In fact, it's tough for me to even imagine a modern war drama delving this deep into both interpersonal connections and abcesses. You mentioned the movie's episodic nature and maybe that's why it plays out with such modernity to me. I felt like I was watching a lost Emmy-winning series from HBO or AMC had either been around in 1946. There are just so many through lines and longform dramatic beats in the screenplay.

My least favorite of the film's three threads is Harold Russell's. It wasn't because his scenes weren't moving so much as they didn't transcend their romantic drama / war film templates as well as the other two stories did. Aside from Dana Andrews, my favorite star turn belonged to Myrna Loy. She works absolute magic in her wifely duties both to Fredric March and to the picture itself, keeping so many scenes grounded with pragmatism, patience and a lived-in resiliency. Loy gives you a real sense of both what her character was like as a wife before the war and how the war changed her even from the peaceful homefront. But despite her realistically portrayed wariness and annoyance at some of the life changes on the way, she's such a comforting grounded presence that you know her husband (and the larger movie) will be able to work through his post-traumatic stress issues and readjust as best he possibly can to civilian life.

NICK:  Agreed on Andrews: so great at charting implosive feelings, right before that became the sole province of neurotic Method tics. Agreed on Loy, whose taking-in-stride of her husband's embarrassing bender is played so simply, but is so modulated and complex. I like Wright slightly less than these two, but I like her for all the reasons Nathaniel cites. That none of these three got Oscar noms despite the juggernaut status of the film is too bad. I'm sure Andrews is too "quiet" for AMPAS tastes, and I wonder if the studio deferred to March's star power by putting all their push behind him. There could well have been category confusion about the women, but honestly. They nominated Jennifer Jones for playing a tempestuous Tex-Mex and Flora Robson for glowering in blackface. Blackface!

Fredric March is one of my favorite actors, and I have plenty of glowing things to say about him, too. I'll leave myself to one, since it overlaps with Wyler's staging idea: the famous moment when he returns home and each family member discovers his presence, one by one. Everyone's great in this scene, which uses depth of field so conspicuously you can feel the "staginess" despite the marvelous emotion that still pours out of this reunion. And I think March brilliantly accounts for some of the "staged" quality of the filmmaking into his psychological profile of the character. Al clearly likes the idea of a Heartwarming Reunion, and it's not as though he's at all insincere. But as poignant as the moment is, you see how quickly he realizes he's not ready for all this, and kind of wants to be left alone. Tearful embraces are great, but they don't tell the whole truth.

 We've got choreography! A beautifully "staged" family reunion.

I don't think all of Wyler's ideas work so perfectly or integrate themselves so well. If there's anything to be said against the movie for me, it's that you almost hear Wyler and his team figuring out what nifty lensing or staging conceit they want to try out now. It's like the directing version of Kael's notorious anti-Streep comment: click, click, click... And, way too many times, the "big idea" they bring to Harold Russell's scenes is, "Let's make the audience patiently watch while he does something in real time that you'd imagine a man with no hands could not do."

Still, the film is so obviously humane and, in ways that count, emotionally restrained enough that it never feels exploitative of Russell, or of anyone else. And I totally agree that the whole movie is a remarkably rangy, sobering, and novelistic experience. I second (or third?) every lovely thing you guys have said about it.

NATHANIEL: Novelistic is right which is why this movie could easily provoke a week's worth of conversation... but we have to draw the line somewhere.

Am I correct in assuming we all think the Homer (Harold Russell) third is the film's least effective? As someone who generally distrusts sentiment in movies (I often feel like it amounts to emotional pornography, all mechanics with manufactured emotions) I was surprised how well these scenes did work for me. And I think it's for the reasons you've stated. Yes, it's a little obvious but I admire that Wyler is willing to put us in an uncomfortable place as an audience on his way to more traditional movie warmth. More than once the audience awkwardly shares the wary emotional POV of Homer's fiance's parents. We're forced to gawk and even though our hearts are telling us this is an incompassionate place to be, you do have to wonder if you'd want that caretaker life for your daughter.

Just discussing this movie makes me want to dive back in right now. It totally earns its sentiment and that's a rare achievement.

MIKE:  Looking back over fifty years, Harold Russell’s story is the least effective, for the reasons Nick mentioned—the goal here was to have a heart-to-heart with American audiences who were going to have to get used to seeing that kind of thing, and to remind them of the sacrifices people made in the war. It’s certainly part of the overall message of the film, that war is not necessarily glorious, it messes people up both physically and emotionally, and it might make your husband/boyfriend/son seem like a stranger. But we don’t need that patient semi-lecture today; we’ve seen Platoon and Saving Private Ryan and countless other films that take that as a given. So Russell’s story is where the film seems too message-y (although I absolutely LOVE how Toland shoots his house), and it lacks the acting firepower of the other storylines, and it is too occupied with that “this is how you take off your pants if you don’t have hands” pseudo-documentary feel. But Russell’s story gave us those wonderful scenes in Hoagy Carmichael’s bar, which rank among my favorites in the movie. So there you go.

 You hardly recognize them. They hardly recognize themselves.

The absence of that “we have some tough things to tell you” attitude was what irked me the most about Driving Miss Daisy, which wanted it both ways—it’s a loving paean to a way of life that’s long since disappeared, but it’s also a (spineless) criticism of that way of life. Best Years shows us that you can demonstrate your love for small-town America while still taking it firmly to task for being bigoted, or unthinking, or unappreciative. To do it mostly without preaching is a little miracle.

Of course, next time around we’ll have preaching up to our armpits, as Elia Kazan and company grab us by the scruffs of our neck and teach us a lesson about anti-Semitism in Gentleman’s Agreement; it will
be paired with one of the weirdest Best Picture choices of all time, Rain Man, and I can only imagine how we’ll pine for the warmth and complexity of Best Years of Our Lives as we give each other those baffled but affectionate looks that Morgan Freeman kept giving Jessica Tandy. Oscars. There’s lots of them.
 Miss Daisy stubbornly insists on walking to the video store to rent Rain
and Gentleman's Agreement. She doesn't know from Netflix.

NATHANIEL: Readers, back to you. Chime in!

for a complete index of this series thus far, click here.

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