Another Oscar season is upon us, and Warner Bros. is marking the occasion with the release of three of its Best Picture winners on Blu-ray. Or, to be more precise, one of its Best Picture winners and two MGM winners to which they currently own the rights. Driving Miss Daisy, Mrs. Miniver and Grand Hotel all claimed the top prize their respective years. Together, they make a mighty case for the Academy’s utter irrelevance to cinematic history. Hit the jump for my full review.
Most readers probably know Driving Miss Daisy, a well-oiled crowd pleaser from 1989 that landed Jessica Tandy a Best Actress award at the tender age of 81. Beating up on the film is tantamount to kicking a puppy; it’s so full of Olde Tyme Southern charm (mixed with Very Important Messages about race relations) that the very thought of attacking it feels like blasphemy. And yet, while thoroughly entertaining in its own way, it carries no more substance or thoughtfulness than your average Michael Bay movie.
Tandy plays an aging Atlanta widow saddled with a black chauffeur, Hoke (Morgan Freeman), when she becomes too old to drive herself. They fuss and feud agreeably at each other, gradually forming a friendship over the course of many years. The rise of the Civil Rights Movement puts Hoke’s humanity and lifelong struggles into focus for her, deepening her understanding and respect for his experience.
The film’s light tone and overall irascibility make it easy to like. Author Alfred Uhry wrote the screenplay from his off-Broadway play, briskly paced and held up with a lot of humor and heart. Had the film failed to generate any awards heat, it could easily stand on its own. But when you put it on that Oscar pedestal – when you start using phrases like “Best” in conjunction with it – its failings become glaringly apparent. Or more specifically, Oscar’s failings do.
Driving Miss Daisy presumes to talk about race relations in America, and yet it doesn’t say anything substantive or informative about the topic. We see nothing of the hardships brought on by institutional racism, nor are we encouraged to do any real soul searching about our own prejudices and misconceptions. Miss Daisy becomes an easy repository for “white foolishness” and, as she is a good-hearted soul, eventually realizes the error of her ways. We see none of Hoke’s struggles beyond a few mild indignities, and certainly none of the violence or hate that blacks experienced as they worked to claim their God-given rights. Driving Miss Daisy swims way out past its depth in the Serious Art department, and yet the Academy awarded it because its safe, comfortable message lent them the façade of artistic pertinence. With it, they could say something “important” without actually having to engage the issue. It’s the ultimate “Racism is Bad” movie, presenting obvious truths in a trite yet engaging way that makes us all feel good about our presumed non-racism when we exit the theater.
That becomes doubly infuriating when one looks at Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, another film about race released the same year. Lee didn’t limit his indictment to foolish old Georgia biddies, and he didn’t try to pretend everything was solved in 1964. His searing narrative forced us to acknowledge the still-open wounds that dominate race relations in our country, and how even good-hearted people could succumb to savage, unthinkable crimes in the right circumstances. Naturally, Oscar ignored it. That’s not necessarily Driving Miss Daisy’s fault, but its trumped-up status looks far shabbier with Do the Right Thing sitting right there next to it. (To say nothing of 1989’s other entries, which include the likes of Henry V, My Left Foot, The Abyss and Born on the Fourth of July.)
This, of course, is nothing new with the Oscars, as the other two Warners Blu-ray releases show. Grand Hotel was only the fifth film to win Best Picture, beating out seven competitors despite not being nominated for a single award in any other category. (Star Wallace Beery won Best Actor for another film.) Eighty years later, it shows its age quite badly, with an overstuffed story given over to coincidence and melodrama. It follows the various residents of a Berlin Hotel in depressingly predictable fashion. Jewel thieves and gamblers rub shoulders with artists and ballerinas, intrigue and romance fill the air, and the characters’ various stories play themselves out without much fanfare.
We never connect to any of the characters, shuffled back and forth between the rapidly shifting storylines and hamstrung by indifferent direction from director Edmund Goulding. The black-and-white cinematography brings a little flair, but it’s really the cast that saves the film from terminal boredom, featuring the likes of Lionel Barrymore, his brother John, Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo uttering her signature line, “I want to be alone.”
Even so, its middling plot and shaggy-dog attention span make it a largely unremarkable affair, of interest only to die hard cineastes. It also places Oscar’s failings as a measure for film quality in stark relief. Among the films the Academy ignored that year were Paul Muni’s Scarface, Boris Karloff’s The Mummy, The Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers and Tod Browning’s Freaks – all of which came from “lesser” genres and yet which now hold far more appeal to modern filmgoers than Goulding’s well-meaning pretense picture.
Things get even worse with Mrs. Miniver, a portrait of British life during the Second World War almost embarrassing in its anachronisms today. The title character (Greer Garson) lives in a comfortable estate outside London, only to see her bourgeois lifestyle utterly disrupted by those pesky Germans. Death and destruction follow in their allotted amounts, along with the occasional demonic Nazi pilot and an admonition to keep up the fight though the heavens may fall. Released six months after Pearl Harbor, it wears its propaganda proudly on its sleeve and doubtless swayed an Academy eager to aid the war effort in any way it could. Noble sentiments, to be sure, but undone by a dull and overly earnest production. Very little about the world we see here rings true (the British family actually acts very American at times), and the film’s broad strokes speak to immediate necessity rather than long-term profundities. It doesn’t even boast a stellar cast like Grand Hotel does. And again, it arrived the same year as dozens of more memorable films, including Bambi, Holiday Inn, The Glass Key, Cat People, The Major and the Minor, Saboteur, The Magnificent Ambersons and Yankee Doodle Dandy (for those interested in a more lasting expression of patriotism).
Together, the three films constitute more than a trend: they’re a symbol of how little the Academy actually matters when it comes to cinematic history, and how subjective the term “Best Picture” becomes over the course of time. Warners is smart to release them now, with a new round of Oscars looming and everyone in the mood. The minute the trophies get handed out at the end of the month, these three will revert to cinematic curiosities: interesting for the hardware they picked up, but otherwise completely irrelevant.
Having said all that, Warners should be commended for delivering the three Blu-rays with class and style. Grand Hotel and Mrs. Miniver both benefit from a cleaned-up image, though the original mono audio tracks limit what the sound boys can do. More importantly, both Blu-rays provide a lovely throwback series of features: period newsreels, live-action shorts, trailers and cartoons. Most of them appeared on earlier DVD releases, but they still turn these cinematic also-rans into enjoyable exercises in nostalgia. Grand Hotel also contains a new audio commentary from film historians Jeffrey Vance and Mark A. Vieira, as well as a making-of documentary.
Driving Miss Daisy doesn’t get the same throwback treatment, but sound and video quality are demonstrably better than the other two releases. The additional material includes a new documentary featuring Freeman and Uhry, two older featurettes, a making-of doc from 1989, the theatrical trailer, an illustrated digibook, and a reliable audio commentary with the director, producer and screenwriter. I’m not a fan of the film, but those of you who are will be well-served by this new edition.