Last year Batman romped and stomped its way to box-office triumph, but the 1989 Best Picture Oscar went to Driving Miss Daisy, a mild-mannered movie whose biggest action scene features a little old lady backing her Packard into the shrubbery. Most of the other nominees for Best Picture (My Left Foot, Dead Poets Society, and Field of Dreams) were antidotes to Batman, balancing its noise, dazzle, and bitterness with sweetness and light. But Driving Miss Daisy out-niced them all, winning four Oscars and going on to earn a startling $106 million in movie theaters.

Lots of people grumbled about Jessica Tandy’s Best Actress Oscar on the grounds that she should have won an Oscar sooner. True, but so what? Her performance as Miss Daisy, the querulous Georgia heroine, is letter-perfect and soul-deep. Morgan Freeman is just as skillful as the chauffeur who makes her neighborhood safe for rhododendrons and opens her reluctant mind to new ideas. (When a synagogue is bombed by the Ku Klux Klan, he tells about a lynching that gets the old Jewish belle wondering — resentfully — whether they mightn’t be siblings under the skin.) As Daisy’s doting middle-aged son, Dan Aykroyd does the most self-effacing acting job of his film career — and the best.

Because director Bruce Beresford avoids spectacle in favor of nuanced close-ups, Daisy loses absolutely nothing on videocassette. Though Alfred Uhry closely modeled the screenplay on his Pulitzer-winning play, there’s nothing stagey about the movie. It seems effortlessly open and natural, just a collection of conversations that somehow add up to a convincing portrait of three remarkable people and a chronicle of the South over three decades. A-

Driving Miss Daisy
  • Movie
  • 99 minutes