Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones Drive Miss Daisy to the Multiplex

SV 1409There’s a new Angela Lansbury film in theaters this week, which is news that will delight any classic movie and TV fan.

But the version of Driving Miss Daisy in which the legendary actress stars opposite James Earl Jones isn’t a remake of Bruce Beresford’s 1989 Best Picture winner. It isn’t even a film, in the traditional sense. The Miss Daisy driving to multiplexes in the U.S. and Canada for the next week is actually a recording of a play, captured on high definition video live on stage in Melbourne, Australia last spring, and distributed to 500 U.S. movie theaters via satellite.

And it looks like a play, which is both good and bad news. The producers of Driving Miss Daisy appear to have recorded the performance (or multiple performances, seamlessly combined) without much alteration for filming. While there’s cutting between as many as five camera angles, there’s no editorial tightening of the live production, meaning we wait for dramatic, transitional lighting cues and see the actors themselves moving set pieces, all part of director David Esbjornson’s inventive live staging. (For the car scenes, Jones and Lansbury sit in wooden chairs on a rotating stage piece.)

postWe also see (and hear) the actors projecting as if they’re performing live in a theater, but with shots often framed like a director might shoot them for a film. This allows us to see James Earl Jones sweating profusely throughout the second half of the production, which the audience in Australia probably never noticed from the balcony. But thanks to the camera, we’re right on stage with him, sweaty brow and all.

Even worse: Jones is costumed in a black suit against a mostly limbo background, which often results in him being too dark, particularly on a stage in which pools of light function as scenic elements. Hopefully this will be mitigated by the 4K projection in your local theater, though satellite delivery can also result in its own set of technical challenges and image quality issues. (I watched a Blu-ray screener with my monitor adjusted to the brightest setting.)

The result is something that looks like a film but feels like a play, or vice-versa. And, at times, it’s distractingly incongruous.

Distributing live theatrical events to movie houses is not new; the Metropolitan Opera has been broadcasting signature productions since 2006, and the reunion of the surviving members of the Monty Python troupe at the O2 Arena in London will be simulcast to US multiplexes in July. But these live events are usually actually live and bring with them a certain, you-are-there excitement. The recent Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet with Orlando Bloom was also broadcast theatrically in HD, but I didn’t see it, so I can’t comment on that experience. Regardless, I’m sure that Orlando Bloom up-close and sweaty in tights has huge appeal for certain members of the multiplex-going public.

James Earl Jones, Angela LansburyBut an intimate, three-character play like Driving Miss Daisy is a Chrysler of a different color. While filming a play may be nothing new, calling it a “film,” shooting it like a film, and releasing it to movie theaters is. And when the property is already best known as an iconic Academy Award-winning motion picture, it brings with it an entirely different set of expectations.

I found the “stagecast” of Driving Miss Daisy entertaining, but frustratingly non-immersive. That said, I’m still recommending it for two reasons: Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones. The opportunity to see Lansbury and Jones carry a ninety-minute performance at age 88 and 83, respectively, outweighs any imperfections I may find in this format.

Lansbury’s Miss Daisy Werthan is lighter and arguably more sympathetic than the brilliantly belligerent film portrayal that earned Jessica Tandy a Best Actress Oscar. Her performance is also funnier, and so, in general is the entire enterprise on stage. While Alfred Uhry adapted his own work for the screen (and won an Oscar for it), the film, with its literal depictions of the Jim Crow South, is a more somber affair. Even the heartbreaking final scene in the retirement home – shot by Beresford in a single take that runs nearly three minutes without an edit – elicits surprising laughter in the recording of the stage version.

Jones’ Hoke, a role he played on Broadway in the 2010-11 revival (which I stupidly missed), is fascinatingly different as well. He’s broader and more commanding than the quietly heroic Morgan Freeman in the film, but it’s hard not to sound commanding when you’re speaking in the voice of Darth Vader.

Watching Driving Miss Daisy inspired me to revisit the film for the first time in years, and I’m glad I did. Back-to-back viewing allowed for the development of all sorts of theories about Uhry’s process, why he altered dialogue and key elements of the narrative between the two, and which version works better. Short answer: they both do.

I wish the producers had partnered with Warner Bros. and made this release a two-night event, with the play and the movie for one price. But since they didn’t, I recommend you plan a do-it-yourself double feature. And best of all: the 1989 film is available for rental on-demand for as little as $1.99. That’s a price even the parsimonious Miss Daisy would love. 

“Driving Miss Daisy” is in theaters in the United States and Canada June 4-14 from Screenvision and Broadway Near You. For more information, click here. NOTE: This piece was revised and clarified 6/4/14 at 9:15 a.m.

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About willmckinley

Will McKinley is a New York City-based writer, producer and classic film and TV obsessive. He’s been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by host Robert Osborne), Sirius Satellite Radio and the official TCM podcast. Will has written for PBS and his byline has appeared more than 100 times in the pages of NYC alt weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News.
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2 Responses to Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones Drive Miss Daisy to the Multiplex

  1. kelleepratt says:

    I think it’s awesome that both Angela Lansbury & James Earl Jones are still working hard at their craft- how very cool! Personally I’m stoked to see Monty Python!

  2. girlsdofilm says:

    I saw this in the West End when it transferred from Broadway, Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones were the stars. Redgrave’s portrayal of Miss Daisy as she descends into old age was wonderfully nuanced, and I’d be interested to see how the wonderful Angela Lansbury plays her. Sadly I’m not in the US to take advantage of this screening!

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