Born in Sydney, Australia, Bruce Beresford launched his film career far from home. Though he’d made a few short films while attending university, Beresford found paying work in the entertainment industry hard to come by when he graduated in the mid–nineteen-sixties. A stint in London proved fruitless, so Beresford applied for a job as film editor based in Nigeria. He got the gig and spent two years in the African nation, where, according to Beresford, he didn’t cut a bit of film, diverting himself by reading great novels and the directing a local theater troupe. Still, on the resume, it was professional experience.
Beresford returned home to Australia in the early nineteen-seventies. He had fortuitous timing. Australian Prime Minister John Gorton launched several financial support programs for cinema and arts in the late-sixties, and his successor, Gough Whitlam, kept the dollars flowing. There was a boom of wild, freewheeling movies, a scene eventually dubbed Ozploitation. Beresford started directing feature films, building his skills until he made the 1980 war drama Breaker Morant. The film was an international hit, and Beresford and his co-screenwriters, Jonathan Hardy and David Stevens, were nominated for an Academy Award, losing to Alvin Sargent, who adapted Judith Guest’s Ordinary People for the screen.
Despite the success, Hollywood didn’t come calling for Beresford quite yet. That opportunity didn’t arise until he was recruited by Philip and Mary Ann Hobel, seasoned documentary producers who were making their first fiction film. The film was Tender Mercies, the first original screenplay by Horton Foote. And Robert Duvall was already attached to play the lead character, a washed up country musician named Mac Sledge.
Part of the reason the producers and Foote were so keen to have Beresford on the project was their admiration for the relative restraint he showed in Breaker Morant. While it’s true that several directors had already declined the job, there was also a strong preference for those already connect to Tender Mercies to hand it to a filmmaker who would largely stay out of the way of the delicate material. If nothing else, Duvall surely knew he had he material that could get him the Oscar he’d previously been denied. The part was right, and the time was right.
In 1983, when Tender Mercies was released, Duvall was, in the parlance of Oscar chatter, due. An actor who’d steady built his reputation in the two decades since his big screen debut, as Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, Duvall had moved solidly into the categories of consensus greats. He had three previous Academy Award nominations, for The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and The Great Santini, and most believed the last would have won it for him had it not been in the same year as Robert De Niro’s undeniable lead performance in Raging Bull.
Duvall operates with supreme confidence in Tender Mercies. And that confidence manifests in beautiful restraint. Taking the opposite approach of the snarling fury of The Great Santini, Duvall shows the depth of Mac Sledge’s emotional wounds, all the while suggesting the grace that comes with slowly healing. Beresford’s directing is aligned with the performance. The film is quiet and resolute, dedicated to finding truth in earnest simplicity.
The Best Actor Oscar went to Duvall that year, and Tender Mercies received four other nominations, including a Best Picture nod. And Beresford competed in the category for directors, losing out to James L. Brooks, who picked up three Academy Awards that evening for his efforts on Terms of Endearment. But Beresford was now established a filmmaker of significance for Hollywood producers, a status he parlayed into the Biblical dud King David, which started with the mistake of casting Richard Gere in the title role.
Beresford spent the next few years slipping back and forth between arthouse tinkering and stabs at more mainstream fare, the latter represented by the middling Crimes of the Heart (which did rustle up a screenplay nomination for Beth Henley and acting nods for Sissy Spacek and Tess Harper) and Her Alibi, a much-maligned comedy starring Tom Selleck and Paulina Porizkova. But the same year Her Alibi was released, Beresford signed his name to a far more notable film.
Billed on movie posters as “The Comedy That Won A Pulitzer Prize,” Driving Miss Daisy was based on the 1987 stage play written by Alfred Uhry. Inspired by the experiences of his own grandmother, the play followed an elderly Jewish woman whose diminished capacity leads her son to hire a chauffeur. The driver is an older black man, and the plot largely traces the growing friendship between the two, transcending the commonplace bigotry found in the setting of Georgia through the nineteen-fifties and nineteen-sixties. Though intended to be sweet and moving in its depiction of people connecting despite their differences, the fact that the relationship in always predicated on an employer and servant dynamic, the sensibility of the story was regressive, even for the time.
Morgan Freeman played the hired driver in the original Off-Broadway production. Bolstered by his surging prominence at the end of the eighties, including an Oscar nomination for the otherwise forgettable film Street Smart, Freeman was asked to reprise his role. His stage co-star, Dana Ivey, was not. Instead, several big names were bandied about until the role was given to Jessica Tandy. Hardly a big movie star, Tandy was nonetheless adored in the industry, with three competitive Tony Awards to her name, including one for originating the role of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Of the four main actors in the legendary production, Tandy was the only one who was left behind when A Streetcar Named Desire was brought to the big screen. Vivien Leigh took Tandy’s place, winning an Academy Award for the performance. Nearly forty years later, Tandy finally got her turn to stand in Oscar’s favor.
Tandy is effective enough as Miss Daisy, but there’s little doubt she won the Oscar purely out of kind sentiment. Likely her strongest competitor in the category that evening was Michelle Pfeiffer, whose star turn in The Fabulous Baker Boys earned her Best Actress honors from the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the National Society of Film Critics, and the Golden Globes. (Because The Fabulous Baker Boys competed in the drama categories and Driving Miss Daisy was slotted among the comedies, Tandy also won a Golden Globe that year.) I don’t think there’s another instance of a performance prevailing in all five of those key precursors and then losing out on Oscar night.
Academy voters adored Driving Miss Daisy. The film was nominated for nine Oscars and won four, including the top prize on the night. The love wasn’t extended to Beresford, though. He was left out of the quintet nominated for Best Director, which made Driving Miss Daisy only the third film to that point to win Best Picture when its director wasn’t also nominated. (Two other films have done it since: Argo and Green Book, the latter of which is curiously similar to Driving Miss Daisy.) Beresford was arguably bypassed because, as he did with Tender Mercies, he mostly got out of the way of the script and the actors, operating as a faithful chronicler rather than a pushy artiste. That’s the way he saw it, anyway.
“I didn’t think it was that well-directed,” Beresford told Australian culture writer Steve Dow many years later. “It was very well-written. When the writing’s that good, you’ve really just got to set the camera up and photograph it. And working with Morgan and Jessica Tandy, I was aware that their acting probably could not be bettered.”