The Good, the Bad and the Badass: Morgan Freeman
Last week, we took a look at the career of the king of cool himself, Steve McQueen. This week, we’re taking a look at an actor had his first big role the year McQueen passed away, and has arguably becoming one of the most enduringly popular character actors of his generation.
Gravitas. That’s the one word that best describes Morgan Freeman. It’s no coincidence that Freeman, with his distinguished look and inimitable voice, frequently plays authority figures like judges, professors, politicians (including the U.S President in DEEP IMPACT) and even God (twice). He’s an intimidating, commanding presence, and one of the few actors that no matter which A-list actor he’s paired with, you can bet that once they’re on-screen together Freeman will cut them down to size.
Looking back at his filmography, it’s interesting to note that Freeman was in his forties when he got a part in his first big Hollywood movie (the Robert Redford vehicle BRUBAKER) and fifty before his career really kicked into high gear, with his Oscar-nominated part as in the 1987 drama STREET SMART. From there, there was no looking back for Freeman. He reminds me a bit of Max Von Sydow in that he often played roles that made him up to looker older than he actually was (DRIVING MISS DAISY is a good example of this) and thus, has had incredible longevity in that he can pretty much play the same kind of part he played a quarter-decade ago as he really doesn’t look like he’s aged all that much. He’s one of those actors that seems permanently middle aged.
Freeman’s greatest strength is probably his inimitable voice, which resonates so deeply with audiences that he could have retired from movies twenty years ago and still made a lucrative living as a narrator-for-hire (arguably only James Earl Jones has a better voice). Happily, retirement doesn’t seem to be in the cards for Freeman, with him back on the big screen this week in the new Luc Besson thriller LUCY, starring Scarlett Johansson. Now’s as good a time as any to look back at his storied career.
I actually met Morgan Freeman once. This was long before I began writing for JoBlo.com. It was in the summer of 2001, when I answered a “cattle-call” for extras to fill the Olympic Stadium in Montreal where they were filming THE SUM OF ALL FEARS. The job was unpaid, long, and more than a little boring but I didn’t care. All I wanted was to get a glimpse of Morgan Freeman. To my absolute delight, Freeman (along with his nice guy co-star James Cromwell) actually took the time to chat with a group of us who stuck around after filming. This this day I don’t know why I said it, but when it was my turn to speak to Freeman I blurted out “I wept like a school girl during THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION.” To that, Freeman smiled and said, “Yeah, I get that a lot.”
While maybe “wept like a schoolgirl” wasn’t the best thing to say, although it did make Freeman chuckle and not in a “this guy is so lame” way (at least I don’t think so) it was the truth. Very few films have ever wrung the kind of emotion out of me that THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION did. It’s hard to imagine now, but SHAWSHANK was a big flop in 1994, and when my dad rented the video tape in ’95, I assumed I was in for a snooze-fest. In the years since, I’ve owned multiple copies of the movie on tape, DVD and Blu-ray, and have probably watched it a good twenty times – easily. It’s a full-on masterpiece, and, for me anyways, one of the best films ever made. You’d never think that a gritty prison movie could add up to the most stirring depiction of screen friendship ever put to film, but if you don’t get a tear in your eye by the time Freeman’s Red Redding meets up with Tim Robbins’ Andy Dufresne, than you’re a more cynical man than I.
That Freeman was beaten for best actor by Tom Hanks in FORREST GUMP is one of the all-time Oscar head-scratchers, but again, you have to look at this in context as at the time, voters probably thought of SHAWSHANK as a well-meaning flop, and not the classic we all know it as today. While Freeman won the Oscar for MILLION DOLLAR BABY, he should have won it ten years earlier for this.
I’m still amazed by the fact that THE BUCKET LIST was so popular. Not only did it make the annual National Board of Review’s list of the “ten best films of 2007” but it grossed well-over $100 million and apparently has become a massive seller on DVD. This is one of the most maudlin movies ever made, and while I certainly wouldn’t say Freeman (or co-star Jack Nicholson) is bad in it, this is far from the movie it could or should have been. Pity poor Rob Reiner, who hasn’t directed a really good movie since THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT back in 1995. A friend of mine was once given a copy of this on DVD as an achingly sincere gift by a family member, and since then has had to pretend that he thinks it’s a “lovely” movie.
Freeman’s got a few good ones here. One noteworthy one is his Oscar-nominated role as the killer pimp “Fast Black” in STREET SMART. While yes, he was nominated for an Oscar and it helped kick off his career, nowadays it’s sunk into the Cannon Films vat of obscurity. While many think that company only churned out Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson movies, they also took a stab at legitimacy and made some legitimately good films along the way, like RUNAWAY TRAIN, 52 PICK UP and this. While it’s not a great film (Christopher Reeve is badly miscast as an unscrupulous journalist), Freeman devours the scenery as one of the screen’s all-time scariest villains, and a huge contrast to the nice-guy, patriarch roles he plays nowadays. It’s not the easiest film to find, but if you can dig it up give it a shot. Its well-worth seeing for Freeman alone. Another gem is LEAN ON ME, a movie which I must have seen dozens of times on cable as a child.
Having already spent a lot of this column highlighting THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, I wanted to take some space to acknowledge SE7EN. While mostly remembered as a Brad Pitt-starrer, Freeman is arguably the lead, and one of the nicest pieces of work I've ever seen him do is this nice scene where he has coffee with Pitt's wife, played by Gwyneth Paltrow in her first big part.
In addition to LUCY, Freeman’s also got two sequels on their way – DOLPHIN TALE 2, and the OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN sequel, LONDON HAS FALLEN. At seventy-seven, Freeman doesn’t seem to be slowing down, and will likely be making movies for years to come.