Morgan Freeman: He makes any movie better, but in 'Invictus' he's finally a great actor again

Whenever you sit down to watch a movie, it’s always a welcome moment when the name Morgan Freeman appears in the opening credits. Whether he’s playing God in Bruce Almighty, a saintly janitor in Million Dollar Baby, or a judge, detective, mechanic, or prison inmate, you can rest assured that each and every moment Morgan Freeman is on-screen, the movie, even if it’s a dog, will snap to attention, and that Freeman, even in a nothing role, will take the lines he’s been asked to deliver and, through the sheer magnetism of his presence, turn them into something forceful and vibrant and compelling. Those eyes, so kind yet with a hint of deep, and even dark, knowledge, never fail to twinkle with merriness and sly perception, and that voice, of course, is pure music, so playful and resonantly wily — the sound of homespun American authority. I have no doubt that Morgan Freeman could literally read the phone book and make it come off as a work of art.

There’s another thing, though, that I feel compelled to say about Morgan Freeman: In virtually every one of those roles, he is more or less the same. The slightly rascally but deeply moral dominion of his presence clearly derives from something deep inside him, a wellspring of character that he brings to every film. It’s always welcome (he makes every movie better), but at this point it’s almost never revelatory. He surprises us in small ways, but never in big ways. And he has been doing that in Hollywood for so long now — close to 20 years — that I sometimes wonder, quite frankly, when I think about the viewers who believe that the height of Morgan Freeman’s achievement as an actor is co-starring in something like The Shawshank Redemption, if they understand the staggering depth of this man’s talent. Because here’s the grand and slightly melancholy irony of Freeman’s career: He gave what may be his two greatest screen performances back to back, before he was a star. And in the decades that he’s been a star, he has rarely found, or maybe seized, the chance to be the jaw-dropping artist that he can be.

After years of work on stage, in bit movie parts, and as a regular on The Electric Company, he first came to prominence in 1987, playing a vicious, cunning pimp in Street Smart (pictured above, on the left), and it was, quite simply, the single greatest performance as an inner-city hustler that any actor has ever given on film. Freeman gave the pimp, named Fast Black, a charismatic surface, which was really just a mask, but beneath that he had a volatility and violence that was itself a methodical piece of manipulation. He made this pimp a brutally self-controlled sociopath who was really an actor, and it was that sophisticated enactment of the layers of personality, and even brilliance, that can lie just beneath the cardboard surface of a “thug” that made Freeman’s performance a classic. Pauline Kael led off her review of Street Smart with the question, “Is Morgan Freeman the greatest American actor?,” and that was quite a provocative thing to say, because in 1987 the greatest American actor was, by almost universal assent, Robert De Niro, and what Kael was implicitly saying is that Freeman’s work in Street Smart was the equal of De Niro’s legendary performance in a movie like Taxi Driver. She was right: That’s the level he was working on.

In 1987, Freeman was 50 years old, but looked younger, and there was some talk about how he might play Jimi Hendrix in a biopic. Instead, he appeared on stage in Driving Miss Daisy, and when the play was made into a movie, in 1989, it gave Freeman the chance, after Street Smart, to do a showboat character stretch as astounding as the one, a few years earlier, that had first put Daniel Day-Lewis on the map (when he appeared, within the space of a few months, as the impassive, skunk-haired punk in My Beautiful Laundrette and the grinning, mannered fop of A Room with a View). As Hoke Colburn, the kindly and illiterate old fellow who becomes the chauffeur for a shrewish old Jewish lady (Jessica Tandy) in 1950s Georgia, Freeman played a Southern man, born in the 1800s, with segregation in his blood, who had spent his whole life being servile, who said “Yes’m” and laughed too loudly at Miss Daisy’s jokes, putting on an almost painful performance of civility for his white boss. And yet, even portraying a man who some might view as an Uncle Tom, Freeman, once again, revealed a character we only thought we knew to be a kind of clandestine actor. He made Hoke a figure of touching virtue, one who “knew his place,” but also one whose spirit walked freely within that place. Freeman quietly deconstructed the mind behind the mannerisms. There was mystery in his acting, and that’s what made it memorable.

Many solid performances followed — in movies like Glory and Se7en and The Dark Knight. But over the years, as we’ve come to know Morgan Freeman, what I’ve missed is Freeman the virtuoso who can fascinate us as deeply as he moves us. And that’s the Morgan Freeman who is back in Invictus, playing Nelson Mandela as — you guessed it — another actor. The Mandela we see in Clint Eastwood’s film makes a public show of supporting the Springboks, South Africa’s nearly all-white rugby team, because he is looking for a way to theatricalize his acceptance, and even embrace, of the country’s powerful white minority. He knows that that’s the only possible path to a successful, workable future; he knows that vengeance will lead to chaos. Yet this decision, which appears to be based on an admirable principal of forgiveness, is also deeply subversive: It cuts against the grain of everything that Mandela’s comrades in the African National Congress feel in their hearts. And what Freeman shows you, with the glimmer in his eye and his nearly devious replication of Mandela’s singsong cadences, is what a brilliant political game-player Mandela is. The movie is a celebration of strategy as morality, and Freeman’s achievement is to root Mandela’s authority in the real world. In Invictus, Freeman becomes Nelson Mandela, but he does it with such depth and spirit and play and insight that he is also, every inch, Morgan Freeman. An actor returned to his glory.

So what’s your favorite Morgan Freeman performance? And why?

Comments (104 total) Add your comment
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  • Bartel Pieterse

    I saw the movie Invictus last night at its opening in Pretoria South Africa. We saw Mr Mandela often on TV after his release from prison. He brought hope and inspiration to all white South Africans. Morgan Freeman played the role of Mr Mandela with such passion and accuracy, he was simply exellent. It was an Oscar winning performance! Thank you Mr Freeman for reminding all South Africans again of the important forgiving role this great man played in our lives. Your performance was more than acting. It was truly inspirational and a blessing to us. Viva Morgan Freeman Viva!

  • Chip

    i remember watching morgan freeman on electric company as a kid 30+ years ago…boy did he pay his dues. i agree that he is an amazing actor who has very few rivals for the title of ‘greatest’. it’s really hard to name a favorite as you have asked, but i’ll go with hoke in ‘driving miss daisy’…he deserved the oscar for that one.

    • datruth82

      He also deserved an Oscar for his role in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. I remember being a kid, and love, love, loving that movie and his part in it. I had never seen Morgan Freeman before, and couldn’t take my eyes off him once he hit the screen. I actually went away from that movie thinking he was a Moor, and not an American actor. So, I went and learned everything I could about the Moors, the Ottoman & Turks empire, etc. And, I can still watch that movie two decades later because of him. Just an amazing actor.

  • John

    I haven’t gotten a chance to see Invictus yet, but I do look forward to seeing Morgan Freeman the actor some more. Morgan Freeman the narrator, of course, brightens every movie, but even his Oscar-winning performance in Million Dollar Baby was frankly an award mostly based on his brilliant narration. It has been a while since there was a truly brilliant on-screen performance from Morgan; from everything I’ve heard, this is it.

  • Monique

    Yeah, I absolutely wish Freeman could do more movies where he really gets to showcase his great acting chops, rather than playing the nice sidekick or mentor-type. However, I don’t believe there are that many roles out there for black actors to really stretch. In the past 20 years I can think of about a handful of good films about non-caucasians in mainstream Hollywood, and then he also has to go against the likes of Denzel who is more traditionally handsome.

    • JK

      I don’t even think it’s so much a question of there not being enough roles for black men, but enough roles for OLDER black men. I think other demographics have the same struggles (middle-aged women, for example), but I think both of these groups and others are starting to make some strides in revamping the kinds of roles Hollywood is considering.

      • datruth82

        Actually, you’re both right. If you’re black in Hollywood (and actually LOOK black and don’t look mixed), roles will always be hard to come by – let alone quality roles. People are under this impression that anything featuring black people won’t sell. They also said movies starring women wouldn’t sell either, and Meryl Streep’s and Sandra Bullock’s careers are on their second coming…so, so much for that. Maybe, Hollywood’s just working its way up the minority totem pole…today women, tomorrow’s blacks, maybe Hispanics may get thrown a bone next week…

    • Jacey

      Denzel doesn’t really stretch himself either. That’s why training day was such a surprise. He plays the same cop, agent all the time.

      • kudos

        to me its not hollywood, its the black actors. besides morgan, denzel and will smith there arent alot of great or even good black actors.

  • Tab

    I quite liked his chemistry with Zellweger and Rock in NURSE BETTY….

  • Peggy

    Loved him in Shawshank Redemption. His problem in getting good roles isn’t just his race, but also his age. Denzel can still play those action roles, but Freeman is too old really. I even thought he was too old to be playing Alex Cross, although I guess he did O.K. with that lightweight role.

  • jfms777

    Did you have to make this sound like a eulogy?

    • Vivi

      L O L! Right! I was scared for a moment. Had to pause and wiki’d him to make sure he’s still alive.

      • nancy

        totally. That’s what I thought too.

  • Fatima

    Ahhh the EW I love.

  • Ambient Lite

    Morgan Freeman is a pedophile. He carried on an incestuous relationship with a child he raised as his own from the time she was a young teenager. They are still together, and she is often his date to movie premieres and press events.
    Sorry, but it’s hard for me to celebrate what prolific actor and amazing person he is. All I see is a filthy dirtbag.

    • Monique

      Really? I never hread of that. Do you have a link that talks about this? I’m just curious because I really thought I was up to date on Hollywood gossip :P

      • Ambient Lite
      • @Ambient Lite

        You realize the source of that story is the National Enquirer, right? It’s not the most reliable news source.
        I’m pretty sure their story about Elvis being related to Big Foot is equally fictitious…

      • Ambient Lite

        That’s why I gave more than one source. It’s actually widely known and accepted as fact. I wouldn’t throw out something so damaging otherwise.
        I was actually kind of sad to bring it up at all. Owen’s article was really well written – but it didn’t represent the Morgan Freeman I think of.

      • @Ambient Lite

        I was referring to the two links you provided. Both of the stories they link to mention the National Enquirer as their source of info.
        Can you provide a (preferably reputable) news source that isn’t the National Enquirer?
        Good luck…

      • Ambient Lite

        I have a feeling you won’t be satisfied until I have Morgan Freeman himself confirming it for you (which of course, he won’t do).
        I think once his divorce is final there will be much more made public.

      • @Ambient Lite

        Some people believe everything they read on the internet. I wish I could live in your reality. It seems fun.
        …on a completely unrelated note: Ambient Lite enjoys microwaving live Smurfs. It’s true! I saw it written on an EW message board…

      • Ambient Lite

        I will happily amend my previous statement to “Morgan Freeman is an ALLEGED pedophile” if it pleases you. But I do believe it to be true, he has many children and doesn’t take them, holding their hands, as his date everywhere he goes.
        And don’t knock a microwaved smurf until you try it. Delicious. Tastes like Peeps.

    • Linda L

      I believe it’s the granddaughter of his first wife, right? Creepy but I still think he is a great actor, though.

      • Ambient Lite

        Yes, that’s right. He actually adopted her mother, then raised her as his own from a very young age with his current wife.
        I used to like his work too, Linda. I just can’t shake the creepiness.

    • Fatima

      Exhausting. Can you save it for the celeb gossip sites? Some of us like talking about his work.

      • Hmmm…

        I agree – but I don’t see you talking about his work here… ;)
        …I haven’t seen Street Smart, but I now plan to track down a copy. :)

    • Linda L

      Even though National Enquirer is a sleazy tabloid magazine, keep in mind, they were right about John Edwards, David Letterman, and Tiger Woods.

    • Gary W

      Hmmm? Morgan Freeman a Pedophile? You read to many tabloids. But speaking of incest… Didn’t Abraham ( Father of Isaac and Ishmael) marry his half-sister?

      • JK

        Haha…I’m not sure using a biblical reference justifies incest (although Morgan Freeman is not guilty of incest) in the 21st century.

    • Caitlin

      I’ve heard that a ton of times, but I honestly don’t care. There’s no doubt that’s disgusting, but I still enjoy Morgan Freeman’s performances, and I choose to admire his performances and talent, and choose to ignore his personal life. Even if it’s gross. Really gross.

    • WinDubai

      Morgan Freeman is brilliant actor and he deserved respect. He will always known as a great actor, nothing will change that. His personal life is his business not yours.

    • paige

      Both of your sources are completely unreliable. Before believing something you read, check your facts. And if it is “so well known”, why don’t I, or anyone else I know, know nothing about it? Stop spreading this trash.

      • paige

        why do* I know nothing about it

    • canthardlyreadit

      This article is on his acting, not his personal life. This has nothing to do with his acting.

    • Juno

      Nice one. I often question people’s stupidity in the case of Morgan Freeman, the ignorance is blinding. The man is nothing better than a paedophile scumbag.
      He groomed a child to be his lover. He should pay for it.

  • Jamaaliver

    If you want to see Morgan Freeman at the height of his gamw, check out his starring role in Lean on Me. He plays against type and is fantastic.

    • Bird

      I agree. This story is great and the film is so much fun to watch, mainly because of Morgan Freeman.

  • couchgrouch

    all true about Morgan Freeman but since DeNiro is mentioned in the article it could be noted that he(and Jack Nicholson) play variations of the same character in most of their famous flix. do we need to see DeNiro as another gangster/tough cop? or Jack as another nutcase? I think Morgan’s actually been in more good movies than those guys. Gene Hackman, too. there are way more good GH movies than DeNiro movies.

    • Leslie

      I agree with you on DeNiro’s roles (for the most part- I think Al Pacino has been much worse with his role choices), especially in recent years, but I think Jack Nicholson still stretches himself. Compare his roles in: Something’s Gotta Give, The Departed, The Bucket List, & As Good As It Gets- all very different & great performances, all within the last 10-12 years.

  • Dan ehrl

    I would have to say Shawshank, sorry Owen. I know you think that movie and his performance in it are somewhat overrated, but I would have to say his character’s friendship with Tim Robbins in that movie is one of the greatest and most touching friendships to ever appear on screen. Their reunion at the end in Mexico is as emotional as any romantic embrace I’ve ever seen in a movie.

    • ed

      totally agree that it is Shashank Redemption too – although I have not seen Street Smart – but now plan to do so soon.

  • Stephen King

    Morgan Freeman did his best work as a crazed military man in the masterpiece of sci-fi movie based on the masterpiece of a novella “Dream Catchers.”


  • graeme

    Freeman is always excellent. So glad he won the Oscar for “Million Dollar Baby”.

  • Rohair

    Brubaker (1980).

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