Morgan Freeman, who will be honored by the Chicago Film Festival tonight, "may be the greatest American actor in movies," Pauline Kael once wrote.
That was in 1987, after his performance as a cold-eyed pimp won him an Oscar nomination for "Street Smart." It was a performance so powerful it could not be ignored by the academy, even though the movie was a box-office disappointment from a small studio without clout.
If that praise could be written in 1987, what could be said today, after Freeman's work in "Driving Miss Daisy," "Glory," "Lean on Me," "Seven," "Unforgiven," "Kiss the Girls" and "Amistad"? And after what many people think is his best work, in "The Shawshank Redemption"? And with his performance as Nelson Mandela in "Long Way to Freedom" on the horizon?
The Freeman evening, a fund-raiser for the Black Cinema School Outreach Program, will begin with a private reception at 6:30 p.m. I will host a public tribute and question-and-answer session with Freeman at 8:30 p.m. at the Chicago Historical Society, with film clips from his career (see note). I've talked with Freeman several times over the years, and have always been struck by his personal authority. When he says something, it stays said. There is, for example, a basic movie role that directors find it hard to fill: U.S. president in a thriller. The chosen actor usually has a thankless task because a president is always playing a role, and so the actor must find room for both the person and the facade.
Freeman's president, in the meteorite thriller "Deep Impact" (1998), was startling in his conviction. When he goes on TV to tell the world it is about to end, he's so convincing and composed that I whispered to a friend, "That's the president I want if a meteor ever does strike the Earth." That's of course not the role Freeman will be remembered for, but it illustrates the point: You believe him. In "Street Smart," when he makes cold-blooded threats, you believe him. In "Driving Miss Daisy," where he embodies the great friendship of his life within the constraints of Southern segregation, you believe him. In "Seven" and "Kiss the Girls," where he plays a steel-edged cop, you believe him. As a cowboy, as a schoolteacher, he has the same authority.
The most interesting film in his career may be "The Shawshank Redemption" (1994). Well-reviewed when it was released, it never had the box-office success it deserved. There were two reasons: It had a terrible title, and it was a "word of mouth" picture that needed time to grow and build. It didn't get it, although the box office showed a steady upward trend before it was yanked to make room for the latest Friday night wonder.
What happened next is revealing. "Shawshank" came out on video, and became one of the top renting and selling videos of the past five years. Preparing for this article, I called a big video store and asked if they had it in stock. "Sold out again," the clerk told me, "but we've got 50 more on order." Pretty good for a five-year-old prison drama.
The Wall Street Journal recently did a front-page story on the "Shawshank" phenomenon: why people like the movie so much, why it continues to win new admirers, why people list it among the best films they've ever seen. Morgan Freeman's performance is certainly crucial to that success.
In the film, he plays a prison lifer, who sizes up the newcomers as they arrive. One of them, played by Tim Robbins, is a banker in for a murder he claims he didn't commit. Freeman's character thinks the banker will crack, but he doesn't, and they commence a lifelong friendship. The Robbins character is an enigma; he reveals little, and what we learn is mostly through Freeman's narration and observation. He is the soul of the film, its center point, and once again, we believe him.
Freeman came late to success. He was in the Air Force, then went into acting, was on Broadway, was a regular on PBS' "The Electric Company," did supporting work in movies for years before "Street Smart" made him a star at age 50. Since then, his roles often use him as the older, authoritative anchor for a younger star. In "Shawshank," it was Robbins: In "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," Kevin Costner. In "Clean and Sober," Michael Keaton. In "Glory," Matthew Broderick. In "The Power of One," Stephen Dorff. In "Seven," Brad Pitt. In "Chain Reaction," Keanu Reeves. When he made "Unforgiven" with men who were actually older (Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman), you could almost feel him relaxing: For once he wouldn't have to pick up a copy of GQ and see his co-star on the cover.