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The Greatest

Morgan Freeman has earned his stellar reputation with some of the most compelling movie roles of the last 25 years.
From the Print Edition:
Morgan Freeman, Mar/Apr 2005

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The Directors Guild of America agreed with Freeman's assessment of his costar, and boss; Eastwood won the DGA Award for Baby, upsetting another sentimental favorite, filmmaker Martin Scorsese. Often seen as a predictor of how Hollywood's notoriously fickle Academy thinks, the DGA vote also could mean that Freeman stands a much stronger chance of winning the Oscar for Baby.

The last time Freeman received Oscar recognition was for his portrayal of Ellis Boyd "Red" Redding, opposite Tim Robbins's Andy Dufresne, in The Shawshank Redemption. The prison buddy movie, which is considered a modern classic by many, explores the relationship between the two men, and then, Andy's eventual escape. That year, Freeman lost the Best Actor award to Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, which also beat out The Shawshank Redemption for Best Picture.

"That was such a great part that I thought I was never going to get it," he says. "It's the role that people come up to me and say it's their favorite most often. I think in that one, people ended up feeling I was standing in for them. I was representing their point of view, because the movie wasn't just something about heroes. But I don't like to intellectualize about this too much—acting—because it's not an intellectual enterprise. It's an undertaking."

Before Shawshank, the movie that catapulted him to stardom was Driving Miss Daisy, which won the Best Picture Oscar in 1989. That year, Freeman lost the Best Actor award to Dustin Hoffman for his turn as an autistic man in Rain Man. It was evident his acting talent was no longer unheralded. He became a hot property.

The role of Hoke Colburn in Driving Miss Daisy was not without some controversy, however. Some people were not happy with Freeman playing a black manservant and driver to the elderly and white Daisy Werthan, played by Jessica Tandy. Freeman was comfortable in the role, because he had been onstage in playwright Alfred Uhry's Pulitzer Prize—winning play of the same name.

"I know a lot of people thought Hoke was an Uncle Tom, but he wasn't," Freeman says solemnly. He remembers the assaults the character endured, and says, simply, "Hoke survived, and it took a lot of wisdom and patience to get by in those days down South. Anybody who's spent time down there knows what a complicated place it is."

In that soft acknowledgement of his background, you also begin to catch glimpses of Freeman, the man. The South runs through his nervous system. The savory meatiness of his upbringing allowed him to thicken the tepid broth of many films into a dense, rich stew—as such, it's a place close to Freeman's heart. He keeps a home in Mississippi, near the small town he grew up in, and he owns a thriving restaurant/blues club there. When he's asked about the South, he asks warily, "Why? What do you know about Mississippi?" before learning the questioner has roots in Hattiesburg. In his mind, one has to have a rightful claim on the place to understand.

"People who don't know [the South] are fast to judge it, like they do Hoke. He kept his head up under that cap he wore. I based a lot of Hoke on my father. Guys like him were pretty sly, and spoke a different language around white people. Maybe it's why I was so happy it got the attention. All of those people like that, I knew them very well."

His manner suggests that he was raised in a place—and time—where waiting was the order of the day, luxuriating in the breadth of stories detailed on front porches while screen doors creaked open and slammed shut and the air was so dense and muggy, it seemed to add another five or six seconds to every minute. If you've spent any time in the Deep South, the region engenders a tranquil gentility in its natives, which Freeman embodies.

"You can exist down there without having to hear your neighbor break wind or, for that matter, hear your neighbor. I love it down there, that humidity," he says with a grin, conjuring up the places of his youth. "All that moisture can wear some people down, but I live for it."

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