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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

Every actor dreams of a moment like this. Clint Eastwood, accepting his Golden Globe in early 2005 for directing the heartbreaking boxing drama Million Dollar Baby, was speaking to a worldwide television audience of millions. He praised the film's leading lady, Hilary Swank, and then, his eyes focused on the camera, called her male costar, Morgan Freeman, "the world's greatest actor."

Less than 10 days later, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences agreed with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the overseer of the Golden Globes, that Freeman's performance as Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris in Million Dollar Baby ranked among the best of 2004. The Academy nominated him for a Best Supporting Actor award, a prize that was handed out in late February. Freeman did not win the Golden Globe, as Swank and Eastwood did, but there was widespread speculation, as this issue went to press, that he would take the Oscar this year for the first time in his career.

Freeman's role as the down-on-his-luck pragmatist and faded-to-gray boxer in Million Dollar Baby has cemented his reputation as one of Hollywood's most compelling and gifted thespians. His film career includes Best Actor nominations for the 1989 film Driving Miss Daisy and the 1994 release The Shawshank Redemption. He also garnered his first Best Supporting Actor nomination from the Academy in 1988 for the small, largely unheralded movie Street Smart.

That early film prompted the two-fisted New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael to pose a question that's not only worth pondering today, but predates Eastwood's pronouncement by 18 years: "Is Morgan Freeman the greatest American actor?" In Street Smart, Freeman had animated what could have been a stereotype by juxtaposing the violence of the role—a pimp named Fast Black, who comes to figure in the life of a mendacious journalist—with an amiable ruthlessness.

Today, his observations of the role provide a small window into how he approaches being an actor, and perhaps explain why he has become such a heralded one.

"I remember being out one night and seeing this guy—he was obviously a pimp—walking casually down the street with a woman in a headlock while he was punching her in the head. And he did it as easy as you please, never raising his voice. He could've been carrying groceries home," Freeman remarks, and the precision in his voice pulls the observer right into the street-theater scene that he used to bring the character alive. But then he quickly goes on to reveal a keen awareness of how fleeting praise like Kael's can be.

"It's always great when someone sings your praises, but there's a danger zone in believing your own press. I was thrilled when Pauline Kael wrote that. But then, what happens when someone turns around and writes, 'This motherfucker ain't shit!' And," Freeman roars with laughter, "That has happened."

Kael and Eastwood did agree on their judgment of Freeman, although they truly never agreed about much of anything else (Kael was notoriously critical of Eastwood's iconic status). It is in his collaboration with Eastwood that Freeman has found the freedom, and the comfort, to explore the outer reaches of his own acting ability. His first work with Eastwood was in the 1992 dark western Unforgiven, in which he played Ned Logan, a retired gunslinger hired to do one last job. The film earned Eastwood his first Oscar for directing.

"One of my favorite movies was the first western Clint directed, The Outlaw Josey Wales. I loved Clint's work, because there's always that hint of darkness in the middle of something seemingly normal, like in Tightrope. Did you see that one? But seeing him in those Sergio Leone westerns, I felt like, 'Man, I'd love to do one of those.' "

There was an immediate rapport on the set of Unforgiven between Eastwood and Freeman that continues to this day. "What I like most about Clint is the great feeling on the set. Because he trusts the material, and he trusts you. The shooting of [Million Dollar Baby] went like a dream because of that. He hires you because he believes you can do it. He spends his time on other things, like getting the film made. He doesn't direct the actors. He directs the film."

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