Though Dolphin Tale is a long shot for any serious awards, it’s still been another banner year for Morgan Freeman. This summer, the American Film Institute honored him with its Life Achievement Award, and today, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association announced that he’d receive the Cecil B. DeMille Award at this year’s Golden Globes. Freeman’s career has been extraordinary, and not just because of the extremely high quality of his work. Though we remember him from his early stint as Easy Reader on Electric Company, he didn’t receive his first Academy Award nomination — for 1987’s Street Smart — until he was 50 years old. That’s highly unusual for someone with five or more Oscar nominations. (Only Judi Dench waited longer for her first at age 64, and ultimately received more, six.) Since that time, though, Freeman’s became an iconic figure — and voice — playing mostly benevolent authority figures whose weary eyes convey both a gentleness and an understanding of man’s cruelty.
But my favorite Morgan Freeman role is one in which he didn’t play God, the president, a civil rights figure, or the voice of our dreams — and one in which he wasn’t recognized with a nomination. In David Fincher’s Seven (1995), he played Det. William Somerset, a soon-to-be retiring cop whose last case turns into a serial-killing spree inspired by the seven deadly sins. Everyone remembers the head-in-a-box ending and Kevin Spacey’s terrifyingly calm rationalization of his character’s sins, but for me, it’s Freeman’s performance that makes this one of the re-watchable films of the last 20 years. This is an educated man who craves order — he needs a metronome to calm his nerves after another day among the filth and miscreants of society. But just when he’s about to call it quits, to give in to the futility of “making a difference,” he’s sucked back in for one last, vile dance with the devil. Brad Pitt, of course, plays his green young replacement, and Somerset’s relationship with his new partner’s lonely wife provides one of Freeman’s greatest cinematic scenes.
So dark. So masterful, especially when he locks eyes with Paltrow’s pregnant wife and delivers the loaded line about his own near brush with fatherhood, ” …I wore her down.” Yet so much humanity, and at the end, a narrow sliver of hope. (Which, as we know, is the best of things.) Fincher’s film ends tragically, with Somerset quoting Hemingway:
So perfect. So Chinatown. And yes, it doesn’t hurt that it’s Morgan Freeman’s voice. But it’s that scene in the diner with Paltrow that makes me hold my breath every time. It captures everything about this majestically ugly movie and everything about Freeman’s solitary character.
Do you have a favorite Morgan Freeman scene — that’s NOT from Shawshank? Are you as obsessed with Seven as I am, and do you think Somerset is one of Freeman’s best characters?