“Morgan Freeman doesn’t sound like God,” Matthew Broderick said. “God sounds like Morgan Freeman.”
Freeman, the 78-year-old acting legend, was honored Monday night by the Film Society of Lincoln Center with its 43rd annual Chaplin Award, a career recognition prize which has also been bestowed upon, among others, Martin Scorsese, Sidney Poitier, Meryl Streep, and Audrey Hepburn.
The nearly two-hour event at New York’s Alice Tully Hall featured tributes from Freeman’s collaborators. Included were Danny Glover (whom Freeman directed in 1993’s Bopha!), Matthew Broderick (Glory), Robert De Niro (Last Vegas), Helen Mirren (Red), and Street Smart director Jerry Schatzberg, who gave Freeman his breakthrough movie role when the actor was — believe it or not — 50 years old.
Batman trilogy director Christopher Nolan and Freeman’s Shawshank Redemption costar Tim Robbins delivered video messages, the latter of which appeared to have been shot in a verdant jungle.
And the evening runneth over with content. The Film Society was decidedly maximalist in its approach, incorporating clips from a whopping 31 movies into the proceedings.
They were, in order: Brubaker (1980), Street Smart (1987), Clean and Sober (1988), Glory (1989), Driving Miss Daisy (1989), Lean on Me (1989), Bopha! (1993), Unforgiven (1992), Million Dollar Baby (2004), Invictus (2009), Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Deep Impact (1998), Bruce Almighty (2003), his narration of March of the Penguins (2005) and War of the Worlds (2005), Olympus Has Fallen (2013), The Lego Movie (2014), London Has Fallen (2016), Outbreak (1995), Seven (1995), Kiss the Girls (1997), Gone Baby Gone (2007), Ben-Hur (2016), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Last Vegas (2013), The Bucket List (2007), Now You See Me (2013), 5 Flights Up (2015), and Red (2010).
The glut of clips was worthwhile for appreciating Freeman’s incredible ease and charisma as an actor. That quality — his famously graceful efficiency with dialogue and gesture — is seen in his Oscar-winning performance in Million Dollar Baby (this “You got a fight I don’t know about?” scene was shown) just as much as in a cornier moment like this one from The Bucket List.
Of the presenters, De Niro was the liveliest. “Morgan, I wish I had your career,” he said. “You’re the president, you’re God, you’re Nelson Mandela for God’s sakes. Me, in the last year, I’ve been an intern, a dirty grandpa, and Bernie f—ing Madoff.”
De Niro began his remarks by remembering Freeman’s role as the U.S. president in Deep Impact and made a sarcastic reference to the current Commander in Chief.
“His movie performance was an inspiration to the young Barack Obama,” he said. “According to reports, after seeing the film, Barack turned to his friends in Kenya and said, ‘I want to be president, too, if only I had a birth certificate.’ Unfortunately things didn’t turn out so great for him. Morgan’s President Beck only had to deal with a giant asteroid hitting Earth and wiping out mankind. President Obama has had to deal with the Republican congress.”
Helen Mirren introduced the honoree by recounting an anecdote about nervously flying with the licensed-pilot actor. “I could imagine the headline in Variety the next day,” she quipped. “First black president survives plane crash. No word yet on former Queen of England.”
Freeman accepted the award to a two-minute standing ovation and Thomas Newman’s theme to The Shawshank Redemption. “I’ve been kind of laissez-faire for the past weeks,” he said, describing his feelings leading up to the event. “But the people who have come up here and spoken about me have turned my head. I didn’t know all that was thought about me. I hoped.”
After making lion-purr noises in the direction of Mirren (“Who doesn’t want to make love to this woman?” he asked, prompting the actress to double over in laughter), Freeman wrapped up the evening by acknowledging his friends and collaborators, and singled out the late Mandela, whom he called the “the greatest hero of the past century.”
“Thanks to those who attend movies, to my fellow actors, all of whom I adore,” Freeman concluded. “Knowing my name is now on a list with so many cinema legends that I admire and venerate is something that I promise you that I will cherish forever.”