By Owen Gleiberman
December 12, 2009 at 05:28 PM EST

Whenever you sit down to watch a movie, it’s always a welcome moment when the name Morgan Freeman appears in the opening credits. Whether he’s playing God in Bruce Almighty, a saintly janitor in Million Dollar Baby, or a judge, detective, mechanic, or prison inmate, you can rest assured that each and every moment Morgan Freeman is on-screen, the movie, even if it’s a dog, will snap to attention, and that Freeman, even in a nothing role, will take the lines he’s been asked to deliver and, through the sheer magnetism of his presence, turn them into something forceful and vibrant and compelling. Those eyes, so kind yet with a hint of deep, and even dark, knowledge, never fail to twinkle with merriness and sly perception, and that voice, of course, is pure music, so playful and resonantly wily — the sound of homespun American authority. I have no doubt that Morgan Freeman could literally read the phone book and make it come off as a work of art.

There’s another thing, though, that I feel compelled to say about Morgan Freeman: In virtually every one of those roles, he is more or less the same. The slightly rascally but deeply moral dominion of his presence clearly derives from something deep inside him, a wellspring of character that he brings to every film. It’s always welcome (he makes every movie better), but at this point it’s almost never revelatory. He surprises us in small ways, but never in big ways. And he has been doing that in Hollywood for so long now — close to 20 years — that I sometimes wonder, quite frankly, when I think about the viewers who believe that the height of Morgan Freeman’s achievement as an actor is co-starring in something like The Shawshank Redemption, if they understand the staggering depth of this man’s talent. Because here’s the grand and slightly melancholy irony of Freeman’s career: He gave what may be his two greatest screen performances back to back, before he was a star. And in the decades that he’s been a star, he has rarely found, or maybe seized, the chance to be the jaw-dropping artist that he can be.

After years of work on stage, in bit movie parts, and as a regular on The Electric Company, he first came to prominence in 1987, playing a vicious, cunning pimp in Street Smart (pictured above, on the left), and it was, quite simply, the single greatest performance as an inner-city hustler that any actor has ever given on film. Freeman gave the pimp, named Fast Black, a charismatic surface, which was really just a mask, but beneath that he had a volatility and violence that was itself a methodical piece of manipulation. He made this pimp a brutally self-controlled sociopath who was really an actor, and it was that sophisticated enactment of the layers of personality, and even brilliance, that can lie just beneath the cardboard surface of a “thug” that made Freeman’s performance a classic. Pauline Kael led off her review of Street Smart with the question, “Is Morgan Freeman the greatest American actor?,” and that was quite a provocative thing to say, because in 1987 the greatest American actor was, by almost universal assent, Robert De Niro, and what Kael was implicitly saying is that Freeman’s work in Street Smart was the equal of De Niro’s legendary performance in a movie like Taxi Driver. She was right: That’s the level he was working on.

In 1987, Freeman was 50 years old, but looked younger, and there was some talk about how he might play Jimi Hendrix in a biopic. Instead, he appeared on stage in Driving Miss Daisy, and when the play was made into a movie, in 1989, it gave Freeman the chance, after Street Smart, to do a showboat character stretch as astounding as the one, a few years earlier, that had first put Daniel Day-Lewis on the map (when he appeared, within the space of a few months, as the impassive, skunk-haired punk in My Beautiful Laundrette and the grinning, mannered fop of A Room with a View). As Hoke Colburn, the kindly and illiterate old fellow who becomes the chauffeur for a shrewish old Jewish lady (Jessica Tandy) in 1950s Georgia, Freeman played a Southern man, born in the 1800s, with segregation in his blood, who had spent his whole life being servile, who said “Yes’m” and laughed too loudly at Miss Daisy’s jokes, putting on an almost painful performance of civility for his white boss. And yet, even portraying a man who some might view as an Uncle Tom, Freeman, once again, revealed a character we only thought we knew to be a kind of clandestine actor. He made Hoke a figure of touching virtue, one who “knew his place,” but also one whose spirit walked freely within that place. Freeman quietly deconstructed the mind behind the mannerisms. There was mystery in his acting, and that’s what made it memorable.

Many solid performances followed — in movies like Glory and Se7en and The Dark Knight. But over the years, as we’ve come to know Morgan Freeman, what I’ve missed is Freeman the virtuoso who can fascinate us as deeply as he moves us. And that’s the Morgan Freeman who is back in Invictus, playing Nelson Mandela as — you guessed it — another actor. The Mandela we see in Clint Eastwood’s film makes a public show of supporting the Springboks, South Africa’s nearly all-white rugby team, because he is looking for a way to theatricalize his acceptance, and even embrace, of the country’s powerful white minority. He knows that that’s the only possible path to a successful, workable future; he knows that vengeance will lead to chaos. Yet this decision, which appears to be based on an admirable principal of forgiveness, is also deeply subversive: It cuts against the grain of everything that Mandela’s comrades in the African National Congress feel in their hearts. And what Freeman shows you, with the glimmer in his eye and his nearly devious replication of Mandela’s singsong cadences, is what a brilliant political game-player Mandela is. The movie is a celebration of strategy as morality, and Freeman’s achievement is to root Mandela’s authority in the real world. In Invictus, Freeman becomes Nelson Mandela, but he does it with such depth and spirit and play and insight that he is also, every inch, Morgan Freeman. An actor returned to his glory.

So what’s your favorite Morgan Freeman performance? And why?

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