Born in Memphis, raised in Mississippi, four years in the Air Force, acted off- and then on-Broadway, spent the ’70s on The Electric Company, spent the early ’80s on Another World, earned one Oscar nomination as the street smart one in Street Smart, earned another Oscar nomination as the one who wasn’t Miss Daisy in Driving Miss Daisy, stole Robin Hood from Kevin Costner, almost stole Unforgiven from Clint Eastwood: This is what Morgan Freeman did for his first 57 years on this planet. Technically.
But even if you know that Freeman had been a working actor for close to three decades beforehand, it’s still possible to watch him in The Shawshank Redemption and feel like you are witnessing the birth of an icon: Newly arrived, yet fully formed. Freeman is not the star of the movie–or rather, his character never announces himself as the star of the movie. Freeman plays Red, one of many convicts spending a lifetime of long days inside the walls of a state penitentiary. The subject of Shawshank‘s story is Tim Robbins’s Andy Dufresne–but Red is the guy telling the story. And Freeman’s voice infuses the whole movie with emotional breadth: now wry amusement; now light pathos; now genuine horror; now ecstasy; now agony.
Twenty years ago today, The Shawshank Redemption opened in wide release in domestic theaters. The film was not a hit, but it sold well on home video and then became a sensation on TNT. In 2004, the Sunday Times claimed The Shawshank Redemption first arrived on the cable network in 1997 and typically aired once every two months. This number is probably accurate, but it doesn’t quite capture the deeper truth that—for a half a decade in the not-quite-internet era—The Shawshank Redemption seemed to be on TV constantly. Which means that Morgan Freeman was on all the time: his voice, his sad smile. Shawshank Redemption is one of those movies you watched all the way through, no matter when you came in–which means that almost nobody remembers the beginning, but everyone remembers the last five minutes.
When, precisely, did Morgan Freeman become an icon? Maybe it started the year after Shawshank, when he gave a fine performance in Seven–his Somerset is probably the warmest human being in David Fincher’s chilly filmography. In Seven, Freeman plays an older tutor figure for an attractive young star—a preview for The Sum of All Fears, the Dark Knight trilogy, The LEGO Movie, Lucy. In 1998, four years post-Shawshank, Freeman played the President in Deep Impact. Five years later, in Bruce Almighty, Freeman played God.
Both movies were successes, because Deep Impact had a big comet and Bruce Almighty had Jim Carrey. Yet, I doubt anyone brings up either now except in the context of Morgan Freeman’s pure, blinding Morgan Freeman-ness. Of course he’s the President. Of course he’s God.
2005 saw a Freeman trifecta. In Batman Begins, he’s the guy so cool that he figures out Bruce Wayne is Batman before he even becomes Batman. In War of the Worlds, he’s the voice of the prologue and the epilogue—the words are H.G. Wells’, but the voice sure sounds like some higher power. And then there’s March of the Penguins, an insurmountably goofy so-cyoot nature documentary granted impossible gravitas because the American version hired Freeman and That Voice. The cherry on top: In 2005, Freeman won his first Oscar, for his role as a lovable mentor/narrator/sidekick-to-the-lead-who’s-more-interesting-than-the-lead in Million Dollar Baby.
All of this, of course, is right there in The Shawshank Redemption. As Red, Freeman takes nominal star Tim Robbins under his wing. As Red, Freeman is clearly playing a good man–even though he initially joins in the new-fish hazing of Andy, there’s never a moment when you suspect Red will do anything remotely evil. But as Red, Freeman has done something bad. We never learn the precise nature of the crime that got him sent away for decades. For an actor who has spent so long playing the lovable God-President of American cinema, it’s striking how many of Freeman’s great roles depend on a bit of mystery. Typically, Freeman is (nominally) playing second fiddle to a character with a backstory: Batman gets an origin story, Bruce (and Evan!) Almighty have elaborate professional-personal subplots, Ben Affleck spends The Sum of All Fears proving all the cool stuff he can do. But Freeman never has to prove anything.
Maybe part of the Freeman mystique is that he never had to seem young. In The Shawshank Redemption, he ages twenty years. In some ways, Freeman’s like the male Maggie Smith: He was wise and ancient-sounding when he was middle-aged, so it feels like he’s only become more himself over the last couple decades.
Or maybe part of the mystique is that, in The Shawshank Redemption, Freeman doesn’t have to do anything remotely movie-like. Red doesn’t have a plot, really. Andy gets the elaborate heist story arc; all Red has to do is describe it, with awe and wonder and a bit of bemusement. Watching The Shawshank Redemption is really just listening to Morgan Freeman describe the plot of The Shawshank Redemption.
Not to get too heavy here, but to get a bit heavy: Moby Dick is narrated by Ishmael, a character who was present for the events of the book but contributes almost nothing as an active participant. He’s a viewpoint character in the most explicit sense, there only to provide a further entryway for the reader. Now, that scene in The Shawshank Redemption where Andy plays “The Marriage of Figaro” for the prisoners could seem over-the-top. It should. Why doesn’t it? Probably because the scene is narrated by Freeman, saying this:
I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.
You could argue that Freeman has edged into self-parody in the last decade, although it’s more accurate to say that Freeman willfully parodies himself: the helium interview, The LEGO Movie, whatever he’s doing in Ted 2. He can do voice-of-God science babble–in Transcendence, in Lucy–but he had a lot more fun playing the nefarious magic skeptic in Now You See Me. Freeman is fun in Shawshank, too. Like: “The man likes to play chess. Let’s get him some rocks.” Or: “I’d like to think that the last thing that went through his head, other than that bullet, was to wonder how the hell Andy Dufresne ever got the best of him.” Or that big grin on his face, at the end of the movie—a smile that’s worth a thousand perfectly-narrated words.