Hollywood's moral centre

It is hard to name any living actor with enough charisma and moral authority to convincingly play Nelson Mandela.

Kagan McLeod for The National
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It is difficult to name any living actor with enough charisma, inner dignity and moral authority to convincingly play Nelson Mandela on screen. Well, perhaps just one. As the film critic Mick LaSalle wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle last week, "Morgan Freeman has become such a notable and noble presence in American film that it would seem almost as appropriate for Nelson Mandela to be playing Freeman."

With his Zen-like screen presence and commanding voice, Freeman, who was in Dubai last Wednesday taking delivery of a private jet, has spent the last 20 years embodying liberal America's conscience on film. In role after role, he appeals to what Barack Obama calls "our higher and better selves". His understated manner recalls the Mount Rushmore appeal of old-school icons such as Henry Fonda, Paul Newman or his childhood idol, Gary Cooper. As a veteran African-American actor, he has no peer, eclipsing his friend Sidney Poitier and proving less divisive than his former television co-star Bill Cosby.

Freeman's portrayal of Mandela in Clint Eastwood's new sports drama Invictus marks the culmination of a long labour of love for the 72-year-old star, whose interest in the apartheid struggle goes back decades. In 1993, he made his sole foray into directing to date with Bopha!, starring Danny Glover as a South African policeman caught up in the murderous politics of the old regime. In 2003, it was announced that he was to star in an adaptation of Mandela's autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom, directed by Shekhar Kapur.

This project eventually fell through, although Mandela personally endorsed Freeman to play him on screen. The two became friends, making a pact to meet up whenever geographically possible. In 2007, the actor bought the pre-publication film rights to John Carlin's Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation. Carlin's non-fiction book became the source material for Invictus. In July this year, Freeman was one of the hosts at the 46664 concert to celebrate Mandela's 91st birthday at New York's Radio City Music Hall.

Invictus marks the third collaboration to date between Freeman and Eastwood, a granite-faced, gravel-voiced double act which began with the autumnal western Unforgiven in 1992 and continued with Million Dollar Baby in 2004. Their shared scenes in both films are masterpieces in virtuoso understatement, like veteran jazz musicians making space for each other's solos. "He's the lowest maintenance actor I've ever had," Eastwood told the film journal Bright Lights. "Morgan is one of those guys who's so good, so consistent for so long, he's taken for granted. And it comes so effortlessly, off the top of his head. But it is honest. It's the old James Cagney thing - plant your feet, and tell the truth."

Freeman is equally full of praise for Eastwood's calm, quick, no-frills working methods. But the grizzled director clearly benefits greatly from his co-star's charismatic presence. After all, both their previous collaborations scored four Oscars apiece, including two each for Eastwood, his only personal statuettes so far in a career spanning more than four decades. Already laden with awards and Golden Globe nominations, Invictus seems almost certain to secure the duo more Oscars at the Academy Awards in February.

Like much of Eastwood's latterday output, from Unforgiven onwards, Invictus is a swords-into-ploughshares tale about retired warriors striving towards redemption, truth and reconciliation. The film's anti-racist message is hardly subtle, although clearly crucial to the story. But off-screen, Freeman takes a more thoughtful and nuanced line on American racial politics, insisting that most of his movie characters should not be defined by their skin colour.

In 2005, he criticised the traditional celebration of Black History Month on the long-running US news show 60 Minutes. "Black history is American history," he argued. "You're going to relegate my history to a month?" The best way to end racism, Freeman told the reporter Mike Wallace, was to stop emphasising ethnic differences. "I am going to stop calling you a white man and I'm going to ask you to stop calling me a black man."

In broader political terms, Freeman's sympathies appear to lie on the liberal side of the fence. He criticised George W Bush's "Napoleonic" war in Iraq and endorsed Mr Obama's presidential election run, although he declined to actively join the campaign. He also co-founded a fund to aid the Caribbean island of Grenada's recovery following Hurricane Ivan in 2004, and has lent his commanding voice to environmental charities such as One Earth.

A key part of Freeman's unruffled, laid-back appeal may lie in the fact that he came to fame later in life. Born in June 1937 in Memphis, Tennessee, he was drawn to acting at an early age, making his stage debut at nine and winning a statewide drama competition at 12. After four years as a mechanic in the US Air Force, he spent the 1960s scraping a living in stage dramas and musicals, including an all-black Broadway version of Hello, Dolly! in 1968.

But he would coast through another two decades of minor TV and film roles before finally making a breakthrough with his Oscar-nominated role as a ruthless criminal in the 1987 thriller Street Smart. Belatedly discovered by Hollywood at 50, Freeman's profile then exploded, earning yet another Oscar nomination in 1989 as Jessica Tandy's saintly chauffeur in Bruce Beresford's Driving Miss Daisy. That same year, he co-starred alongside Denzel Washington in Edward Zwick's Glory, later calling this racially charged Civil War drama his "most important" film.

A string of high-profile blockbuster projects followed, including Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Unforgiven, and Se7en. In each, he played variations on the same kind of wise, kindly, soft-spoken mentor character. But the role which fixed Freeman's screen image forever was his philosophical guardian angel in The Shawshank Redemption. Although it was largely overlooked on release, director Frank Darabont's 1994 prison drama has since evolved into a timeless worldwide cult, cementing Freeman's reputation as a kind of morally unimpeachable American icon. Ironically, making this modern-day feelgood fairy tale was a fractious experience, with Freeman later hinting darkly at "moments of extreme tension on the set".

Since Shawshank, Freeman has been Hollywood's favourite moral anchor, whether playing a slavery abolitionist in Steven Spielberg's Amistad (1997), the US president in Deep Impact (1998), or even a dapper deity in Bruce Almighty (2003) and Evan Almighty (2007). He also brought a kind of Shakespearean gravitas to the superior comic-book adaptations films Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), again serving as the story's conscience.

Freeman even inspires sympathy and respect in his rare villain roles, such as the laconic hitman in Nurse Betty (2000) and the Machiavellian murder squad leader in Wanted (2008). Meanwhile, his English-language narration for the hugely successful French documentary March of the Penguins (2005) is just one of numerous films featuring his soft-yet-powerful Rolls-Royce of a voice. Off screen, this protective halo has served Freeman well - although recently it has shown signs of slipping. Mostly based in Mississippi, away from the overheated media machines of Los Angeles or New York, the star's cuddly elder statesmen image took a battering in August 2008 when he was involved in a dramatic traffic accident near Ruleville, Mississippi. After his vehicle left the road and rolled over several times, the injured star was taken to a Memphis hospital with a broken shoulder, arm and elbow.

His female passenger, Demaris Meyer, sued Freeman for negligence, claiming that he had been drinking that night, although police ruled out alcohol in the accident. Meyer denied press speculation that she was romantically linked with the star. However, his attorney and business partner, Bill Luckett, announced four days after the accident that Freeman and his second wife, Myrna Colley-Lee, were in the process of divorce after 24 years together.

Freeman's divorce proceedings have thrown up further revelations, including lurid news reports which broke this summer that the 72-year-old actor is allegedly romantically involved with his 27-year-old step-granddaughter, E'Dena Hines. The biological daughter of his first wife's adopted daughter Deena, Hines is often seen in public with Freeman. But the couple have not publicly discussed their relationship, dismissing media reports that they plan to marry.

Whatever the truth behind these claims, Freeman's perceived aura of calm and inner wisdom appears to have helped him weather any potential scandal so far. Just compare his relatively unblemished reputation with Woody Allen's disastrous fall from grace in similar circumstances, or the golfer Tiger Woods and his recent marital meltdown, to see how destructive a hostile media and suspicious public can be.

It seems that Morgan Freeman has pulled off the neat trick of appearing to embody our higher and better selves, even if he personally falls short of these lofty ideals at times. Does he worry about his public image? Probably not. When Nelson Mandela is your biggest fan, you really do not have much else to prove. * The National