Many years ago, for Movieline Magazine, seven film critics were asked to name the best living actor. There were seven very thoughtful essays about Johnny Depp, Jeff Bridges, Gary Oldman, etc. The British-born, San Francisco-based David Thomson (his "Biographical Dictionary of Film" is essential reading) chose Morgan Freeman. In his essay he made a typically Thomsonian quip: "He could play Lincoln." This was meant to describe the range and types of Freeman's performances, but apparently many Hollywood types saw the article and took it literally. I've seen interviews where Freeman has expressed bewilderment: "people keep asking me to play Lincoln."
Now Freeman's Nelson Mandela is up for an Oscar this year. I'm not sure it's Freeman's best or deepest role, but in my review of Invictus, I wrote that: "you almost want to stand up every time he appears on screen." This leads me down the rocky path of Freeman's career, some parts golden, some parts leaden, trying to choose his best role. I guess it's interesting to start with the fact that, for people of a certain generation, he was on the kids' TV show "The Electric Company" from 1971 to 1977, but he has every right to earn a paycheck, and it obviously introduced him to the right people.
After that, we should mention that, despite his great skill, he eventually fell into a fairly steadfast screen persona. He was a kind of spiritual guide for the hero, a benevolent, wise life force. This is not to say that these are bad performances. Some of them are absolutely superb, and certainly no other living actor could have played them quite as well. Driving Miss Daisy (1989), Glory (1989), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Million Dollar Baby (2004), Unleashed (2005), An Unfinished Life (2005) and The Bucket List (2007) come to mind. He has played judges and military men, as well as Lucius Fox in (2005) and Batman BeginsThe Dark Knight (2008), not to mention his performances as God (literally a spiritual guide) in the terrible films Bruce Almighty (2003) and Evan Almighty (2007), or as a preacher in the unsung gem Levity (2003).
These roles require great patience and generosity, but they're also back seat roles. Is the man who could play Lincoln really at his best in these types of roles? I think that, because he's often a second banana and not really a "movie star," he has the luxury of being considered for bad guy roles from time to time. In some of them, he's used as the "twist," i.e. we don't know he's the bad guy until the end, since his kindness on screen works as a good smokescreen. But in others, he truly savors the role, bringing a new kind of power to the screen. Breaking the law seems to make his characters more comfortable and freer with themselves. He's great fun in Lucky Number Slevin (2006) and in The Big Bounce (2004), but his breakout role at age 50 in Street Smart (1987) is something truly magnetic and exciting. He took this little, barely noticeable thriller and elevated it with his alarming performance alone. Against all odds he earned his first Oscar nomination.
The truly oddball Nurse Betty (2000) is another high point; he plays a skilled hitman who becomes obsessed with the cute, perky title character. Come to that, why does Freeman get so few roles where he gets to show a romantic side? Even the nice little indie 10 Items or Less (2006), which casts him as an unemployed actor doing research in a supermarket, pairs him up with sexy Paz Vega, but nothing comes of it. He's certainly capable of charm and romance, however, and he pulls it off as one member of an adorable married couple in Robert Benton's Feast of Love (2007).
Finally, finally, this brings me to Morgan Freeman's best role, as Detective Lt. William Somerset in David Fincher's Seven (1995). I think he has been in greater films, such as Unforgiven, but Seven is a terrific film that manages to combine the best of all of Freeman's skills. It's a rare lead role, and though his character is knowledgeable and wise, he uses these things in a commanding, active way; he does not serve any other character. He shares the screen well with his co-star, Brad Pitt, and neither outshines the other. Best of all, though Freeman usually provides each of his characters with their own history and baggage, the Somerset role is one of his few that provides it for him. He's burnt-out on the page, and Freeman takes that and runs with it, making it even deeper and even more interesting on the screen.
He's 73 as I write this, and it would be nice to see more filmmakers taking chances on him, assigning him deeper and darker roles. But for now, Seven is a shining example of a great actor at his best.