Morgan Freeman is a fantastic actor.
I know what you’re thinking, “duh”.
It’s hardly a controversial statement but in this current climate who knows if this is what the mob cancel me over. Anyway, sometimes you can take for granted just how good Morgan Freeman is when it comes to his craft.
What do I mean by fantastic acting?
I’m going to digress a bit first.
The perception of great acting
In pop culture, there is an idea of fantastic acting. There seems to be one person at one time who is considered “the greatest actor of all time”. This baton is passed on every few years from actor to actor. You can probably think of a few examples of the “greats”. Brando, Pacino, DeNero and other people with a name ending in o are all greats. There are other examples too.
I’m not disparaging them but what they do is what you could consider a layman’s version of good acting. These people are great actors. Here’s my question. Are they great because they are great or are they great because the films they happen to be in are great?
For a while, it was considered an injustice the size of the Titanic that poor Leo was without a baldy golden statue.
For years DiCaprio gamed the system, he did biopics (Aviator, Wolf of Wall Street), an accent (Blood Diamond) all to no avail. He only received the Academy Award whenever he drolled and rolled around in the dirt (Revenant). Now, is that great acting? Maybe, but it could also be mistaken for a seizure.
I understand you may disagree with me. If you’ve ever been in a play, you’ll know that being able to cry at will or kick a chair looks fancy.
Great acting, it is not.
This style of acting reminds me of Hamlet’s advice to the players:
Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to
you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it,
as many of your players do, I had as lief the
town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air
too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently;
for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say,
the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget
a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it
offends me to the soul to hear a robustious
periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to
very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who
for the most part are capable of nothing but
inexplicable dumbshows and noise
Essentially Shakespeare is saying through the Danish prince: “Stiff upper lip lads, no melodramatics”
Hamming it up can be entertaining, but it can date a little.
What makes acting fantastic?
What makes Morgan Freeman a fantastic actor?
Look at this scene from The Shawshank Redemption.
This is what I consider fantastic acting.
What makes it so?
Well, it’s in the simplicity.
What is the scene? Just so you and I know we’re on the same page.
Morgan Freeman’s character Red finds himself before the parole board. Over the years he has been repeatedly turned down. The scene repeats three times. In the first two instances, he lies. Red tells them what they think they want to hear.
When this third iteration of the scene takes place, Red has all but given up. Red has nothing to lose, he has let go of the possibility of ever getting out of Shawshank Prison. Instead, Red decides not to play their game. Red decides to tell the truth. Here’s the thing because he let’s go off the lie, because he tells the truth, he is released.
To quote the good book “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).
Where to find fantastic acting
It feels like it is crucial to set up the context. Fantastic acting happens in context. Let me oversimplify, great acting always happens right before the end of the film. Again I’m being reductive, but it tends to happen right before the end. Sometimes the speech will sum up the moral of the film at this part.
Think about another film from 1994, Pulp Fiction. Jules Winfield’s speech to Pumpkin about him trying to be the shepherd. It is probably no coincidence that you tend to find fantastic acting here.
I know I keep digressing but stick with me. This whole “right before the end” speech dates back to Shakespeare. I’m thinking in particular of Macbeth of this speech:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
These speeches are a modern equivalent of the Act 5 soliloquy.
Anyway, that is enough about the context and background of why these scenes take place.
Where does Morgan Freeman come into play?
Let me use a football analogy. The context is that this scene is the equivalent of a penalty kick in extra time. Everything is set up. All the player has to do is put the ball in the net.
All Morgan Freeman has to do is play the scene as written.
He plays a blinder.
It would be tempting for an actor to pace the room snarl and howl. Could you imagine an actor like Jack Nicholson doing the scene? Flashing a grin, looking off to the side and mugging for the camera.
What Morgan Freeman does, what makes him a fantastic actor is he let’s the script do the work for him. There are no embellishments. He sits in the chair and says the lines. He moves his brow a little, and fundamentally that is it, that is all that is required.
Egotistical actors and incidental music
So many actors have egos. Some actors like to show you that they understand the scene by playing the emotion of the scene. This is a sad scene, so I will cry. This is a comedic scene, so I will be whacky(whatever that means).
It’s the equivalent of incidental music in soap operas.
There was a show years ago called The O.C. The O.C was beloved by my sister. Occasionally I would catch the occasional episode. The show would have two tones, comedic or dramatic. Instead of trusting the audience, The O.C would have incidental music in the background. If the scene was dramatic, it would have a slow piano, if the scene was comedic, plinky-plonky music.
That was it.
You were told how to feel going into a scene. The show did not trust you to work it out for yourself. Instead, the music said, “This is what you should be feeling”. I understand some people are OK with this, not me. I like to work things out for myself.
This is a long way for me to say that playing the emotion of the scene is the equivalent of incidental music.
Be like Morgan Freeman
Respect your audience, and they will return the compliment.
Do, as Morgan Freeman does, trust the material. As David Mamet put it in advice to actors “Invent nothing, deny nothing”.
Before I conclude, I have to say that the actor who is head of the parole board deserves mention too. How easy would it be for him to play it up? To scoff when Freeman talks. To roll his eyes. Instead, he listens, he let’s Morgan Freeman do his thing.
You and I both know that Morgan Freeman is a fantastic actor. Sometimes we take it for granted. It helps to remind ourselves how he earned that accolade.
The way of fantastic acting is simple, it is applying the principle where we run into difficulty.
If you are an actor, even if you are not, rewatch the scene over and over again and again.
Watch the entire three parole scenes and watch the subtle changes each time.
Do you want more no bullshit acting advice? Then follow this affiliate link to True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor by David Mamet. I love this book.
You can also check out this affiliate link for A Practical Handbook for the Actor by Mamet’s acting students.
If you like the writing of this piece, thank you. Check out the review of The Best Way To Say It—one of the best writing courses out there.
If you made it this far, thank you.
I’ll leave you with this bit of acting advice from the legendary actor James Cagney:
“Find your mark, look the other fellow in the eye, and tell the truth”
Have a great day,