It’s hard to believe now, with dozens of popular films under his belt, but Morgan Freeman was in his 50s before landing his first major movie roles in Hollywood. Today, after many high-profile award nominations and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work in Million Dollar Baby, Freeman is considered by many to be one of the greatest living actors. In honor of his 75th birthday this year, here’s a list of the top 10 Morgan Freeman films. As always with a film list of this type, a spoiler alert is in effect.
10. Nurse Betty (2000)
You may have missed this comic gem among several other fun comedies (Meet the Parents, Miss Congeniality) released in the first year of the new millennium, which is a shame because you also missed one of Freeman’s most unique performances. He portrays an aging, philosophical hit man on the hunt for a cache of illegal drugs hidden in a car driven by Renee Zellweger’s amnesiac title character, Betty. In the end, Freeman’s character, Charlie, develops a bizarre crush on Betty, complicating matters. The film is only as good as Freeman’s performance, which is great.
9. Batman Begins (2005)
Tucked inside this big-budget Hollywood blockbuster is a quiet performance by the always-engaging Freeman. He portrays Lucius Fox, a former executive at Wayne Enterprises who was unceremoniously demoted and literally moved to the basement. He is the mastermind behind all of Bruce Wayne’s cool gadgets, and his witty remarks add some much-needed comic relief to balance out Christian Bale’s brooding take on the Dark Knight.
8. Kiss the Girls (1997)
James Patterson penned a series of successful novels featuring FBI agent and psychologist Alex Cross. The second novel in the series, Kiss the Girls, was adapted for the big screen and stars Freeman as a younger Cross, who at this point is a homicide detective in Washington, D.C. He is after a pair of bi-coastal killers known as “Casanova” and the “Gentleman Caller,” who are “collecting” women, including his niece. Freeman portrays Cross as a man torn between an academic fascinated by the pathology of the crimes and a frightened uncle desperately searching for his young niece.
7. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Freeman’s character, Eddie “Scrap Iron” Dupris, handles the film’s narration, which is later revealed to be a letter he has written the estranged daughter of Clint Eastwood’s character. Once again, Freeman’s character isn’t the main focus of the film, but this is irrelevant to his performance. His real appeal in the film is his matter-of-fact narration. He lays out a tale about three people with more than just pugilism in common. All three characters are well aware of their station in life, and are unapologetic about it.
6. Unforgiven (1992)
Another collaboration with the incomparable Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven finds Freeman as an aging gunfighter, Ned Logan, who is brought along to hunt down a pair of men at the behest of a group of Wyoming prostitutes. He isn’t thrilled at the prospect of leaving his wife to return to his former gun-slinging ways. The movie doesn’t glorify the old West, but instead shines a light on the true nature of this lawless chapter of America’s history.
5. Glory (1989)
If you missed this 1989 drama when it came out, head to your nearest Blockbuster — which might be quite a jaunt now, given the chain’s fading fortunes — and rent this film. Freeman portrays John Rawlins, a member of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first all-African-American unit in the Civil War. Without a doubt his most memorable scene in the film is the campfire prayer. It gives you a glimpse into one man’s motivation to leave his family and risk his life to fight a war.
4. Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
Mrs. Daisy Werthan, a widow living in 1940s Georgia, is forced by her son to hire a chauffeur after a “minor” traffic accident. In steps Freeman as Hoke Colburn, a man who lives in a much different world than Miss Daisy. In an age where young Hollywood, or anyone under the age of 25, dominates it’s comforting to see a story develop between these two mature characters. If your eyes don’t well up with tears during the final scene when a fragile Miss Daisy is spoon-fed pie by her faithful friend Colburn, then you need to watch the film again, because you obviously weren’t paying attention the first time.
3. Seven (1995)
This movie is a 10 out of 10 on the creepy-factor scale, as it follows the story of two detectives, the seasoned lawman Freeman and a bumbling novice played by Brad Pitt, tracking a serial killer. He is offing people based on the seven deadly sins in a way that makes Hannibal Lecter look like a member of the Lollipop Guild. Freeman’s quiet, deliberate and perceptive persona is a stark and effective contrast to Pitt’s overzealous impatience and inexperience.
2. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
OK, so you’re probably surprised that Freeman’s performance in The Shawshank Redemption isn’t No. 1 on this list, but that would be a little too obvious. Once again acting as the film’s narrator, Freeman portrays a less-than-hardened criminal “Red” Redding, who befriends new inmate Andy Dufresne in a Maine prison in 1947. The two are definitely an unlikely duo, but somehow the awkward chemistry works. His most effective work comes when Red is released from prison after serving 40 years. He steps into a world he doesn’t understand and when given the opportunity to meet up with his friend at the risk of this newfound freedom, he gladly takes it. In the end the two find an unlikely happily ever after.
1. Lean on Me (1989)
Lean on Me recounts the true story of Joe Clark, a man who takes on a crime-ridden, inner-city New Jersey high school during the 1980s. Armed with his trusty baseball bat, Clark makes some effectual, albeit unpopular, decisions in order to provide a group of teenagers the opportunity to graduate from high school. Freeman is at his best in this film because the part is a perfect fit for his low-key acting style. The movie is a bit on the cheesy side, but Freeman’s performance gives it legitimacy.
And now you must be wondering why Freeman’s portrayal of a high school principal makes the list, but his work as South African leader Nelson Mandela (Invictus, 2009) is nowhere to be found. Invictus didn’t make this list because despite the movie’s critical acclaim, and Freeman’s Best Actor Oscar nomination, the movie wasn’t that great. And Freeman was just a little too predictable in the role.