Actor Morgan Freeman was in Chicago last night to accept the Gene Siskel Film Center and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago's annual Renaissance Award,* and to participate in a career-retrospective conversation with his Last Vegas director, Jon Turteltaub. "A Candid Conversation with Morgan Freeman" took place at the Ritz-Carlton, and was one of those swank affairs that humble-means bloggers like me read about, but rarely dream of actually attending. Despite feeling a bit like The O.C.'s Ryan Atwood, I'm happy to report that everyone I met couldn't have been friendlier and more excited to share an intimate evening with a Hollywood legend.
GSFC Director of Programming Barbara Scharres introduced Freeman as having "played the President of the United States, the Speaker of the House, and Batman's genius inventor. He's also played God--twice." Indeed, as Turteltaub introduced clips spanning nearly forty years of film, television, and stage, it became apparent to everyone in the room that a discussion of modern cinema is, inherently, a discussion of Morgan Freeman to some degree. In projects as varied as The Electric Company and Lean on Me to The Shawshank Redemption and The Lego Movie, the actor has collaborated with the biggest names in the business, and realized indelible characters who rule the pop culture landscape.
But even cooler than revisiting these grand performances was Freeman's telling of the small and surprising behind-the-scenes moments that shaped them. He won his breakout role as a pimp in Street Smarts by playing against the loud and over-the-top actors in the waiting room of the audition--instead, recalling the quiet terror of having seen a real-life pimp intimidate a prostitute in his New York neighborhood. Incidentally, this was the last film for which Freeman would ever audition.
Despite all the fame and accolades, the actor still seemed in awe of having learned that Sidney Poitier passed on the part of Hoke Colburn in Driving Miss Daisy. Freeman defined the character in its original off-Broadway run, but was sure that Hollywood would seek out a brand-name screen actor for the big-screen adaptation. Poitier caught the show and refused to touch it, insisting that Freeman be the one to see it through.
Turteltaub also touched on Freeman's very early career, unearthing the only role that ever truly challenged him, and some sage advice he received from a stage legend. The former story found the actor taking on Othello in a theatre in Texas. Though he sought advice from greats such as James Earl Jones and Christopher Plummer, his unexpected nemesis turned out to be the wardrobe department: his outfit was a bit too close to that of Jimi Hendrix, and an audience member shouted at him on opening night, demanding that he play "Purple Haze".
One of the best tips Freeman received on acting came from Jose Ferrer during rehearsals for their two-man show in 1978. Freeman's idolization of Ferrer (who called to pitch him the play after seeing him in a one-week-run show--which wound up netting Freeman a Tony nomination) got in the way of their preparations. He scolded the starry eyed actor, admonishing him with, "You've gotta get over this adoration bullshit!" Freeman came to his senses, and never forgot to keep himself--and future awe-struck co-stars--in check.
In one of many funny, ribbing exchanges with Turteltaub, Freeman talked a bit about his present-day process. Contrary to Last Vegas co-star Robert DeNiro, who enjoys exploring scenes through multiple takes, Freeman said, "I enjoy the process until about take eight." Turteltaub also remarked that many of his contemporaries (such as David Fincher and Christopher Nolan) tend to set aside their pinball-camera antics when it comes to Freeman, giving both audience and artist breathing room to appreciate the performance: "When you have Morgan Freeman talking, you stop and take a picture, and let him do his thing."
At the end of the evening, Dr. Walter E. Massey, the President of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, presented Freeman with the 2014 Renaissance Award, which honors filmmakers who advance the art of cinema (past recipients include George Lucas, Michael Mann, and Nicole Kidman). During his acceptance speech, Freeman referred to influential film critic Gene Siskel as "a friend", and credited him and fellow titan Roger Ebert with having helped his career with praise and publicity early on.
As the evening wound down, and Freeman and Turteltaub left the venue in a frenzy of flashbulbs, applause, and general good will, I was left feeling profoundly elated. Especially in blockbuster season, where weekend numbers define a film's quality as much as the screenplay in the public consciousness--and smaller, personal films struggle to even get released--it's easy to think of movies as gaudy, disposable products. But nights like this serve as a warm reminder that film is an art form in which talented creators are sometimes celebrated for their intellect, insight, and commitment to making unforgettable entertainment.
*This annual fundraiser is the primary event that ensures that the GSFC can continue to present the highest quality films and film-related events in Chicago. All proceeds support the The Gene Siskel Film Center's eclectic film programming as well as lecture series and discussions with visiting scholars and filmmakers. The Gene Siskel Film Center and SAIC are part of The Art Institute of Chicago. For more information about the Art Institute, please visit www.artic.edu.