The James Clayton Column: No more Mister Nice Morgan…

James celebrates the calming influence of Mr Morgan Freeman. But wonders: will he ever get to play the villain role?

Happiness is a Morgan Freeman voiceover. Hear those soothing tones and take heart. When Morgan makes his presence felt, all danger dissipates, screaming babies stop crying and thousands of penguins feel inspired to trek across Antarctica.

Ah, that nice Mr Morgan Freeman, he never lets us down. Bless him, brilliant actor and charming old man that he is. If you erased him from the background of half the movies he’s appeared in you’d be left with an entire DVD collection worth of features that can’t support themselves. They’d all collapse without his confident, calming influence. Build your movie on the solid-as-a-rock 72-year-old and you can only succeed.

In life’s bleakest moments when things seem utterly miserable I can sometimes close my eyes and conjure up that beaming freckled face in my mind. Everything might be a sorry mess and you may be at your lowest ebb, but if you’ve got the narrator of The Shawshank Redemption providing a reassuring running commentary, then chances are your spirits can be revived.

Those warm, dark vocals, that authoritative delivery and fatherly aura have vaulted the star of Se7en into America’s ‘Top 10 Most Trusted Celebrities’ list and got him the gig as successor to Walter Cronkite as the announcer of the CBS Evening News. This is all a clear sign that society needs Morgan Freeman. He’s a cinematic security blanket and without him we are hopeless.

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If he’s not omnipotent voiceover artiste, grizzled-but-good hearted cop or encouraging old-age sidekick, he’s playing goodness incarnate. Having been God in Bruce Almighty, he’s now become Nelson Mandela for Invictus and as a result taken his righteousness rating through the roof. God is a prestigious role but, in terms of playing ‘good guys’, it doesn’t get better than South Africa’s first black president. No one’s going to dispute Madiba’s existence or ask him why he allows natural disasters to happen.

Even before I’ve seen Invictus, I know that Freeman and director Clint Eastwood aren’t going to radically re-interpret the anti-Apartheid icon. The film is about Mandela’s desire to bring his nation together and overcome racial differences during the Rugby World Cup. It’s not going to deviate from the popular image of the man as a peaceful humanitarian hero. In terms of personality, Freeman is a perfect fit and it appears that he’s got his Mandela impersonation absolutely dead on.

So everyone’s favourite supporting actor appears once more as a character you’d like to have as your granddad, but I can’t help wondering as the years advance onward: will we ever see Morgan Freeman as a villain? Even though he’s a legendary nice guy, it’d be a shame to think that his entire career could pass without him playing a cast-iron bastard. Even Henry Fonda played black-hearted Frank in Once Upon A Time In The West. If dependable Jimmy Stewart could allow himself to be repeatedly reconfigured as a sinister pervert by Alfred Hitchcock, our man Morgan can surely manage to be evil in one movie.

It’s not his fault that the world trusts him and holds him in such high-regard. Blame the filmmakers that give him these parts (Clint Eastwood is the prime offender with Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby and now Invictus); blame his personal assistant (I imagine she’s a prudish menopausal mother of sixteen called Patricia who spends her free time practising her ‘disapproving look’ in the mirror) that sorts through the mass of scripts the man must receive and bins anything that doesn’t conform to type.

Though it’d never pass through Patricia’s filter, I reckon it’d be awesome to see Morgan Freeman made up with fangs and claws and on the rampage in a monster flick. Picture the scene: our much-loved hero dressed up in Victorian gentleman’s attire on a midnight stroll through the park. Suddenly, as the full moon appears his eyes glow yellow and he starts to shake and foam at the mouth. Sprouting whiplash whiskers and going through full visceral metamorphosis, Were-Morgan howls aloud and goes on to gruesomely rip the local residents – and the penguins of the town zoo – to shreds.

Would the world accept the actor as a supernatural beast of bloodlust and body horror? As I was thinking on the futility of trying to make Morgan Freeman a bastard, I found myself watching Abel Ferrara’s early ‘90s masterpiece of nastiness, Bad Lieutenant. If you’re looking for irredeemable arseholes, Harvey Keitel’s eponymous cop is the ultimate. He’s a train wreck of vice, addiction and immorality. If Nelson Mandela is the personification of ‘good’, then Keitel’s Lieutenant is a barely-living embodiment of ‘bad’.

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It’s the total antithesis of the ‘Morgan Freeman type’ and, thus, it’d be the kind of one-shot of wickedness that would leave audiences agog and win a Best Actor Oscar. I came to this idea after seeing an interview in which the star of Invictus remarked on Mandela’s incredible capacity for forgiveness. Having heard the assaulted nun of Bad Lieutenant sermonise on the salvation possible in loving your enemies – and with Harvey Keitel’s wasted naked form burned onto my retina – the concepts were joined and I realised: this is the right wrong-role that’s required for Mr. Freeman.

Banish all associations of benevolent divinity and baby penguins and instead imagine Freeman as a reckless degenerate, neck-deep in gambling debts, alcoholism and his own inability to find redemption. See him shuffling from bar to club to squat, snorting copious amounts of coke off family photos at each seedy venue. See him blackmail a couple of teenage girls into lurid sex acts and start masturbating at their car window. See him wrecked and standing stark naked, letting out sad moans of anguish. No more Mr. Nice Morgan Freeman. That image is obliterated after 90 minutes of non-stop depravity.

Werner Herzog (he does total turmoil so well) has taken Ferrara’s flick as inspiration, set the scenario in post-Hurricane Katrina Louisiana and called it Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call: New Orleans. This was the perfect opportunity to cast Morgan Freeman as a completely corrupted soul in vivid contrast to the rest of his career.

Sadly, the German auteur selected Nicolas Cage to be the Bad Lieutenant and take the place of Harvey Keitel. Freeman, for now, retains his dignity, yet, I feel that behind the freckles and friendly exterior there’s an inner demon waiting to be unleashed. Please, just once, turn the menacing terror inside loose and let Morgan go berserk as an utter bastard.

James’ previous column can be found here.