A great performance by an actor does not always come from the actor transforming their self to become a character. Sometimes, the actor inhabits the character in a way that it seems the character and the actor are one and the same. This is why the performance of Morgan Freeman as Ellis Boyd Redding aka “Red” in The Shawshank Redemption is so perfect and influential. Irish actor Gabriel Byrne once said, “I've always felt that acting is about exposure. You expose yourself in the choices you make. It's when you present yourself as truthfully as you can, in a given situation, that you are being that character. Even though you're being yourself…all actors essentially play themselves.” (link) This is indeed true of Freeman’s performance in The Shawshank Redemption. I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t absolutely love the character of Red, and synonymously, Morgan Freeman in the movie. The character became the defining role of Freeman’s career, and ever since this role, most of Freeman’s characters have in essence been a repeat or a different version of his character and performance in The Shawshank Redemption. Morgan Freeman was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in 1994 for his performance, but lost to Martin Landau in Ed Wood. Freeman eventually won his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in Million Dollar Baby, where again he played a very similar character to Red, and I took it as delayed recognition for his performance in The Shawshank Redemption.
The character of Red (Morgan Freeman) is the moral center of the movie and he's also whose character we view most of the story from. Even though, Andy (Tim Robbins) can be said to be the main character of the film it’s really the character of Red who the audience learns most about. When we first meet Red we see him attending a parole meeting after being in prison for 20 years for armed robbery and homicide. Red is very much respected behind bars at the Shawshank Penitentiary and is known as the prison fixer – the man who can get a prisoner anything he wants for a price; including: posters, cigarettes, or a little rock pick. The main story of the film is the friendship that develops between Red and Andy. Through Andy, Red learns what it means for a man to have true moral character, which brings about his redemption in the film.
Freeman, as Red, never really has any showy acting scenes of the movie, nor should he. Freeman's performance in the film is very subtle, its all about how the man carries himself and the way he talks. Near the end of the movie where Red goes to his last parole board hearing, we see how far the character has grown because of the friendship he formed with Andy. This is one of Freeman's most effective scenes in the movie because we're now watching a man who has acquired true moral character, and the parole board recognizes this too and grants Red his release from prison. If one compares the last parole board meeting to the first parole board hearing (where Red carried himself less assuredly) they can see the subtlety, power, and effectiveness of Freeman's performance.
The film employs the use of voice-over from the character of Red throughout the movie. Voice-over in films is usually a cheap overused way for characters to express their feelings, but when used effectively, as in The Shawshank Redemption, it can be quite powerful. Prior to The Shawshank Redemption, Morgan Freeman had never done a voice-over in a movie. Now, Morgan Freeman is known as the actor with the greatest, most assuring voice in movies. He has done numerous voice-overs in films, documentaries, and commercials since it has almost become a cliché when a Morgan Freeman voice-over is used. Freeman’s voice overs in The Shawshank Redemption provide some of the movies most effective insightful moments. His voice is very calm, caring, and reassuring that carries a gravitas that no other actor has. Even though, Morgan Freeman has done many voice overs since The Shawshank Redemption, never has it been used to greater effect than when he first did it in The Shawshank Redemption.
|Morgan Freeman as Fast Black from Street Smart (1987)|
While Morgan Freeman has now been type cast as the wise, voice of reason, type character since The Shawshank Redemption, he was not always known as that character. Freeman first became celebrated in movies for his performance as a ferocious street-pimp Fast Black in the 1987 film Street Smart, for which he earned his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Pauline Kael, one of America’s most influential film critics, famously asked, after seeing Street Smart, “Is Morgan Freeman the greatest American actor?” Now, since The Shawshank Redemption people might scoff at that question because they think of Freeman playing only one type of role but, if one’s seen Freeman’s earlier and a few of his latter darker roles they know that he’s an actor that does have an incredible range. This is what Freeman says about being type casted as the wise black man in movies, “I've really not meant to get pigeon-holed - not to get bracketed so that my roles were chosen for me. Now I've become and I'm going to ask forgiveness, but I've sort of become the Henry Fonda (an actor known primarily for playing honorable likable characters)… I played a bad guy in a movie and they showed it to an audience - and we're letting an audience tell us what to do now - y'know, and the audience said, 'Well, I don't want him - Morgan can't die!' And I was a thief…in any of these movies I'm seen as this noble, wise, dignified person.” (link)
While Morgan Freeman may be a little disappointed that he’s been pigeonholed as certain type of character, he’s made good use of his image and has played many respected figures to high acclaim including: The President of the United States, Nelson Mandella, and even God. People like watching Freeman as characters that are wise, respected, and honorable because that’s what audiences perceive him to be in real-life. It’s hard to question the authority and gravitas that Morgan Freeman carries with him whenever he’s on screen, and that’s what he’ll always be remembered for as an actor. That’s a great quality for an actor to have and employ in his movies, and we should thank Morgan Freeman for his performance as Red in The Shawshank Redemption, for reiterating the wisest advice he'd ever heard from his friend Andy, because when Freeman says it, we truly listen to it.
“Get busy living, or get busy dying” – Red (Morgan Freeman), The Shawshank Redemption