By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood June 11, 2011 at 1:24AM
The really good AFI tributes are the ones where there's warmth in the room for the tributee. Morgan Freeman, winner of the 39th AFI Life Achievement Award, is in that category.
Many of the black-tie guests at Sony Stage 15--where so many iconic MGM musicals were made, from The Wizard of Oz to AFI attendee Rita Moreno's first film at age 16, The Toast of New Orleans--were talking about how inspiring it was that Freeman's movie career, after years as a dancer, stage actor and star of The Electric Company, began at age 50 with the movie Street Smart. "This AARP member has shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that he can kick some ass," said Dame Helen Mirren, his co-star in RED.
We grew up with him when he was already grown up. "It's as if he had been with us through each day of our lives," said Sidney Poitier, "a character actor and a real character who has become a star...a prince of the craft of acting." Now Freeman was being feted by Poitier, Clint Eastwood, Garth Brooks, and Betty White in red, singing "Hello Morgan" with a chorus line of six gorgeous black men.
Freeman and Eastwood have a real bromance, from Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby, which won Oscars--making Eastwood think he should cast Freeman in every movie--to Invictus, which broke the spell, perhaps as Eastwood said, because even "Nelson Mandela thought he was Mandela." Eastwood planted a kiss on Freeman's cheek, saying: "I don't know if it's proper to love another man, but this is as close as I'm going to get to it."
Freeman responded, "Where I come from in Mississippi, this is called walking in high cotton...I'm proud to be an actor, although for this one night you made me feel a star."
Freeman is utterly believable in everything he does, from period Brit flicks like Robin Hood and Moll Flanders to a Civil War soldier in Glory, prisoner in Shawshank Redemption, U.S president in Deep Impact to God in Bruce Almighty, which he only agreed to do because it was a comedy, he said. A clip from what he called a "love story," Driving Miss Daisy, brought instant tears to my eyes, as aged Jessica Tandy tells her longtime chauffeur, "you're my best friend."
At these events, I'm always checking out which actors come through with the goods, making their tribute real and heartfelt. Who does their homework before a roomful of potential employers? Don Cheadle, Matthew Broderick, Chris Rock, Forrest Whitaker, Tim Robbins, Samuel L. Jackson, Cuba Gooding. Jr. and Moreno (amazing-looking at 79), were sincere, and various video clips from the likes of Renee Zellweger, Steven Spielberg and Ashley Judd were just fine. David Fincher recalled always wanting to cut to Freeman on Seven because while other people moved around doing unmatchable things, "he was just standing there having more gravity than anyone else within a hundred yards."
Casey Affleck recounted being abashed by a tongue-lashing from Freeman during Gone Baby Gone. Best of all was Eastwood, who used no teleprompter: "Morgan knows a lot. Give him a comfortable atmosphere and he'll kill it every time." And Matthew McConaughey came through with a pledge of genuine affection for his co-star in Amistad: "I can't imagine you ever having cotton mouth."