Morgan Freeman: His darkest night

He is one of cinema's most bankable and best-loved actors. Morgan Freeman also kept his private life away from public scrutiny – until a midnight car crash

There was something strange about the way Morgan Freeman ended up in hospital this week, and it wasn't just the revelation that the Oscar-winning actor, a motor-racing fanatic with a fleet of expensive supercars, had sustained a selection of "serious" injuries by crashing a beaten-up 1997 Nissan Maxima.

Freeman broke his shoulder, arm and several ribs after veering off a freeway near Charleston, Mississippi, shortly before midnight on Sunday. The vehicle flipped several times and came to rest in a ditch. But it soon emerged that he hadn't been the only person who'd needed to be cut from the wreckage.

Sitting alongside Freeman was a younger woman called Demaris Meyer, who described herself in police reports as his "friend". She was the owner of the vehicle, she said, but had asked the71-year-old star to drive because she hadn't been sure of the way to the holiday home he keeps in the Mississippi delta.

It didn't take long for reporters to start asking exactly what Freeman was doing alone with this 48-year-old female "friend" so late on a Sunday night. Little was known about Meyer's identity, except that she was apparently a keen gardener (several tools were flung around the wreckage) and was also very much not Freeman's wife of 24 years, Myrna Colley-Lee.

On Wednesday, their questions were answered. Bill Luckett, Freeman's attorney and business partner, revealed to the TV show Access Hollywood that his client is "involved in a divorce action". He added: "For legal and practical purposes [Freeman and Colley-Lee] have been separated since December of 2007."

Besides adding an intriguing footnote to any future biography of the actor, this news – which effectively demonstrates that one of the world's most bankable film stars can end his marriage without anyone but close friends finding out – provides a fascinating insight into modern celebrity divorce.

When the dust has settled, it will also shed light on a cynical reality of Hollywood's multi-billion-dollar PR machine, and the manner in which it horse-trades public access to its stars' private lives.

In this age of Paul McCartney and Heather Mills, or Charlie Sheen and Denise Richards, or Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, it seems almost unthinkable that Freeman could quietly separate from his wife without gory details being plastered across the world's media.

But that seems to be exactly what happened. For six months, in which time he starred in The Dark Knight, one of the most hyped films of all time, and the blockbuster Wanted, Freeman did a textbook job of keeping his private life private. Despite the odd rumour surfacing, and being quickly squashed, barely a peep was hear in public about the state of his relationship with Colley-Lee, the former costume designer with whom he shared a 124-acre ranch near his childhood home in Mississippi.

Even as he was announcing plans to play Nelson Mandela in one of the most eagerly awaited films of the year, or flitting into the nearby town of Clarksdale to share a drink with regulars at the blues club and restaurant he owns, Freeman managed to keep his personal turmoil to himself.

He wasn't alone. In recent months, a slew of Hollywood divorces have slipped onto the public record, with barely a flicker of interest from the supposedly feral celebrity media. Liv Tyler has separated from her husband Royston Langdon; Robin Williams is divorcing his film-producer wife of nine years, Marsha. Even Bill Murray's divorce from his wife Jennifer, which seemed destined to publicly air lurid details about the Lost in Translation star's personal failings, was swept under the carpet.

How, then, do the details of other showbusiness divorces get shared with readers of gossip columns, or put on the public record in open court? Why did the sexual mores of Christie Brinkley's estranged husband get shared with the world, while those of Bill Murray (whose divorce petition alleged that he was hooked on booze, pot and casual sex) stay hidden? The short answer, according to legal experts, is that it's perfectly easy to prevent your failed relationship being picked over in public; but only if that's what you really want to do.

In other words, the only reason we hear about the intimate habits of the Richardses and Sheens of this world (who are still involved in a bitter custody battle) is that one or both of the parties puts them into the public domain.

"Celebrities whose marriages, in their intimate details, become public knowledge are usually steering the attention themselves," says Professor Richard Sherwin, of New York Law School. "The motives may vary: leverage in the negotiation or settlement process, personal revenge, or publicity for publicity's sake. The celebrity, through his or her PR agent, is usually the one opening the door. Settlements can easily be kept confidential. It's a private contract."

The PR industry may also use personal scandal to stoke interest in a star at exactly the time that, say, an important film is being released. "Having a client in the press can certainly boost a film's numbers," says Cherie Kerr, a California PR who specialise in high-profile divorce cases. "Look at the recent Batman film, with what happened to Heath Ledger and Christian Bale, and now Morgan Freeman. It didn't hurt. Some people definitely use divorce as a way to get some press. Of course, most of them do not want that kind of coverage. It's too personal and too painful, and I remember that Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke spent a lot of time trying to keep their separation private, with quite a lot of success."

Since Hollywood's early years, studios have been alternately helping publicise, or keep the lid on the indiscretions of major stars. Clark Gable's many mistresses were famously assigned their own PR detail, in an effort to keep them silent.

Freeman's age and profile also make his unsullied reputation worth preserving. His profile as the "good guy" of film, which has helped him to leads in films such as The Shawshank Redemption, is now worth almost £10m a movie. He will now be hoping to keep any scandalous details out of the soon-to-be-lodged legal documents. "People sit in Los Angeles Superior Court sifting through papers, and they do the same in Orange County Superior Court, where Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown went, thinking they could keep their divorce quiet," adds Kerr. "If you have any hint of contention in those papers, anything salacious or possibly scandalous, or if there's a big pre-nup involved, then there can be trouble."

Lawyers who work on the front line of US celebrity divorces say that if gory details are kept from legal papers, you're usually in the clear. It's only when one side experiences extreme anger and a desire for revenge that the public gets to hear about them. "Judges can be made to handle the whole case, so those involved don't even have to go to court," says Scott Weston, of Nachshin and Weston, who has worked in a number of high-profile divorce cases, including those involving the baseball star Barry Bonds and the rapper Snoop Dogg.

"After the petition is lodged, all negotiations can take place behind the scenes and the settlement will never be announced in open court. It usually suits both sides to work that way. Often a celebrity will have a pre-marital agreement that guarantees the spouse far less than he or she would normally be entitled to, but if they agree to keep quiet, they can profit financially from the deal. It's a useful bargaining chip."

There is, of course, one final thesis as to why major Hollywood stars might be succeeding in keeping their marriages out of the spotlight: a failure by the local media to do sufficient digging. "In America right now, the mainstream papers have a very high-church attitude to this kind of news," says Mark Borkowski, author of The Fame Formula, a book about the Hollywood PR industry. "It's completely different to the UK where there's a highly competitive newspaper market. Here, they have a regionalised press, and they insist on fact-checking that slows down the speed a story breaks at. "

Right now, as he lies in hospital, Morgan Freeman has at least one thing to be thankful about.

Breaking up and breaking news

Bill Murray

The wife of the veteran actor filed for divorce this year after 11 years of marriage. Jennifer Murray had moved out of the family home – with the children – in 2006. In legal documents she accused Murrary of "adultery, addiction to marijuana and alcohol, abusive behaviour, physical abuse, sexual addictions and frequent abandonment".

Robin Williams

Robin Williams and his second wife, Marsha Garces Williams, got together after she worked as a nanny for thecomedian's child from his first marriage. However, after nearly 19 years, she filed for divorce in March this year. The couple – who have two teenage children – started up a philanthropic organisation to raise money for charity.

Liv Tyler

Despite some commentators describing them as a perfect match, last May the actress Liv Tyler announced that she was separating from her husband of nearly five years, British rocker Royston Langdon. There had been few public signs of trouble beforehand between the couple who have a three-year-old son together.