Denzel Washington: A Living Legend

In the early days of Hollywood, it was common for popular actors to change their names in order to make them sound more appealing; producers and studios wanted them to have names that would be definitive of cinematic stardom. For instance, Norma Jeane Mortenson, Archie Leach, Allan Stewart Konigsberg, Marion Morrison, and Tom Mapother IV all were transformed into Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant, Woody Allen, John Wayne, and Tom Cruise (yup, Thomas Cruise Mapother IV is his legal name). While bigwigs in Hollywood were behind many of these moniker alterations, some actors have adopted their current titles as stage names that have become commonly accepted since their emergence as stars, but the point is that producers understand how much value a name has when it’s stamped on a product. Any one of the above names contains a value that is already a quality indication of Hollywood’s property, and once Hollywood realizes the weight of a name, putting a guy in front of a camera and calling him Rock Hudson is as agreeable as it is vital because said star has power and with that power comes a presence, and on screen a presence goes a very, very long way.

The stories of celebrities changing their names for the stage and screen are interesting, but there’s far more solace to be found in celebrities that have presence-bearing names from the womb instead of since their days in the audition waiting room. Contemporary actors like Leonardo DiCaprio, Chow Yun Fat, Uma Thurman, and Benedict Cumberbatch are all actors born with these pronounced, memorable, and unique names that have come to represent them as not only a selling point but also as cultural icons and to identify them among other actors on the big screen as well. Sometimes, actors have to grow into the weight that their name may already carry (like Cumberbatch is wonderfully doing), and other times it’s as if these people were born and granted these names with knowledge that they were going to be gracing the presence of thousands, if not millions, of viewers and fans. A veteran actor like Denzel Washington has the name of a movie star and the presence on screen of some of the finest film legends; the two-time Oscar winner and multiple accolade recipient is a charismatic and diverse African American actor whose body of work shows inarguable growth and audacity leading directly into his newest film being released nationwide this weekend: Robert Zemeckis’ Flight.

Born just days before the beginning of 1959, Denzel Hayes Washington Jr. was welcomed to a Georgia-born beautician mother and a Virginian father who served as an ordained Pentecostal minister and employee of the Water Department in Mount Vernon, NY. A schism left his parents’ marriage broken by the time that Denzel was fourteen and he was relocated, by his mother, from Pennington-Grimes Elementary School to Oakland Military Academy in New Windsor, NY. Though a seemingly drastic change, Denzel thanks his mother for her executive decision for all of his friends of his elementary days in Mount Vernon have since served time behind bars. Mainland High School in Florida followed and then admission to Fordham University where Washington played collegiate basketball. However, indecisiveness led to a semester away from school where Denzel took a job as a creative arts director at an overnight summer camp in Lakeville, Connecticut where a colleague urged him to pursue studies in acting. Interested by his fellow counselor’s advice, Denzel Washington returned to Fordham in the fall looking into acting opportunities, nabbing title rolls in The Emperor Jones and Othello and eventually graduating with a B.A. in Drama and Journalism in 1977. A year of graduate school at the American Conservatory Theatre precipitated the blossoming performer’s return to New York where he optimistically searched for professional acting. A handful of stage opportunities and very small film roles eventually led to his breakthrough: St. Elsewhere.

As Dr. Phillip Chandler, Denzel Washington exploded into the living rooms of television drama seekers, much like George Clooney would years later on ER. Making a prominent stride as a talented ensemble member and one of the few African Americans actors attached to the production, roles in the mid-1980’s began to trickle toward Denzel including Power, Hard Lessons, and A Soldier’s Story in which he played Pvt. First Class Melvin Peterson, a role he had originated in A Soldier’s Play Off-Broadway with the Negro Ensemble Company. And here, things were just getting started. As the 1980’s closed, the world started to close in on Denzel Washington when he was awarded two nearly consecutive Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominations. First, for playing a major historical figure, the South African anti-aparteidist Steve Biko, in Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom, and then for playing a foul tempered and self-possessed slave-turned-solider in Edward Zwick’s exceptional Glory, for which that nomination resulted in a win. By the time 1990 was just getting underway, newcomer Denzel Washington was already a big player with an Academy Award in hand.

In 1991, Washington embarked on Mo’ Better Blues,his first collaboration with Spike Lee whom, along with the late Tony Scott, would frequently cast Washington in his films throughout the next twenty years. 1992’s Malcolm X followed, again uniting the directorial voice of Spike Lee and the on-screen power of a Denzel Washington in an unforgettable performance that catapulted him even higher than all of his previous roles combined. Nominated for yet another Academy Award, this time for Best Actor, Washington proved that he had a knack for portraying historical and biographical figures, but with Malcolm X, Washington showed that he was a completely different kind of performer; he is a method man without the method tactics, his embodiment of the characters are believable to a shocking degree and his physical similarities to the real life persons of his films are uncanny. If you don’t believe me, look at the cover of any DVD case for Malcolm X, you would think you had just picked up a documentary (truthfully, Lee’s biopic might as well be a documentary, it’s a fully detailed and well-rounded depiction of the activist’s life and, in my opinion, the greatest biopic ever).

1993 brought Philadelphia, a tragic courtroom drama directed by Jonathan Demme that paired Washington with Tom Hanks, instigating tears to stream from viewers’ eyes. The Pelican Brief, The Preacher’s Wife with the late Whitney Houston, Edward Zwick’s back-to-back Courage Under Fire and The Siege, and Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare-based comedy Much Ado About Nothing followed, as well as the highly successful thriller, Crimson Tide,co-starring Gene Hackman and directed by Tony Scott. The tense and claustrophobic underwater adventure featured Washington and Hackman dueling it out in a battle of wits, strength, and power for control over the equally split crew of an American submarine. A reunion with Spike Lee in 1998 led to He Got Game, an artful, unconventional, and ultimately critically favorable sports flick co-starring current Miami Heat player, Ray Allen. The 90’s concluded with another biographical performance by Washington in Norman Jewison’s, The Hurricane, based on Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter who was imprisoned for a triple murder and served twenty years of a life sentence before the wrongful conviction was overturned. An uplifting film in the vein of Michael Mann’s later Ali, The Hurricane unfortunately received some unfavorable press for the film’s depiction of Carter’s innocence, specifically from one reporter who campaigned against the Academy’s likeliness to award the film with nominations. They abided by the campaign, sans one important category: A Best Actor nomination for Mr. Washington.

In early 2000, during the awards circuit, The Hurricane won Washington a Best Actor Golden Globe where he noted during his acceptance speech that Sidney Poitier was the last African American to win this award, and at the time Poitier was the very first black winner. Following the massive success of Disney’s crowd pleaser Remember the Titans, Washington accepted what may be his most recognizable and arguably most memorable performance to date as the criminal and alienated rogue Los Angeles narcotics detective, Alonzo Harris, in Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day. His fifth and most recent Oscar nomination for his performance as Harris culminated in his second career win, and he again became the second African American to win a Best Actor Award, this time at the Oscars and again his predecessor was none other than Sidney Poitier. Currently, he is tied with Morgan Freeman for most Oscar nominations by an African American actor.

The colossal reception of positivity toward Washington in Training Day put a very slight damper on some of his following roles, most of which did fairly to well at the box office but have since faded into his repertoire as simply notches added to his belt: John Q., Out of Time, the remake of The Manchurian Candidate, and the character drama Antoine Fisher, which Washington directed and co-starred in. Afterward, Tony Scott pulled a tremendous performance out of Washington in his heartbreaking revenge actioner, Man on Fire, with Denzel searching the streets of crime-ridden Mexico for Pita (Dakota Fanning), the young American girl he was hired to protect. He storms through the country racking up a body count discovering shattering secrets and taking violent actions that lead him on a path of no return with eye-watering conclusions. In ’06, Scott again reteamed with Washington in the uneven, time travel thriller, Déjà Vu.At nearly the same time, Spike Lee also tapped Washington to star alongside Jodie Foster and Clive Owen in the un-Spike Lee-like bank heist film, Inside Man. Breaking away from his comfort zone, Lee’s heist flick excelled in surprising ways featuring top notch performances from its all-star cast, namely Washington and an unbelievable Clive Owen. In 2007, Tony Scott leant Washington out to his brother Ridley for the bold, period crime drama, American Gangster, that faired well critically and at the box office, but was slammed with a final ‘disappointing’ branding. One of the film’s most criticized components was Washington’s tuned down performance while co-star Russell Crowe was explosive by comparison.

A return to the stage paralleled the final outings that Washington would share with director Tony Scott. Turns in the critically mixed Julius Caesar and August Wilson’s Fences, which garnered Washington a Tony award, made for wild box office sales in New York City, and a remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and the fast paced Unstoppable, co-starring Chris Pine and also dealing with trains, fared surprisingly well at the box office. In fact, the latter was a big hit and one of the Tony Scott’s highest rated films in years, but sadly marked his final directorial credit before he took his life this past summer. About Scott, Washington, the actor who collaborated more with the director than anyone else in Hollywood, imparted a statement of disbelief at the director’s passing, “Tony Scott was a great director, a genuine friend and it is unfathomable to think that he is now gone.”

In this weekend’s Flight, Washington is at the best he’s been in years with a performance strong enough to make the film soar much higher than it would have with just John Gatins’ script and Robert Zemeckis’ direction. Despite the film’s problems, it would not be surprising to see Denzel Washington’s name listed along with four other actors’ come Oscar night early next year. What Flight proved, to me anyway, was that Denzel’s career has been long and fruitful and while he could easily stray away from ballsy and daring performances (which Flight very much is), he instead decides to tackle them with just as much energy and commitment as he would have if this was the very beginning of his career. Denzel Washington is bound to be one of the most memorable actors of the current generation and if some of his previous films and his turn in Flight are not enough to persuade you of this truth, well then just turn your television onto FX and watch Training Day (guaranteed it will be on, or coming on) for a few minutes and you should very soon realize your mistake. Or, you can wait for another upcoming project, for like many of the better actors today, Denzel Washington is always looking to surprise us again and again.

Article by Mike Murphy


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