Familiarity may indeed breed contempt, but it can also produce admiration and respect, not to mention top-draw motion pictures. Just ask Tony Scott.
Scott is the A-list film director who has “Crimson Tide,” “Man on Fire,” “Déjà Vu,” the remake of “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” and the upcoming “Unstoppable” on his resume. What is notable about those titles is that they also appear on Denzel Washington’s list of credits.
“I wouldn’t have done five movies with him if I didn’t love him,” Scott said. “He challenges himself and he challenges me. He keeps finding different ways to look at the world.”
Washington is one of those extremely rare actors who effortlessly crosses over from prestige films to box office hits. He is a five-time Academy Award nominee and two-time winner (for his supporting role in “Glory” and as a lead in “Training Day”). He also stars in films that may not outwardly suggest Oscar bait, yet he manages to raise the profiles of those releases with his mere name and presence.
“Very simply, he’s just great at what he does,” said Scott. “He always manages to tap into a different aspect of his personality.”
Washington’s appeal goes beyond his considerable talent, which has been obvious since his 1980s role on television's “St. Elsewhere.” He has a quiet bravado that attracts rather than alienates, and a likeability that enables him to reel in audiences even while playing nefarious types like Detective Alonzo Harris in “Training Day.”
“Denzel Washington has that ineffable quality one can only call ‘cool,’” said Adam Bradley, associate professor of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder who specializes in African-American literature and culture. “He’s a master of multiple traditions — swagger and suave. His appeal comes from the fact that he’s somehow able to balance the extraordinary with the everyday.
“He’s better looking than you, smarter than you, more debonair, but he doesn’t look down on you because of it. He’s a humble king — fully in command of his greatness, but ruling without condescension.”
It’s difficult to put a dollar amount on Washington’s presence in a film. He’s 55, and isn’t the box office draw that 42-year-old Will Smith is. But who is to say what “The Book of Eli” ($94 million), “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” ($65 million) or “Inside Man” ($88 million) would have grossed at the box office with an actor of lesser heft? And Washington opens well: Of his last eight films — since 2004’s “Man On Fire” — seven of them have grossed over $20 million on their opening weekends.
“I think we get once in a while these actors who are movie stars in the richest sense,” noted Lisa Kennedy, film critic for the Denver Post. “They’re like the British in the sense that they have theater chops, they have depth on that side, but then there’s a movie star aspect about the way they handle themselves.”
Washington has often been compared to Sidney Poitier among Hollywood legends, an African-American actor who has achieved widespread appeal in a nation that is often polarized by discussions of race.
“He has something similar to Sidney Poitier. He has that smile,” Kennedy said. “He seems so above the nasty fray that can be the conversation in this country. Yet he has this coiled energy, like his character in ‘Training Day,’ and I think that’s fascinating. He can play that character in ‘Glory.’ He has that angry energy.”
Indeed, one could argue that when Washington is at his angriest while playing a character, he is also at his best. His five Academy Award nominations — for roles in “Cry Freedom,” “Glory,” “Malcolm X,” “The Hurricane” and “Training Day” — involved playing men who had a serious bone to pick with the world.
Yet he was also inspiring in “Remember the Titans,” compelling in Jonathan Demme’s remake of “The Manchurian Candidate” and heartwarming in “The Great Debaters.” In fact, if there is one constant about Washington’s career, it’s that he continues to keep audiences off balance and at rapt attention.
Some of the reasons for Washington’s crossover appeal, said Bradley, can be found in his choice of challenging roles and in his ability to pull them off.
“Stereotype has often taken the place of complex humanity (in society),” Bradley said. “Denzel Washington’s roles always reject stereotype, always push for complexity. His career as a whole has broken down racial barriers by helping to close the gap between the representation and the reality of blackness.
“He’s made some films that challenge audiences to confront themes of racial identity and racism and other films in which his blackness is largely incidental. Both types of films work toward a common purpose: to reveal the sometimes tragic, sometimes heroic everydayness of black people.”
No matter which character he plays, Washington squeezes the maximum out of the role. Scott and Washington have worked together on five movies, and have developed the shorthand communication skills that usually form whenever two artists get to know each other well.
“But that can also be interpreted as complacency,” Scott said, “and there is never complacency between us. We’re always pushing ourselves.”
In that sense, “Unstoppable” works as both a film title and as a description of Washington’s career.
Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to TODAYshow.com.