It is a mistake to conclude that what turns an actor into a movie star is a certain indefinable something. It is explained that way because in truth there are too many factors, making a simple definition impossible.
Likeability figures into it. A sense of dignity is present. One would hope talent is involved, as well as hard work and passion for the craft. A pleasing physical presence helps tremendously. Nuances involving humor, intelligence, pathos, strength, chutzpah and others enter into the equation.
What makes Denzel Washington one of the greatest actors working today is that he possesses all of these gifts and more.
His performance in “The Manchurian Candidate” is the latest evidence. As Ben Marco, an Army major who is tormented by bad dreams and slowly uncovers a nefarious plot to take over the White House, Washington is incredible in an understated and effortless way. He straddles the line between madness and clarity. He firmly anchors a film based on an outlandish premise. In a Hollywood thriller that could have been head-shakingly awful in the wrong hands, Washington provides the gravitas in the lead performance that keeps it all in the realm of believability.
We trust Denzel. He has built that trust over many years, and he never lets us down.
There are certain touchstone roles throughout his career that come to mind whenever he is mentioned, beginning with Dr. Philip Chandler on “St. Elsewhere.” It was an ensemble, so there was no one star around which the rest orbited. St. Eligius Hospital in Boston was populated by the likes of Ed Flanders, Norman Lloyd, Ed Begley Jr., Howie Mandel, Terence Knox, Mark Harmon and Ellen Bry. But it was Washington who broke out with a character who embodied class, heart and ethics. After six years on the show, he was ready for movie stardom. His small amount of time on the small screen nevertheless promised bigger things to come.
While in the midst of “St. Elsewhere,” he would moonlight in features. It was “Cry Freedom” in 1987, as South African activist Steve Biko, that garnered his first of five career Academy Award nominations. Then in 1989, at the end of the show’s run, he took a role as Private Trip, a member of an all-black unit during the Civil War, in Ed Zwick’s “Glory.” Trip was bitter and angry, but also courageous and strong, and Washington devoured it. Trip remains one of Denzel’s most important roles, because it came in a historically significant picture and presented an opportunity to play a multi-layered character. When Hollywood saw the results, Denzel Washington’s name forced its way on the A-list. He won an best-supporting actor Oscar that year in a field that included Marlon Brando and Martin Landau.
From there, his choices widened, and he mixed in weighty roles with typical studio fare. He made three movies with Spike Lee, including “Malcolm X,” which snagged him a best actor nomination. In 1996, he appeared in another film by Zwick, “Courage Under Fire,” which catapulted him into the $10 million salary stratosphere. His career momentum just kept building.
Rising to the challenges
One of the measures of his success is his ability to transcend stinkers. Even the films he appeared in that did not do well either critically or commercially or both — “Mississippi Masala,” “Virtuosity,” “The Preacher’s Wife” and “Fallen” come to mind — did not cause his star to flicker. He proved not only to be credible and respectable, but also bankable.
It may have something to do with his desire to take on work that bears some cultural significance. In “Cry Freedom,” “Glory,” “Malcolm X” and later as director and co-star in “Antwone Fisher,” Washington demonstrates his knack for accepting projects that may not have boffo box office written on them, then raising their value by his mere presence.
He continued that trend with “The Hurricane” in 1999. He played former boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a man wrongly imprisoned for murder whose spirit is battered by a long incarceration but not broken. Like his characters in “Cry Freedom,” “Glory” and “Malcolm X,” it is injustice caused by racism that serves to drive the story and provides a platform for his considerable abilities.
That Washington takes on these roles and executes them to near perfection is no small feat. In the hands of a lesser actor, a character embittered by outside forces or wronged by the establishment could come off as too strident to be believed, or so treacly as to ruin the message. With Washington, such material is in the hands of a once-in-a-generation professional, so audiences feel assured when they bear witness.
While Washington was denied a best-actor Academy Award for “The Hurricane,” he finally scored in that category with “Training Day,” playing a corrupt detective who uses an inexperienced partner for his own wicked purposes. What could have been an exploitative turn instead became a riveting and powerful performance, as Washington plumbed the depths of the reverse side of law and order.
He can take just about anything and make it better, because he applies the same tools and instincts to every role, no matter how important the project is perceived to be. “The Manchurian Candidate” sparkles because Washington has embodied Biko, Trip, Malcolm and Hurricane, et al., and has brought a little bit of them all to Ben Marco. He is the better for it, as are the rest of us.