Monday, February 20, 2012

Commanding Presence: Why Denzel Washington is the Best Movie Star of the Past 25 Years ... and May Be the Last of His Kind

Of all the lost art forms I decry as having a dearth of mainstream contemporary relevance and/or newly notable paragons--if you know of any fine artists, sculptors, jazz musicians, poets, classical music composers, cartoonists or even rock bands that have deservedly risen to prominence in the past decade, please fill me in--one that might surprise you as being missing in action is the movie star.

Certainly, moviemaking continues to be big business, in terms of the money spent to produce, market and distribute films--through myriad channels--and the huge returns they bring in (some much more so than others).

From toddlers being taken to the latest Pixar extravaganza to teens traipsing to Twilight to the twenty- and thirty-somethings streaming from Netfix to the middle-aged couple renting from Redbox to the older folks who join me in filling the library auditorium for free foreign film screenings, people of all ages, backgrounds and locales continue to make film the world's most universal art form. (I don't consider Facebook an art form.)

And I know that when the Academy Awards are televised this Sunday, many people will care less about who takes home statuettes and more about who George Clooney is bringing, how Brad and Angelina are looking, what dresses Meryl, Rooney, Viola and Berenice might be wearing and what funny thing Melissa McCarthy may say on the red carpet. And whatever people may care about, as usual, the Oscar ratings will be huge.

So I'm not saying that movies aren't still big or that the people who star in them don't still engender the public infatuation that they have for decades. But I wonder...
Can you name 5 actors or actresses under the age of 35 that you would go see in a new movie regardless of what it was? Or in Hollywood parlance, that you think can "open a movie?"
At 31, Ryan Gosling is probably the best young actor I can name. But Drive, one of the best movies of 2011 by many accounts including mine, ranked #91 in U.S. box office receipts for the year. I didn't see it in a theater and don't even recall having heard of it upon release. The Ides of March, co-starring and directed by George Clooney and also critically praised, ranked #73. Blue Valentine, officially released at the very end of 2010, would rank around #140 for 2011 releases. All three of these are excellent movies, and Gosling was great in them, yet combined they grossed (in America alone) less than the dreadful Transformers: Dark of the Moon its opening weekend.

From this, one might say that Shia LaBeouf is therefore a movie star. Yet besides the Transformers movies and the latest Indiana Jones installment, he hasn't been in much and when he has--Eagle Eye and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps--he hasn't exactly lit the box office on fire.

There's nothing wrong with a franchise launching a movie star's career--look at Harrison Ford, but then, also look at Mark Hamill. Or Daniel Radcliffe, although his recent The Woman in Black has had mildly surprising box office success. But even if he, or Shia LaBoeuf, or Robert Pattinson actually have some marketing mojo, and technically are movie stars, in my parlance they still have a long way to go before they can be called "movie stars."

For the term doesn't simply denote success, it must also connote a certain intangible stature. 

Which brings me to the actual subject of this post, Denzel Washington. 

Last week, I saw his latest starring vehicle, Safe House, and so did a lot of other people. Though it finished a close second in the Valentine's weekend box office derby behind The Vow, its $40 million take was rather huge for a non-sequel film not based on a famous book or superhero (i.e. a franchise). Particularly in February.

Over the extended Presidents' Day weekend, it took in another $28.4 million to finish first.

I wouldn't call it a fantastic movie, but it was eminently entertaining, primarily due to Denzel engagingly embodying a mysterious yet moral badass named Tobin Frost.

If that sounds like the character he often plays, you're not wrong.

Although Washington long ago proved his acting chops--two of his early film roles, in 1987's Cry Freedom and 1989's Glory, earned him Oscar nominations, the later for which he won--and has continually taken on a diversity of roles, never once starring in a sequel or "franchise," he has been frequently drawn to the action genre, five times in films directed by Tony Scott.

He has typically personified a charismatic, calm-and-collected hero who can say as much with his tone of voice and his eyes as with his words or actions.

This recurring "type" is no accident and reflective of the kind of "star images" that were overtly developed back when the studio system was predominant in Hollywood filmmaking (until the early 1960's).

According to Susan Doll, a friend from the Chicago Film Discussion Meetup and a film historian and educator holding a doctorate in film studies:
"Denzel has been very smart about his career in terms of constructing an image, maintaining that image, and then tweaking it to expand its perimeters. This is just what the old studio heads did during the Golden Age to ensure their stars had careers that lasted 30 years." 
Thus, it was far from coincidental that Jimmy Stewart and James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis and Audrey Hepburn and many others from that era frequently played characters that shared fairly acute commonalities.

Unlike Susan, I am not qualified to write a dissertation on the studio system and the rise and fall of the star system--you should read her writings on the TCM Movie Morlocks blog and the Facets Features blog--but my understanding of the gist is that readily identifiable and distinguishable star personas were consciously and carefully crafted from the mid-1930s until the early-'60s. Yes, great actors were adaptable and "playing against type" could make for intriguing exceptions upon a star's résumé, but audiences generally appreciated knowing what they could expect from Cary Grant or Katharine Hepburn or Henry Fonda.

Even after the dominance of studio system--albeit not the end of a small cadre of film studios making and/or releasing most American movies--actors and actresses were still promoted above a film's title and numerous stars wisely adhered to their distinct strengths and prevailing characteristics. In the '70s, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds were all quite popular and successful, and I'm sure most anyone still reading this can mentally connote what made each one unique.

But in noting that Washington understands his star image and has steered his career with it in mind, Susan Doll suggests that "his generation may be the last to understand how star image actually works."

In reading through Denzel's filmography on IMDB, I counted up 26 movies of his that I'm sure I've seen, and I may be a few short. Besides Safe House, in the last couple weeks I've watched (or re-watched) Cry Freedom, Training Day, Man on Fire, Unstoppable and The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3.

Though it may seem antithetical to what I'm trying to convey about his consistent persona contributing to his appeal as a "movie star," the range of his film roles since establishing himself on TV's St. Elsewhere in the 1980s is certainly quite impressive.

I wasn't a watcher of that show, but Susan Doll shared that although the show's breakout star was supposed to be David Morse, she knew instantly that Washington would be the one to best make the leap to movies. She cites that his Dr. Chandler character on St. Elsewhere "had many of the characteristics associated with Washington’s later film roles — attractive, articulate (he rarely speaks in a “ghetto” vernacular or accent), even-tempered and rationale. Most of all, his character had a strong personal code or integrity."

I think this goes a long way in explaining how and why an actor so deft at playing action heroes with intrinsic similarities can also be so compelling and believable in playing diverse biographical or drawn-from-reality characters. Denzel's real-life portrayals have ranged from South African activist Steve Biko in Cry Freedom to the title character in Malcolm X to a homophobic personal injury lawyer in Philadelphia (a composite character) to boxer Ruben Carter in Hurricane to inspirational coach/teacher roles in Remember the Titans and The Great Debaters--the latter of which he also directed--to Frank Lucas, the subject of American Gangster. Even when he's playing an unlikable guy like Lucas or the fictional Alonzo Harris in Training Day--for which he won his second Oscar--he still brings a slick intensity and sly integrity that keeps you fixated.
There isn't a movie that comes to mind where I haven't liked what Denzel did with his role, and even the lesser of his films are entirely watchable at worst. 
Although the plot of 2010's Unstoppable, about a real-life runaway train, held no real surprises, Tony Scott kept it edge-of-your-seat suspenseful and Washington played his part so perfectly it's hard to imagine anyone else filling it with the same degree of verve and vulnerability. And just to mention it, 1995's Devil in a Blue Dress may not stand as one of Washington's most famous movies, but it remains one of my favorites.

All of this adds up to establishing Denzel Washington as--in my humble opinion--the best movie star of the last 25 years. And even if you would award your own quarter-century achievement Oscar to Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks or Julia Roberts or Johnny Depp or Robert Downey Jr. or Nicolas Cage or someone whose stardom goes back a bit further or perhaps not quite that far--John Travolta, Jodie Foster, Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Smith, Matt Damon, Russell Crowe--taking this back to where I started, I don't think you can name many actors under 35 for whom comparable careers seem likely.

I mean, I actually somewhat like Seth Rogen, and appreciate him amplifying awareness of a great first name--maybe it'll make key chains and coffee mugs yet--but is he really the great hope on the horizon?

(I feel a disclaimer is in order regarding Meryl Streep, Morgan Freeman, Sean Penn, Daniel Day-Lewis and other men and women who might merit mention as the "best movie actor" of the past 25 years. Without feeling the need to prolong a distinction, nor imply that Denzel isn't also a great actor, this is about him as being the "best movie star," which is something different, though not necessarily mutually exclusive.)
While I am bestowing "Best Movie Star of the Past 25 Years" honor on Denzel solely for his work on-screen, I do find it worth noting that I've never heard much about him off-screen. This is a good thing.  
Unlike some of his contemporaries, including Cruise, Downey and Mel Gibson, Washington has never to my knowledge made news for questionable behavior. Other than the little information Wikipedia provides--he's been married to the same woman since 1983, has served as the national spokesman of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America since 1993 and donated $2.25 million in 2011 to the theater department of his alma mater, Fordham University--I know next to nothing of his personal life.

Think about how many stars of his stature have so thoroughly avoided being featured in the National Enquirer or on TMZ and the like.   

But this jives completely with my one personal encounter with Denzel Washington, in which he proved to be as cool and classy as one ever could hope.

In 2005, I saw Denzel in Julius Caesar on Broadway and thought I would try to get him to sign my Playbill near the stage door after the show. I've done likewise for Billy Crystal, Antonio Banderas, Hugh Jackman, Daniel Craig and others, and while I've been fairly successful, most stars just sign a handful of autographs--or not--as they hustle into their limousines.

But Washington did something I've never seen before or since, and I imagine he did so after every performance, not just the one I attended. He simply told everybody with a Playbill to get in line, and though the line stretched all the way down 44th St. and clearly lasted more than an hour, Denzel signed for everybody and even posed for photos. I remember him making fun of me as I fumbled with my camera phone to take the photo above, which regrettably didn't turn out too well.

As you can see below, he signed both my Playbill and ticket stub. Nice to know that someone who comes across so well on the silver screen--he was also quite good on stage--isn't entirely acting.

Thank you to Susan Doll for the insight she shared about Denzel. And those who read this might enjoy a somewhat related piece I found by Scott Mendelson on the Moviefone website.

1 comment:

Suzi said...

Nice job Seth. DEVIL IN THE BLUE DRESS is my favorite Denzel film, too. Great direction by Carl Franklin and Don Cheadle announced himself as a terrific character actor in that film. Franklin also directed him in OUT OF TIME, which I like quite a bit.