Subject: Denzel Washington, 55-year-old American actor, director, and producer.
Date of Assessment: January 15, 2010
Positive Buzzwords: Versatile, intense, methodical, badass
Negative Buzzwords: Prickly, bit of an asshole, boom
The Case: Ideally, these assessments aim to make some brief arguments (both for and against the artist in question), which are followed up with a half-serious prognosis on where things are headed. Yet, how exactly does one go about suggesting improvements when it comes to Denzel Washington?
Denzel is about as good as it gets in today’s Hollywood pool of relative talent. Not only do audiences love this guy, but critical acclaim has also followed Denzel since his early theater days. After 25 years in film, Denzel’s won a handful of Oscars and Golden Globes and many more nominations; and even though he’s also been in some rather lackluster movies, Denzel’s been praised as a solid and consistent performer since the early 1980s. This man knows no laziness and is so dedicated to method acting that he essentially becomes his characters in a wholly believable manner.
Of course, a brief feature like this makes it impossible to discuss this guy’s career with any measure of thoroughness, and, admittedly, I have not watched all of Denzel’s movies. Still, it’s pretty clear that there are no uninteresting or “throwaway” roles when it comes to Denzel Washington. He delivers a fantastically riveting performance in a diverse range of roles, whether as the controversial Black Nationalist leader of Malcolm X or as the no-nonsense football coach tasked with diffusing racially-motivated tension in Remember the Titans. He can do the good guys, the villains, and everything in-between, and these performances are always critically well-received, which means that he pretty much leaves his colleagues in the dust. Poor Ethan Hawke didn’t have a chance in Training Day against Denzel’s villainous corrupt cop. Similarly, Russell Crowe was hopelessly overshadowed in American Gangster by Denzel’s swaggering Harlem drug runner who ruled the streets with ease. Most recently, John Travolta’s showy, unrealistic, and cartoonish turn in Taking Of Pelham 123 was put to shame by Denzel’s understated and carefully internalized portrayal of a civil servant dispatch operator, which ordinarily wouldn’t be a very interesting character but, as usual, Denzel inexplicably captivates his audience. In fact, Denzel’s acting is so powerfully genuine that, as a parent, watching Man On Fire nearly broke me. Still, I couldn’t look away and, despite the mess that the film became towards the end, it was still rather thrilling to watch John Creasy as he mercilessly took down the kidnappers, brought young Pita home, and found his own redemption.
And don’t even get me started on accents! Denzel wouldn’t dare pull a Tom Cruise, who played a German Nazi with an unapologetic American accent, or Gerard Butler, who figured audiences were too dumb to realize he was speaking his native Scotish burr in the role of an Irishman. Instead, Denzel pulls off such linguistic gymnastics as a South African accent in Cry Freedom, a Jamaican accent in The MIghty Quinn, and—perhaps most impressively—a fetching English cockney accent in For Queen and Country. Not even Marlon Brando would dare to try and imitate that feat.
Now, if there’s anything negative to be said about Denzel Washington, perhaps there’s something to those rumors of slightly dickish behavior, such as the strangeness of merely screaming “38!” at the Book of Eli director. Denzel’s also earned a reputation of being difficult with journalists and refusing to acknowledge his fans. All of this has very little do with his acting unless one considers that his devoted method acting means that he stays in character even while the cameras aren’t rolling, which can also cause some on-set discomfort. Lou Diamond Phillips admitted that working with Denzel in Courage Under Fire was “one of the most uncomfortable situations I’ve ever been in.” Another actor from the same movie, Bronson Pinchot, infamously labeled Denzel as “one of the most unpleasant human beings I’ve ever met in my life” and insisted that it wasn’t merely method acting to blame. In a later response to a request from the Wall Street Journal, Pinchot clarified his words:
I regret my choice of words there, and would like to amend my statement by saying I found his willingness to be ungenerous, unkind, knowingly hurtful both mentally and physically to myself and the crew to be the saddest misuse of stardom I have ever experienced or hope to experience.
The question remains whether Denzel’s attitude was a byproduct of his steadfast method and whether it helped the other actors stay in character too. If anything, this probably improved performances throughout the movie, but I suppose this behavior is a mere trifle when one considers the product.
Prognosis: Denzel once said, “I’ve been fortunate. I don’t pick scripts. Scripts pick me.” However, with a $20 million salary per movie, Denzel could certainly afford to be a bit pickier when evaluating scripts. Perhaps his recent gravitation to more “spiritual” works weighs more heavily than overall quality, but you’d think Denzel could negotiate some script rewrites because, hey, Christian Bale was permitted to righteously screw up Terminator Salvation. In other words, go fuck some shit up, Denzel. We’ll be watching.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.