Sunday, September 1, 2013

Sunday Best: Actors of All Time # 21 - Denzel Washington

photo by SJaud


The Book of Eli
American Gangster
Remember the Titans
The Bone Collector
Courage Under Fire
Crimson Tide
Much Ado About Nothing
Malcolm X

While acting is not all about charisma, it is hard to deny the abundance of this quality in Denzel Washington.  He has a gravitas that few others project and he commands our attention like few can.

And even though he has grown as an actor, his early work is still as potent today as it was originally.  His Oscar winning turn in Glory is marvelous as an ex-slave soldier so full of anger at everyone that he lashes out at even his brothers in arms.  He had an element of gleeful bully about him but it came from a place that Washington's vulnerability.  He also showed an amazingly powerful stillness.  In the scene where he receives lashes in front of the regiment, he takes his character from defiance to pain to sadness with nearly imperceptible facial changes that hint at a torrent of agony underneath a stoic face.

Washington is also one of the only movie stars who, I think, can do Shakespeare wonderfully in an American accent.  His portrayal of the Prince in Much Ado About Nothing brought in his usual leading-man qualities, but he also layered his character with a sadness at being rejected.  And very few actors have the strength of character to go toe-to-toe against Gene Hackman as he did in Crimson Tide.  Watching them try to take command over the other is electric.  Washington is more cerebral and "complicated" than Hackman's character.  But that complication does not come off, as Hackman's character points out, as indecisiveness.  He comes off as a man of thought as well as a man of action.  

He uses all his skills of body language and posture to convey the inner life of his character, whether it is the swagger of his kingpin in American Gangster or his lethal samurai-like gait in The Book of Eli.  In the later he consistently presents the conflict he feels as a man of both faith and violence.  But even when he is deprived of this technique, Washington can still pull off one heck of a performance.  In The Bone Collector, he plays a man completely paralyzed except for his head and one finger.  He projects complete anger and despair in the beginning but draws you in with the dawning realization that his life might still have purpose.

But his best performance was his tour-de-force in Malcolm X.  It wasn't simply that he imitated the cadence and charisma of the historical figure.  Washington takes you on the character's journey from 2-bit hood, to convict, to Muslim convert, to iconic leader, to disillusioned disciple, to isolated man of conscience.  And with every beat, Washington inhabits the character with complete believability warts and all.  He does not flinch from showing the good and bad side of the character as a 3-dimmensional person.  Spike Lee's direction is fairly good, but it is Washington's skill that makes you feel as if you've gone on epic journey of the soul.

And that is why Denzel Washington is one of the greatest actors of all time.

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