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Is Denzel Washington Wasting His Talent?

5 February 2013 by Mikey Papadopoulos

Is one of cinema's greatest actors in enough great movies?

Denzel Hayes Washington Jr. is quite simply one of the finest actors in movie history. Handsome, charming, articulate and a commanding screen presence - in an industry where celebrity and talent are too often conflated, Washington is a true star.

DI Denzel Washington American Gangster Gangster GalleryThe 58-year-old, who could pass for 15 years younger, remains a huge box office draw and is never less than compelling in any film he chooses. And therein lies the question. For a man possessed of so much ability, is Denzel Washington wasting his talent?

This may seem a bizarre, counterintuitive suggestion about a successful, acclaimed, six time nominated and two time Oscar-victorious box office superstar. But that it exactly the point - he is SO talented his film choices could, and perhaps should, be better.

Washington has been a fixture in the public consciousness for decades. His first, if inauspicious role was in Michael Winner’s 1974 vigilante thriller Death Wish, where he played the uncredited ‘Alleyway Mugger #1’, gunned down by an angry Charles Bronson. He later worked in theatre and made commercials before getting his big break as Dr. Phillip Chandler on the US medical drama St Elsewhere in 1982. He has never looked back.

His role as the murdered South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko in 1987 Cry Freedom secured him his first Academy Award nomination, though he lost out to Sean Connery for The Untouchables.

Glory - Denzel WashingtonThis disappointment was largely forgotten when he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1990 for his part in Glory, the story of the first all-black company fighting during the American Civil War.

Washington was a star. Mo' Better Blues, the first of his four collaborations with director Spike Lee, followed. But it was their second film together in 1992 that would catapult Washington onto the A-List.

His performance as Malcolm X is one of the greatest performances in movie history. Washington is mesmeric as Malcolm Little, the street hustler who morphs into the erudite, radical black leader Malcolm X, before then embracing a more peaceful and inclusive approach to racial politics. It is a breathtaking tour de force, and the defining performance of his career… so far.

It was not a surprise to see Washington nominated for the Oscar in 1993, though the contentious subject matter always meant a win was unlikely. Al Pacino took home the award that year for Scent Of A Woman but in truth, his performance was the weakest of all the nominees, with Washington’s towering Malcolm X, undoubtedly the best of the lot.

After returning to his Shakespearean roots in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing, Washington took a role in his first properly mainstream movie alongside Julia Roberts in John Grisham adap The Pelican Brief. Despite lukewarm reviews, it was a big hit - a situation often repeated in his subsequent films.

In 1993’s Philadelphia, he starred as the homophobic lawyer who represents dying AIDS patient Tom Hanks. Hanks gushed that "working alongside Washington was like going to film school". However, it was his next movie that would largely define the tone of his career.

crimson tide DI1995’s Crimson Tide was a Simpson-Bruckheimer production, a gung-ho thriller set aboard a nuclear submarine that saw the first collaboration between Washington and director Tony Scott. It's a slick and exciting B-movie, elevated by the presence of Gene Hackman and Washington, two leads on tremendous form. With a different cast, the film could have been merely an effective thriller, but the chemistry and intensity of the two stars made the film sizzle.

 After Crimson Tide, a pattern emerged in Washington’s career - an excellent film would be followed by lesser films in which Washington nevertheless remained superb, his magnetism lifting them to a level they wouldn’t otherwise deserve. For example, the wonderful Devil In A Blue Dress was followed by Courage Under Fire, The Preacher's Wife, Fallen, He Got Game, The Siege and The Bone Collector. All solid. Nothing sensational.

1999’s The Hurricane finally saw him produce another truly stunning performance, one of his favourites alongside Malcolm X, as the imprisoned boxer Rubin Carter, for which he received another Best Actor Oscar nomination.

Denzel Washington DI 01Remember The Titans followed, before he finally secured the Best Actor Oscar his talent deserved for 2001’s Training Day, as the charismatic, corrupt and manipulative police detective, Alonso Harris.

Significantly, after John Q and his impressive directing debut Antwone Fisher in 2002, Washington made Out Of Time. Though the rather ordinary thriller underperformed at the box office, it put Washington in the exclusive club of acting talent who could command $20m a movie.

2004's Man On Fire saw Washington re-team with Tony Scott for the second time, in a slick exploitation movie that again felt like a much better film just for featuring the actor. His friendship and understanding with the late director led to a total of five film collaborations that have all been fun, but largely disposable. Since 2001, only in Ridley Scott’s underrated 2007 crime epic American Gangster has Washington approached true greatness.

Flight-DIThe first 25 minutes of his latest film are up with the very best of his career. Washington is terrific in Flight as the alcoholic, drug-abusing pilot whose extraordinary skills save the aircraft from plummeting after a technical problem. However, his life begins to unravel after he is declared a hero, and his addictions risk being exposed. After that scintillating start, the film stumbles into a melodrama that often feels akin to a TV movie.

But yet again, Washington transcends the material with a wonderful performance that has nabbed him his sixth Oscar nod. 

In 1995, he admitted, “It was never my dream to be famous. I didn't start acting to be a movie star. I started in the theatre and my desire was to get better at my craft. It's still my desire. I don't consider myself a movie star, nor do I really have the desire to be one. I'm just an entertainer. An actor who works hard at his craft.”

That he is an exceptional entertainer is beyond argument. Indeed, his mere name above the title is a guarantee of quality. He is never, ever less than excellent.

But do too many of his films fail to match his standing as one of the greats of the medium? He has proven that he has more to give, but are we being too greedy for asking he deliver it?