Today is the birthday of Denzel Washington (b. 1954). He is a naturalistic actor, thus, I wouldn’t want to include him in my Hall of Hams (although I did see him as Richard III at the Public Theatre back in 1990). In my view (this will surprise no one who’s read No Applause) Denzel has done far more for race relations in this country than a clown car full of nattering, bloviating politicians. He is the first African American to cross the barrier into being a straight-up Hollywood leading man. Not a “black leading man” or a self-consciously crossing over leading man (Sidney Poitier’s thankless but historic role) , but simply a leading man. Miraculously, he’s managed to do this without being a “Tom”, periodically playing angry, outspoken black males in films such as Glory (1989), several Spike Lee films (I liked Malcolm X so much I saw it three times at the theatre), The Hurricane (1999), and more recently American Gangster (2007).
I saw Flight a few weeks ago; I’ve been sitting on writing about it til today. Denzel is duly awesome in it, doing a “Bette Davis” by letting himself (widely regarded as one of the most handsome actors in Hollywood) be fat, out-of-shape, bleary and ugly. He does a bang-up job, undoubted Oscar nomination material, as an alcoholic, drug-addicted airline pilot. This despite a crappy, highly implausible script that veers wildly in tone between tragedy and moronic stoner comedy (in the form of John Goodman as a pusher-man, who seems to have been beamed in from some other movie). The opening set piece (the disaster movie part) is near flawless…one of the best onscreen depictions of an air disaster I have ever seen. Even that scene, though, is grossly misconceived. The accident turns out to be not due to pilot error. Indeed, the fact that he is fucked-up saves the plane, because the pilot takes all kinds of crazy risks to get out of a fatal dive. This would never happen, so what lesson are we supposed to draw from that?
Everything after that scene is moldy fruit salad, beginning with a cutesy rehab confab between Denzel, implausibly attractive junkie Kelly O’Reilly and a cancer patient. The movie goes downhill from there, despite Denzel’s heroic performance as a user in denial. It’s all by-the-numbers Lifetime stuff, culminating with the character’s revelation and admission that he is an alcoholic — in the middle of a public hearing about the causes of his airplane crash! It’s all craven Oscar-bait, and will probably work on most of the suckers. Embarrassments there are a-plenty. Chief among them is the highly implausible (is that the third or fourth time I’ve used “implausible”?) fact that Denzel’s character is a Stephen Stills fan. I think I’ve made it plain that I’m for color-blind casting, but it’s asking too much to make us watch Denzel sing “Love the One You’re With.” He does, though, and he really earned his paycheck that day. Like the airline pilot he plays in the film, Denzel can do anything.
Addendum: this just in: Denzel to star on Broadway in Raisin in the Sun: http://www.nypost.com/p/entertainment/theater/sun_to_shine_on_denzel_RS9Jur79ZrnbviUx8aZ2RL