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Denzel Washington, Viola Davis Become Instant Oscar Frontrunners in ‘Fences’

Denzel Washington’s big-screen adaptation of August Wilson’s “Fences” has arrived, and it’s an Oscar player to reckon with this year. But that’s hardly a surprise for a project based on Pulitzer Prize-winning source material that has landed major Tony Awards in two separate Broadway productions.

The film unspooled for industry audiences Saturday, screening in Westwood before a crowd that included Screen Actors Guild nominating committee members, Academy voters and press. Washington was on hand for a post-screening Q&A moderated by Variety‘s Jenelle Riley, along with co-stars Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson and Saniyya Sidney.

When asked what drew him to the role of Troy Maxson, Washington let loose a chuckle and quipped, “The role of Troy Maxson.” Indeed, when producer Scott Rudin first sent him the script for the film, which Wilson had penned himself, Washington wasn’t interested in diving into it as a movie immediately. He wanted to work through the material on the stage first, which led to Rudin raising the money for the 2010 Broadway revival.

“August Wilson wrote a masterpiece,” Washington said. “It’s one of the great plays of all time. It’s the gift that keeps on giving and as we found out, it works as a film as well.”

Washington had directed Davis previously, in the 2002 film “Antwone Fisher.” The actress said she considers herself “a friend and a fan,” and spoke about how easy Washington made things for her and the other actors.

“The two things he said to us before we started was, ‘Remember the love,’ and the second thing he said, which is a frightening statement for actors, was, ‘Trust me” — and we did,” Davis said. “A lot of people don’t know what to say to actors to unlock it. A lot of times they know what to do to keep it in there, and make you afraid, but not Denzel. He’s a great leader. And he’s an extraordinary man. He’s a man of God and a man of great integrity, and I think it shows in his work.”

Reviews of the film are currently embargoed until December, but it’s fair to at least note that both Washington and Davis have now charged ahead in their respective Oscar races. The crowd certainly seemed to agree with that sentiment, bursting into applause after multiple big moments in the film and greeting the whole team with an enthusiastic standing ovation afterwards, threatening to blow the roof off when Davis was introduced.

Washington’s performance, to start, is infused with the same bravado and energy that brought him a Tony six years ago. It’s incredibly layered, maybe even career-best work. He feels like the odds-on frontrunner in the lead actor category, and as laid out in a recent column, it seems to be him and “Manchester by the Sea” star Casey Affleck leading the pack: two strikingly different performances that nevertheless feature interesting parallels.

But three Oscars? Only six actors have ever done it. Washington’s previous wins came for “Glory” (best supporting actor in 1989) and “Training Day” (best actor in 2001), but this performance towers over them both. And in a year already set to hold the #OscarsSoWhite sentiment at bay with contenders like “Fences,” “Hidden Figures,” “Moonlight” and — if it manages some support — “The Birth of a Nation,” what a moment it would be for Washington to become just the seventh actor on a list that includes Ingrid Bergman, Walter Brennan, Daniel Day-Lewis, Katharine Hepburn, Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep.

As for Davis, the Academy can probably go ahead and engrave the statue. Due respect and appreciation to Michelle Williams, Naomie Harris, Nicole Kidman and the rest of this year’s supporting actress contenders, who give exceptional performances and will rightly be in the thick of the conversation — but this race just ended.

There was some deliberation internally about whether Davis would be campaigned in the lead or supporting category. The fact is she would have been a force in either field, but in supporting, she pretty much has an unencumbered path to Oscar victory laid out in front of her — three years after she was poised to win the lead prize for “The Help,” only to drop it to “The Iron Lady” star Meryl Streep in the end.

Beyond that, Henderson (who was also Tony-nominated), Williamson (who thought for sure he had blown the audition for the play) and Adepo (who delivers strong work that builds to complex emotions) will all gather their share of votes in the supporting actor category. And there are numerous possibilities for nominations besides: picture, director, adapted screenplay, below-the-line elements like costume and production design, etc.

“Fences” arrives as a robust player in the race, part of a Paramount awards stable already making waves with “Arrival” and “Florence Foster Jenkins,” with “Allied” and “Silence” to come. It’s the kind of work that simply demands trophies — and it will no doubt claim its share.

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