It’s one thing to achieve success; it’s more difficult to sustain it. But the trickiest feat is to use it smartly. On any of those standards, Denzel Washington is off-the-charts successful.
The winner of this year’s Cecil B. DeMille Award has been a star for more than 30 years. He could have played it safe, picking roles that tap into his likability and charisma, and he still would have had a good career. But he has continued to surprise his fans by taking on more complex characters. He has also stretched himself by returning to the stage, and adding on the jobs of producer and director.
But the most impressive thing is that he’s used his clout to help others, both by giving major breaks to some talented (but struggling) artists and by quietly giving time, money and attention to philanthropies.
When the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. announced him as the winner, the org’s president Lorezo Soria said, “Washington’s long and storied career is earmarked by his countless roles in front and behind the camera. It is the HFPA’s privilege to honor his contributions to the entertainment industry with the Cecil B. DeMille Award.”
Washington joins a long line of Hollywood notables, from the first DeMille recipient, Walt Disney (1953), to last year’s honoree, George Clooney. The list ranges from Bette Davis and Gregory Peck through Sidney Poitier and Steven Spielberg.
As an actor, Washington has received seven Golden Globes nominations. His first came for a supporting turn as South African activist Steven Biko in 1987’s “Cry Freedom”; his most recent was for the 2012 film “Flight,” a tour de force as an airline pilot battling his addictions and his conscience.
|Denzel Washington has won Golden Globes for his perfs in “Glory” and “The Hurricane.”
Courtesy of TriStar Pictures/Universal
Over the years, he has won two Globes, for “Glory” (supporting, in 1989) and “The Hurricane” (dramatic actor, 1999). He’s also won two Oscars, a Tony and 16 NAACP Image Awards.
Washington proved his talent back in college days at Fordham U., playing the title roles in “Othello” and “Emperor Jones.” His Hollywood breakthrough came in the 1981 comedy “Carbon Copy,” playing the illegitimate son of a buttoned-down businessman (George Segal). He became a star the following year in NBC’s “St. Elsewhere,” continuing for six seasons in the series.
Onscreen, he’s played a wide range of characters, and particularly notable are his collaborations with directors Spike Lee, Tony Scott and Antoine Fuqua.
Washington starred in the 1990 musical drama “Mo’ Better Blues” for Lee, and followed two years later with a towering performance as “Malcolm X.” Variety’s review of the latter film said he was “forceful, magnetic and multi-layered.” (Washington had previously played the icon in “When the Chickens Came Home to Roost,” a 1981 Laurence Holder play about a meeting between Malcolm X and Elijah Mohammad, that played Off Broadway.)
He starred for the late, great Tony Scott in 1995’s “Crimson Tide”; their fifth and final collaboration was the 2010 thriller “Unstoppable.” Fuqua directed him to his Oscar-winning turn in “Training Day”; the two are collaborating for the third time in the upcoming remake of “The Magnificent Seven.”
Unlike many stars, the actor has frequently returned to the stage, always taking risks. He did Shakespeare with “Richard III” at the Public Theater in 1990, and then “Julius Caesar” on Broadway in 2005. He won plaudits for both, and won a Tony for the 2010 production of August Wilson’s “Fences,” starring with Viola Davis. He returned to Broadway again for a revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” in 2014, giving a performance that was memorable for anyone lucky enough to have seen it.
Washington has backed projects that are complex, often risky, like the 2002 suspenser “John Q,” which centers on the health-care crisis. In all, he has produced six films (including two documentaries), and directed two. In both of his directing ventures, “Antwone Fisher” (2002) and “The Great Debaters” (2007), he tackled thoughtful, intimate topics — and he gave a break to scripters and actors who weren’t marquee names.
Among the many recipients of his generosity are the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, West Los Angeles Church of God in Christ, Fisher House Foundation, Children’s Fund of South Africa and his alma mater, Fordham U.
Audiences love him because he always chooses projects with integrity. Some of them work better than others, but he’s got a good batting average.
The audience loves him because he’s Everyman. Even when he’s playing noble characters, they’re not plaster saints. They’re admirable, but accessible and always human.