Denzel Washington is a magnet for adjectives. Make that superlatives.
“This man with fire in his eyes commands the screen,” wrote the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael, reviewing “Cry Free-dom.” “Denzel Washington is the star by right of his talent.”
Roger Ebert called him “an actor of immense and natural charm” for his work in 1991’s “Mississippi Masala,” then upped the ante for the highly acclaimed 1992 biography “Malcolm X” by calling him a performer of “enormous breadth.” Handsome, smart and sexy, with a bit of a dangerous edge, Washington’s presence in a film often boils down to one thing.
“I think popcorn, lots and lots of popcorn,” says Richie Fay, president of film marketing for AMC.
Exhibitors and distributors alike say a Denzel Washington film promises good box office. Whether doing a star turn in “Malcolm X,” taking up where Cary Grant left off in last year’s remake “The Preacher’s Wife,” or using his stage training in an ensemble production like Kenneth Branagh’s “Much Ado About Nothing” in 1993, Washing-ton draws viewers in.
Although Washington’s first film appearance in the dud “Carbon Copy” failed at the box office, he proved his ap-peal playing a doctor on television’s thoughtful “St. Elsewhere.” In 1984, he proved what he could do on the wide screen in “A Soldier’s Story.” By the time he got his first Oscar nom, for playing slain South African civil rights leader Steven Biko for “Cry Freedom,” in 1987, his audience had grown to include every stratum of the moviego-ing public.
“All audiences respond to Denzel — his appeal is universal,” Fay says. “He’s proven himself as an action star and a romantic lead. Men enjoy his movies, and women are obviously drawn to him. He has a real flair, and audiences respond. He’s one of those stars whose films are proven money-makers.”
Strip away intangibles like talent, charisma and sex appeal, and you’re down to the basics of why exhibitors and distributors find it easy to bet on a Denzel Washington film, says Bob McCormick, head film buyer for UA. Bottom line, the actor is good news for the bottom line.
“You’re talking about grossing potential,” McCormick says. “That’s what we’re looking for. You take a star of Den-zel Washington’s stature or Harrison Ford’s stature, and look at the previous films he or she has been in and what they’ve grossed, and you base your decision on that. It’s not that hard to figure out.”
Marc Pascucci, vice president of advertising and publicity for Sony/Loews Theaters, says Washington’s reputation as a renaissance man explains part of his value to the companies looking to make money with his films.
“He’s great for theater owners in that he can do upscale, he can do action, he can do period pieces, and you believe in him,” he says. “He brings versatility and good taste to a film, and that’s why the people who count the grosses like him.”
With films like “Devil in a Blue Dress” in 1995 and last year’s “The Preacher’s Wife,” which failed to achieve blockbuster status, Washington’s appeal to African-American audiences still made the money men happy.
“The African-American audience is extremely important to our business,” Pascucci says. ” ‘Devil in a Blue Dress’ did extremely well in the Magic Johnson Theaters (in Baldwin Hills). It got a good, long run. That’s important, be-cause the longer a picture stays in a theater (because of how distrib/exhib profit-sharing deals are structured), the better off we are.”
But Washington is hardly limited to Afrocentric films. “He’s a gifted actor; he’s a movie star; and everyone likes him,” Pascucci says.
Tom Sherak, chairman of 20th Century Fox Domestic Film Group agrees. “The man is brilliant,” Sherak says.
Women adored him in “Mo’ Better Blues,” in spite of his character’s philandering. In “Philadelphia,” as AIDS-phobic attorney Joe Miller, Washington made his character’s fears and subsequent enlightenment complex and be-lievable.
“No matter what he does or who he plays, you like him,” Sherak says. “You can cry and you can laugh, and you’re happy to be watching one of his films.”
Unlike Richard Gere, whose audience skews more female, or Uma Thurman, whom men flip over and women don’t get, Washington appeals to everyone. Consequently, women and men are equally likely to choose to see his pictures.
“Men like him, and women love him,” Sherak says. “He’s like the guy next door, someone you want to be friends with, and he portrays that on the screen.”