SANTA BARBARA-If you’re good, the people will come see you. Actor Denzel Washington is that good. Actually, he is better than good. He’s the best. Washington has been so good for so long that millions of adoring fans has come out in droves to be entertained by his movies.
The first time I ever watched a Denzel Washington film was when I took myself to the movies on a solo afternoon date to catch “Carbon Copy.” Like a lot of Baby Boomers, I’ve been watching Washington ever since.
It’s been a pleasure to collaborate with Washington about this movie thing setup. He makes the movies, I go see them. So far, it has worked out pretty well for the both of us. And it’s a good thing for us slackers that Washington made the decision to tap into the theatrical universe for life.
That moment of career clarity, Washington told a packed Arlington Theatre audience on the second night of the 32nd Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF), came when he was still trying to find his place in life. After trying out pre-med before giving journalism a chance, Washington finally found a subject he could gravitate to after he took up an acting class.
Things sort of fell in place after that.
“I started in pre-med. I took a course-codeine morphogenesis, and I knew it wasn’t for me,” Washington said. “I couldn’t even say it.”
Washington would receive his affirmation about his life calling during a production at a summer camp.
“After taking that class (acting), that summer I worked at the YMCA camp and the counselors put on a show for the kids,” Washington said. ‘So someone said to me, ‘You know, you’re really a natural on stage. Have you ever thought about acting?’”
Washington is to acting what butter spread over warm bread taste like: something good for the soul.
Washington continues to receive all the accolades and worldwide fame he rightfully deserves. That’s quite okay with me. I will just sit back for a couple of hours when I can and soak up the master thespian’s work-one film at a time. There’s been quite a few.
It’s been a long list of greatness. That’s been a lot of popcorn, sodas and expensive movie tickets. I’ll take that any day, though.
I’m sure, when it comes to watching the best in the business, not too many people will mind forking over some of their hard-earned cash to see Washington put a drill in the head of a bad guy in “The Equalizer” or go toe-to-toe with the great Gene Hackman in “Crimson Tide,” a role that very well should have landed him an Academy Award.
Washington has been so good for so long that it never ceases to amaze me how he can routinely turn one character into someone we all can identify with. How many people don’t know people like “Fences” Troy Maxson? How many of us share Maxson’s pain of regrettable underachievement and being boxed in to conform to societal order?
The answer is a whole lot of folks. That’s the beauty of Washington’s mercurial acting chops. He can go from playing a rogue police officer in “Training Day” (a character I could care less about because Washington was so doggone good at playing the bad guy that he earned an Oscar behind it) to the smooth private detective Easy Rawlins in “Devil in a Blue Dress.”
The power of Washington’s raw intensity comes through like fireworks in “Glory” and burns slowly to perfection in the gripping drama “A Soldier’s Story.” Perhaps this is a big reason I have been drawn to Washington’s films over the years. Washington doesn’t just light up the screen, he commands it.
There’s presence and THERE is PRESENCE. Watching Washington tackle a role with masterful precision is like looking at the artistic creation of Van Gogh. It doesn’t get too much better than that. I mean, who could turn down the opportunity to see Washington basically bring back to life “Malcolm X” or climb into the arena with the powerful “Hurricane?”
With so much brilliance he’s offered to the film world, it is no wonder that Washington is finding himself at the center of attention during this awards season. He’s up for an Academy Award and “Fences, adapted from the playwright-the late and great August Wilson, has garnered multiple Oscar nods. The Screen Actors Guild has even hopped on the Washington train, handing the veteran actor his first SAG Award.
Stepping out in a pair of sneakers to accommodate the conservative bluish teal suit he wore on the red carpet, Washington recently picked up another honor, a lifetime achievement award in the form of the Maltin Modern Master Award at SBIFF. And like he does so often in his film roles, Washington was superb in turning on the easable charm that has made him a folk hero.
Sitting and listening to Washington converse with Leonard Maltin about different aspects of his acting career, Washington entertained the Arlington Theatre crowd for roughly an hour and a half with the refreshing candor of an old friend.
One of the more engaging moments that he shared was when Washington snapped at attention and sat up straight in his chair as he reminisced about how his mother always told him to sit up when sitting down.
“I could hear my mother’s voice, ‘Boy, sit up,’” Washington said. “Speaking of my mother…she owned a beauty shop. So I walked in one day and I said mom, just to answer your question, Washington told Maltin. “Did you know I was going to make it? She’s like, ‘Oh, we’re into pronouns now.’ So she started calling me superstar. She said, ‘Okay, superstar. Go in there and empty those garbage cans. Oh, superstar, would you grab that bucket and squeegee and hit those windows for me.’ So she brought me down to earth real quick.”
It was one of examples of the humility of Washington that makes us identify with his characters. During this myriad of storytelling, Washington takes us on his long, winding journey to becoming the top-notch actor that he is today.
Of course, fame and fortune wasn’t exactly the formula Washington chased. After being sidelined to a couple of other career options that didn’t work out, Washington hit the stage. He hasn’t looked back since his 1975 debut.
During the interview with Maltin, Washington elaborated in detail about what he was willing and not willing to do to be in the entertainment industry.
“I absolutely knew what I wasn’t going to do,” Washington told Maltin. “I had an ego as a young man. I just wasn’t that guy.”
Finding his niche may not have come easy for Washington. We’re just grateful that he did.
“The moment when I knew, the moment…not that I knew,” said Washington. “I was so green…like I was counting how many people (would show up for a performance). I was doing a play and I wanted to see how many people were out there. It was a feeling, the feeling of finding your place in the world. People that are telling you that you could do this, all these people coming out to see me. There was a buzz and you know, I found myself.”