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Denzelness

Somewhere last week, I had a discussion about Denzel Washington, perhaps one of the most over rated actors going around. At least, that's my take.

My problem with Washington is primarily the ticks that he has, the facial movements, the grunts, the sense of supposed emotion the combination of these is meant to bring. It seems to me that these ticks creep into everything he does, and renders each character he plays not the character, but as Denzel. It doesn't matter if he's a burnt out soldier, doesn't matter if he's a criminal mastermind, doesn't matter if he's a corrupt cop, it just doesn't the fuck matter. As soon as he opens his mouth, as soon as he begins to emote, Denzelness comes in strong and powerful. A lot of this can be shown in the trailer for the sub par bio-crime flick American Gangster:



In the film, Lucas, Washington's character, is rendered as a family man, an intelligent, articulate man who builds his empire on his own merits. Regardless of if this was true or not--I've no idea, but the view presented here smacks of being on that doesn't connect with the subject matter--my opinion is that this characterisation is at the base of every Washington role in a film.

In fact, you can almost argue that Washington's Lucus is not that dissimilar in performance to his performance of Rubin Carter in the same the Hurricane:



Oh, sure, there's no moment in American Gangster when Frank Lucus says, "Hate put me in prison, but love's going to break me out," but who knows what could have happened between him and Russel Crowe if there'd been another hour.

For most of Washington's films, his inability to immerse himself into an entirely new persona is not a turn off, though there have been some failures. Take Training Day as an example:



Did you manage to sit through all of that?

Here, Washington is giving the world his hard guy act, though it's crumbled, and he is losing his position of authority. But it's painful to watch: Street Washington is like taking Barbie and putting the toy in gangster clothes and then telling the world how real it is living off a couple of hundred dollars a week with two kids. It's just not cutting it, it's not real, not even in the film sense: Washington's own articulateness ruins it, even as he repeats hit me, hit me, trying to make the script sound as if it hasn't been written by someone not connected with porn, and unable to fully degenerate as the moment is called for.

It's nice that I haven't seen Ethan Hawke in a film for a while, though.

Anyhow, this is what I say when I find myself in Denzel Washington conversations, which are oddly enough, a little more frequent than one would think. Perhaps you think differently to me, perhaps not. I'm not too fussed. It's a good fun argument to have, and I leave you now with this clip from the forgettable revenge thriller Man on Fire, which has a surprising number of fan edits on youtube. In this one, Washington's dialogue has been stripped back, and it plays like a music video, but even then, the Denzelness is in full swing.

Comments

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alawston
Aug. 21st, 2008 11:47 am (UTC)
My ambivalence to Denzelness started as early as Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing. Keanu Reeves got an unfair lashing for his wooden but basically competent performance, but Denzel literally can't deliver his lines. In every line he has, his voice pitches higher and higher as he labours through the sentence, unable to breathe his way through Shakespeare's lines. He's almost gasping by the time he reaches the end of some of his speeches. Given Branagh's penchant for working with a regular coterie, it speaks volumes that Larry Fishburn later got to play Othello rather than Denzel.
benpeek
Aug. 22nd, 2008 12:10 pm (UTC)
i really can't imagine denzel as othello, myself, but it's not like lawrence fishburne did a better job...
jeffsoesbe
Aug. 21st, 2008 03:33 pm (UTC)
I agree with you, but I also think that it's a comment that can be made about a lot of actors/actresses. They don't actually play characters, but only play themselves as the character/role and their "themself-ness" (to derive a phrase from "Denzelness") comes through loud and clear.

That's doesn't mean you can't enjoy watching them in that role. Many people like Denzel the gangster, Denzel the boxer, Denzel the corrupt cop, Denzel the civil rights leader. I personally like Denzel the Missippi guy in love with an Indian woman ("Mississippi Masala"), and I think he could make a really intriguing Batman.

But there's "actors" and then there's Actors. Most people in film, TV, even stage are "actors" - they play themselves in different roles, different situations. There are few Actors/Actresses, who create a whole new character. Streep is one that comes to mind...

- yeff
(Anonymous)
Aug. 21st, 2008 07:39 pm (UTC)
I respectfully disagree !
That's call internal acting sir ! The same thing can be said about Gene Hackman, Al Pacino, Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, Montgomery Clift, Bette Davis, Vanesa redgrave, Jodie Foster or Susan Sarandon.

He simply doesn't change his physical appareance with tone of makeup or use accents in every roles (thought he has done several times, the people who have seen his outstanding portrayal as Malcolm X or Steven Biko know what I talk about)

He's not a chameleon type actor, so you'll always see some of "Denzel" in almost every performance, but he has a depth, emotional range, gravitas and intelligence that VERY few actor living or death have, he has an extraordinary talent ! He's emotionally and spiritualy completely different from his Gandhi-esque performance in Cry Freedom to his street-smart, loud, obnoxious ghetto trash performance in Training Day ; his depressed, emotionally fragile, borderline psychotic headcase, mentally ill in The Manchurian Candidate to his low-key, evil-balanced, classy & controlled business man performance in American Gangster ; to his uncanny real portrayal of Malcolm X to his heartbreaking convict pathetic/loser performance in He Got Game...and the list go on and on Glory/Inside Man, Mo Better Blues/Courage Under Fire, Man On Fire/Much Ado About Nothing (oh and he was brillant in it, it's a Shakespeareans comedy, he delivers his lines perfectly, no mention that he's the most experienced Shakespearian actor among American A-list leading men of the past few decades years (a little known factoid) !

He has so many great performances, he's always so excellent, he has also the rare gift to make watchable any movies, Without his heartbreaking and incredibly honest performance, John Q would be a piece of C****, same for The Siege & Out Of Time.

I respect your opinion but for me he's such an exceptional actor ! Hackman & Pacino have the same screen persona and physical mannerisms in every movies but like Denzel they are so emotionally powerful and comitted, they can shade their characters internally, to give a different characterisation and still being Denzel, Gene and Pacino on the surface, that's amazing !
jeffsoesbe
Aug. 21st, 2008 08:12 pm (UTC)
Re: I respectfully disagree !
The "internal acting" point is a good, and I would agree with you on that. Denzel might still be Denzel in all those roles, but Denzel can be very enjoyable to watch.

I would agree with the others you name - many of them are people whose movies I enjoy, even if they are primarily the same core "person" in every role.

There are also some actors who can/do transform themselves for a role - Streep, Hoffman, Day Lewis all come to mind.

So I think it comes down to whether the core "Denzel" works for a viewer. I think Ben's saying that, for him, it doesn't. For you, it obviously does!

- yeff
benpeek
Aug. 22nd, 2008 12:17 pm (UTC)
Re: I respectfully disagree !
i honestly don't find denzel that interesting to watch anymore, though no doubt there are people who will disgaree (as you can see).
jeffsoesbe
Aug. 22nd, 2008 03:49 pm (UTC)
Re: I respectfully disagree !
For everything, there is a hard-core fan. And the Internet makes them easy to find. And for them to find you!

At least they were polite about their hard-core fan-ness. That is something, in this day and age of anonymous vitriol.

- yeff
lucius_t
Aug. 21st, 2008 06:43 pm (UTC)
A friend of mine wrote the journalism piece the flick American Gangster was based on, and I met Frank Lucas in his company. Denzel is no Frank Lucas. The problem I have with him is he can't play street and he wants to. Never was there a greater dsicrepancy between character and actor than between Frank and Denzel. One is a walking piece of shit and the other is egomaniacal actor. One of the many cool things they left out of the movie, Frank and his pals were huge fans of blaxploitation films during the 70s and they decided to make one themselves. They hired a Hollywood director and Frank played the lead. The movie fell apart when Frank attempted to kill the director. That's the short of it, the long of it is fucking hilarious. I should also say that rarely has a movie been made that so entirely BS and passed itself off as real. For one thing, Richie, the Russell Crowe, never met Frank except once, that on the day they arrested him. I could go on...but it is, after all, your blog. :)
benpeek
Aug. 22nd, 2008 12:10 pm (UTC)
heh. i'm not going to stop you if you want to go on.

incidently, at the end of the film they suggest that richie goes to defend frank, or something similar. did that ever happen in real life?
lucius_t
Aug. 22nd, 2008 12:39 pm (UTC)
Fuck no! Richie thought as much about Frank as he would a piece of gum stuck to his show, The guy was just another collar.

The most egregious change in the movie is that they changed the method of dope shipment from Vietnam--Frank hid the packets inside the bodies of dead GIs, not the bodybags.
drasecretcampus
Aug. 22nd, 2008 07:30 am (UTC)
He's just so damned ... noble. Nothing wrong in itself, I suppose and maybe he's the sort of star like Cary Grant who was pretty well always Cary Grant, but there's no stretch, no subtlety. It almost feels like racism because there's no ambiguity and richness. (Morgan Freeman just about avoids the nobles stereotype.) I'd rather see Fisburne or Whitaker or even Smith.

benpeek
Aug. 22nd, 2008 12:17 pm (UTC)
you think freeman avoids the noble image? i would have thought he embodied it, myself.
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