Denzel Washington is on the cover of this week’s Variety, promoting his two-fer as both the star of The Tragedy of Macbeth and director of A Journal for Jordan. For Macbeth, he’s a heavy favorite for an Oscar nomination; if it happens, it would be his ninth nomination and potentially third Best Actor win. With eight nominations, he’s currently in the ranks with Jack Lemmon, Marlon Brando, and Peter O’Toole, nine would bump him up to the level of Al Pacino, Paul Newman, and Spencer Tracy. Were he to win three, he would rank alongside Jack Nicholson, Walter Brennan, and Daniel Day-Lewis (Will Smith and Benedict Cumberbatch are not exactly clearing the path). Any way you cut it, though, Denzel is in rarified company, not only one of the most widely admired actors of the contemporary era, but one of the last bona fide Movie Stars, though the ongoing pandemic box office slump is especially hard on adult-oriented films like Macbeth and Jordan, regardless of Movie Star involvement.
Still, Denzel’s appeal endures, which is one of the themes of his Variety profile. Everyone likes Denzel, and even a reputation for being sometimes brusque in interviews doesn’t dim his charm. (Writer Clayton Davis works hard to ensure us that Denzel is pleasant, and brief responses do not equal a bad mood.) I’ve met Denzel Washington, like every real Movie Star, he is super charismatic, and interesting to talk to in large part because he doesn’t waste time on banalities. He actually wants to talk to people, not just exchange pleasantries. In Hollywood, a town built on insincere pleasantries and meaningless small talk, that might come across as brisk bordering on gruff, but everywhere else he’s just a good conversationalist.
This is primarily an award season fluff piece, and exploring intergenerational links between artists, particularly artists of color, isn’t the main agenda, but there are glances at Denzel’s influence, from Michael B. Jordan, who calls working with Denzel “an all-around master class”, to Denzel’s project of adapting the entirety of August Wilson’s “Century Cycle” to film. He’s done two already, with Fences and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and he’s set to produce The Piano Lesson next. As much ink has been spilled and clothes have been rent over what the pandemic is doing to the state of the box office, Denzel points out that more people saw Ma Rainey on Netflix than Fences in theaters, so it’s not surprising that The Piano Lesson will also be distributed by Netflix.
If Sidney Poitier cleared the way for Denzel, then Denzel has cleared the way for a couple of generations of new stars, from Jamie Foxx and Mahershala Ali to Chadwick Boseman and MBJ. Boseman, in particular, was being touted as “the next Denzel” before his tragic passing in 2020, but Denzel isn’t interested in who will fill his shoes when he’s gone. As he points out, Foxx and Ali have forged their own paths have very successful careers as a result, and MBJ might have the same kind of broad appeal as Denzel, but he has an entirely different vibe, both as a performer and a celebrity. Like any great Movie Star, there won’t ever be another Denzel, but his spotlight is so great, it will spill over onto others and illuminate the artists who follow him, as Poitier’s spotlight illuminated him early in his career. “It doesn’t have to be one person,” Denzel says of “the next Denzel”, and that is the truest measure of both his influence, and how much the industry has changed in his forty-plus years as a Movie Star. There won’t be A next Denzel, there will be a whole cohort.
Check out a new trailer for The Tragedy of Macbeth here: