By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com February 10, 2012 at 12:58PM
Sometimes, winning an Oscar seems to change things for an actor. Look at Al Pacino, who's barely taken anything worth his time since he won for "Scent of a Woman" in 1992, or Kevin Spacey, who starred in a string of dull would-be-heartwarmers after picking up his gold for "American Beauty." And you could argue the same for Denzel Washington. He's irrefutably one of the most charismatic screen presences around, with even more gravitas than ever before as he closes on his 60s. But since he won Best Actor from the Academy for "Training Day," his film roles seem to have been a variation on a theme; thrillers that sometimes work, sometimes don't, but rarely leave you reeling the way his best work does, with his real energy seemingly reserved for directing work or stage performances like "Julius Caesar" and "Fences" (the latter of which won him a Tony).
"Safe House," which opens today, is another one of those. He's entertaining to watch, to be sure, but it's a meld of most of what he's done in the last decade. Nevertheless, he's still the best thing in it, and if nothing else, it served as a reminder of the truly electric turns he's given over the years. Below, we've picked out five of our favorite Denzel performances from across his 25-year big-screen career. Let us know your favorites in the comments section. And hopefully, we'll see something a little out of the ordinary later in the year when Washington stars as a substance-abusing airline pilot in Robert Zemeckis' drama "Flight."
Let's be honest, "Cry Freedom" is no great shakes. It's well-meaning enough that it's hard to dislike, but it's the model of the black-person's-struggle-told-through-white-eyes sub-genre, the birth of everything Ed Zwick's ever made, and the film suffers for placing so much emphasis on Kevin Kline's journalist (although Kline is strong), and the second half suffers for the absence of Steve Biko. But that's a testament to the fire of Denzel Washington's performance in the film. Plucked from hospital drama "St. Elsewhere," on which he'd been a regular for nearly five years, to play the youthful South African civil rights activist, Washington won his first Best Supporting Actor nomination. There's a quiet, calm control to him, a passionate decency, and Washington somehow infuses a sense of internal life, even if director Richard Attenborough never lets us see Biko except through the eyes of Donald Woods (Kline). It was the first real demonstration of his pure, natural charisma, the kind that could make a man like Biko a leader, and a man like Washington a star, and that the second half of the film feels so flat is down to his absence (so much so that Attenborough cuts in flashbacks of Biko throughout).
Washington lost his "Cry Freedom" Oscar to Sean Connery in "The Untouchables," but he didn't have to wait long to pick one up -- two years later, he beat out Marlon Brando, Martin Landau, Danny Aiello and Dan Aykroyd for his performance in Ed Zwick's "Glory." Like "Cry Freedom," it's a white man's black history movie, with a miscast liberal hero (Matthew Broderick), and black characters that aren't much more than archetypes. But there's no denying that Zwick makes his tale of the 54th Massachussets regiment, one of the first all-black units in the Union army in the Civil War, work like gangbusters, and Washington, whose big-screen career was still on the rise, was the stand-out in a strong cast. As freed slave Trip, he's as prickly and vengeful as Biko was calm and saintly, and is a much needed stand-in for the contemporary black voice in the film. But when the time comes, he's just as heroic as any of his comrades. Were there better performances in his career, more deserving of an Oscar? Sure (see the next entry). But this was the part that put him on the path from ridiculously handsome character actor to bona-fide A-lister, so we don't begrudge him that win, especially as he is so strong in the film.