What do you know about Denzel Washington? Outside of his film roles — varied and classic — what do you know? Did you know that he’s been married to his (first, only) wife since 1983? That he has four children? That his father was a preacher, that his parents divorced when he was 14, that he went to private high school and nearly flunked out of Fordham before he discovered acting? Did you know that he’s been possessed by the Holy Spirit, that he considers going into pastorhood, that he prays every day?
Unless you’ve read the six articles — from GQ, Entertainment Weekly, Grantland, and The New York Times — that I just read, chances are you did not. He’s the biggest star you know the littlest about.
But you do know who Denzel Washington is. You know what he represents: a blend of charisma and honor, save when he “goes bad” and plays the amoral, the stubborn, the angry. He’s a master of historical ventriloquism, the first choice for any bio-pic of a black man. Yet he’s also dexterous, racially speaking, in the same way that Will Smith is: if a role is written for a white man, he can play it. Which isn’t to say that his image isn’t inflected with racial awareness — see, for example, his three collaborations with Spike Lee, including Malcolm X, along with his role as “The Hurricane” and various other racially specific roles. His image is not a-racial, but he can play a-racial — and that’s part of what has made him a star. (Apocryphal legend has him adament about decreasing, or altogether cutting, storylines and/or scenes in which he appears, romantically speaking, with white women: white men don’t want to see me go home with their women, he’s said to have argued. Whether or not this is true, the principle holds true: all the way back in The Pelican Brief, when his character played it chaste with Julia Roberts (despite the romance depicted in the filmic adaptation) through last week’s Flight, when he fools around with a beautiful, very white love interest….but never more than a kiss, and very fleetingly onscreen).
Point is: Denzel is, economically speaking, one of the most powerful and resonant stars working today. He is, however, as I like to parse it in my stardom classes, a star purely in terms of picture personality and capital. People like the type of role he plays, and they like it well enough that they actually go and see his movies. He is not a cultural star, per se — his image is limited to his roles, and what they seem to represent. What they represent is something powerful: his picture personality is that of an eloquent, persuasively charismatic man capable of manipulating and transcending the environment in which he finds himself. On the street, in the boxing ring, in the courtroom, amidst gangsters, in the air — he dominates. Sometimes he’s a bit nefarious and morally dubious; most often, however, he’s righteous and affable. Like Tom Cruise or Matt Damon, he is, let it be said, a pure pleasure to watch on screen.
Which is why audiences flock to his movies. His track record is nearly without fault. He doesn’t do risky independent films; somewhat humorously, his lowest grossing films are the ones he chose to direct himself. He plays big men, leading men, and he plays them at least once a year. He’s not Nicolas Cage, taking anything that comes his way to pay off the mortgage on his 52 houses, but he’s not Daniel Day-Lewis, or even Will Smith, either. He works. And it’s not as simple as a “one for me, one for them” industry algebra — the type of visible rotation you see in the careers of Clooney and Damon. There’s a fine line between his plainly populist works and his prestige ones, usually marked by the extent to which he’s willing to play up the moral ambiguity of his character. And this most recent turn, as an alcoholic yet valiant pilot in Flight, is in the later camp. He’s marvelous in it, but he’s also very easy to despise.
Such dexterity is central to Washington’s picture personality, with its dominant themes of charisma and skill. I’ve never seen Washington not charismatic: whether he’s evil or good, broken or whole, he’s always charming. You can’t take your eyes off of him. You see that he deserves whatever splendors he’s achieved, and if he hasn’t achieved them, then he deserves them anyway. Even in Flight, when his character is (no spoiler) a huge drunken piece of shit, there’s a moment when he comes out of the hotel room, captain’s uniform on, Rolling Stones soundtrack turned to 11, and you’re like DAMMMMMMMN, I can totally forget he was just sniffing lines at 7 am! Before flying a plane!
Why? It’s a nifty editing trick — and the soundtrack, jeez, you put that soundtrack on behind anyone, have them walk in slo-mo, and suddenly they’re charisma manifest. But it’s also a pure Denzel moment — a moment you see in almost every film — when he takes the movie by the horns and let’s you know he’s in control. Not because he looks good walking down the hallway, but, in the case of Flight, because he’s evidenced that he’s got this character down: schlubby and hungover in one scene, on top of his game the next. That’s theme #2: the talent. The Oscar-Winning, the every-famous-figure-playing, the I don’t talk about my process guy. He just does it; it’s just natural. It’s real, unadulterated talent.
What I’m interested in, then, is how Washington has participated in the cultivation of this second discourse — a discourse that simultaneously bolsters his masculinity and appeal to a certain movie-going demographic.
He’s done it in two ways:
1.) Naturalizing Acting
Because Washington’s life is seemingly without scandal, interviews tend to focus on his actual films — and many of them, including a lengthy NY Times profile from last month, focus exclusively on it. The profile begins with a key quote from Washington:
When he was young, “being a movie actor wasn’t on my radar at all,” Mr. Washington said. “I took an acting class at Fordham, and it was kind of easy, or I enjoyed it, I should say, and people told me I was good. When I started out, I was just thinking about the stage; it was never my goal to get to Hollywood. But here I am.”
So humble, so un-meditated! He didn’t try to be good, he just was. And while he put in his time — the stage, then commercials, then television, and finally the big-time in late ’80s — the talent was always there, just waiting to shine.
He says that his process is a combination of “inside out” (meaning finding the psychology of the character and then going from there — a Method tactic) and “outside in” (more in the Laurence Olivier school, in which you analyze the character and consciously “play” him, as opposed to “becoming” him). In other words, he uses a few tricks — he learned to box for The Hurricane, he learned the sax for Mo’ Better Blues, he spent a lot of time in a flight simulator for Flight — but he’s no Daniel Day-Lewis or Joaquin Phoenix. He prepares, but he doesn’t overthink it. In the interview with the Times, he uses the metaphor of the pilot: the director, crew, and other actors need to trust what he’s doing. He’ll surprise them, but they need to trust that he’ll get the plane, er, film, on the ground safely. Indeed, Washington’s acting is always confident; there’s a swagger there. His characters have swagger, but his acting has swagger was well, if that makes sense.
But as Washington and his profilers also emphasize that he doesn’t exactly know how he does what he does. Again, the pilot metaphor is yet again apt: as the passengers on the plane, you don’t know exactly how you get on the ground; you just do. Even the pilot might not understand exactly how he nails a difficult landing. But he does, and it’s better not to ask questions how it happens. You could transwer this metaphor to that a chef: it tastes good, doesn’t it, so don’t ask questions!
Or: Hey fans of Denzel, stop asking questions about why he’s so good: he just is! You’ll ruin it if you think about it too hard! Washington uses these metaphors himself. He’s reticent to talk about process. The proof of his skill is on the screen: why complicate it?
It’s a masculine conception of acting — how it happens, why it works. It distinguishes him from the feminized, emotional method actors; the weirdos and the drama nerds. Washington loves acting, but he doesn’t overthink it — or least that’s the image he’s cultivated.
2.) “I Don’t Know How to Be a Celebrity”
Which brings us to Washington’s own cultivation of non-celebrity. He only gives interviews to promote new films, but he’s not a cagey interviewer. In the four major profiles I’ve read, all of them given over the last four months, he’s talked openly about his parents’ divorce, his own history with his father, his children, even his relationship with his wife (and how she feels about Michelle Obama thinking he’s hot). Some actors cultivate anonymity by keeping interviews focused on their craft, but Washington seemingly answers any question he’s asked.
Because Washington’s life is scandalous/gossip-worthy, however, the focus remains on his acting. Interviewers also love to emphasize that he’s a non-celebrity: GQ told him “In some ways, you’re a cipher. There’s not much you put out there.”
Washington’s answer is just so perfect:
But that’s not my job to put stuff out there. Sidney Poitier told me this years ago: “If they see you for free all week, they won’t pay to see you on the weekend, because they feel like they’ve seen you. If you walk by the magazine section in the supermarket and they’ve known you all their life, there’s no mystery. They can’t take the ride.” My professional work is being a better actor. I don’t know how to be a celebrity.
“I don’t know how to be a celebrity!” Seriously, that’s perfect. What a way to endear yourself to your public, especially to men (and/or women) who dislike celebrity culture, then to say that you literally do not know how to do it. He also demonstrates his business acumen: even if he knew how, it’d be a stupid move. People wouldn’t like him. [Sidenote: His logic is faulty. Some stars on the covers of magazines do great business. But he's correct that just being on the cover of a magazine, aka gossip-worthy, doesn't mean that your movies will do well.]
Now what’s remarkable about this statement is the fact that it is embedded in an interview with a popular magazine. His picture was, in fact, on the cover of that magazine, which could be found in the check-out aisle just last month — only the magazine was GQ, not Us Weekly. He talks about his family and personal life, it’s just that they’re not scandalous enough to merit continued coverage. It’s not that he’s cagey, or an asshole, or annoyingly private — all characteristics that actually make people dislike a star when they hear about them. He’s forthcoming and wholly affable in interviews. He loves to talk sports. He loves the Yankees. He loves his kids. He is such a Dad, a Grown-Up Bro. He doesn’t have a cell phone and is only mildly annoyed that someone is running a Facebook page pretending to be him. He’s a purely analog star, a student of the Hollywood old school. But it doesn’t make him look stodgy or behind the times, the way that Tom Cruise’s fumbling Twitter efforts do. He’s outside of the game. He’s above it. He’s just doing what he does, being with his family, giving interviews, speaking truths. His daily code of life: read the bible. His advice to black men: put your slippers under the bed so you have to get on your knees in the morning.
I talk a lot about star production on this blog — about how stars and their teams work really hard to create images that resonate, that matter. The brilliance of Denzel is that his incredibly resonate image is posturing as the complete lack of one. He’s the anti-celebrity, the devoted actor, a model of masculinity. A star who says he doesn’t know how to be a celebrity. As our lives become more and more saturated with obvious manipulation — aesthetic, rhetorical, political — Denzel’s anti-image is increasingly refreshing. But as I tell my students, being apolitical is a political position; the absence of politics is a political statement. So too with images: the anti-image is one of the most potent images of all.