Acting, Anti-Celebrity, Masculinity: Denzel Just Does It

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!

OrHey 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.


9 Responses to “Acting, Anti-Celebrity, Masculinity: Denzel Just Does It”

  1. Great post! Having watched Denzel since St. Elsewhere, I feel like he’s always been the same as an actor: intense, precise & perfect for whatever role he’s in, contrasting other TV actors who had to grow into their stardom (Hanks, Will Smith, Clooney).

    You don’t talk much about his racial identity in this account – how much of his non-celebrity do you attribute to his role of an A-list black star in an industry that often is quick to cut bait on non-white stars who cross controversial lines or fail to deliver at the box office? Given that Denzel’s persona is such a blank slate, it seems particularly useful to continue to appeal to a crossover audience.

    • Annie says:

      Really great point with a super complicated answer. Unlike Will Smith, Washington does play “angry black man” roles — roles in which he is dangerous, roles in which he confronts or embodies stereotypes associated with black masculinity. He played MALCOLM X. He works with black directors, including overtly political ones. He is no “happy darky” — a critique often made of some of Smith’s performances/role choices. And yet, his crossover appeal remains. I would note that while some of those more politicized, racially specific roles have won him awards, they have not, with the exception of GLORY, been tremendously successful at the box office. His real money makers — the real evidence of his crossover appeal — are generally the blockbuster, aracial films, generally made with Tony Scott. Then, he’s just a good guy with a skin color, not a black guy who does good.

      Now, Flight does and does not do something different. Race is never explicitly invoked, and he does have a relationship (inferred to be sexual) with a white woman. But race is nevertheless present — his family, his history, the pictures on his wall. Will this film prove a success, even with Bond breathing down its neck? There’s lots of Oscar talk…which might, given Washington’s history, mean that the film will lack the complete crossover appeal but speak to Oscar voters and “prestige” audiences.

  2. Belinda says:

    Firstly, love the blog and love the Classic Hollywood series on the Hairpin. Really excellent and enjoyable work.

    I found this article interesting but a little bit problematic, especially conceiving of a star as picture personality plus (cultural?) capital. This discounts the role of extra textual discourse in the construction of a star image, as if star image = picture personalty + biographical information as published in magazine features, whereas I would classify star image = picture personality plus extra textual discourse involves everything other than the films including publicity materials, interviews, information from trade magazines, which political campaigns has the star been involved in, etc. The opening sentence of this piece asks “What do you know about Denzel Washington?” and follows the question with biographical information, where that is only a part of what makes up Denzel Washington, star image. I also query the statement “he’s not a cultural star, per se” – what’s classifies a cultural star as opposed to a star? There are stars whose personal life plays a greater role in the construction of their star image but I don’t agree that makes them more cultural, just alters the complex polysemy of their image for us star scholars to examine :)

    I also think that the terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ need to be defined further. Washington is functioning within a specific type of masculine that draws on a long tradition of stars disclaiming the work that is involved in acting and being a star. This in turn reinforces the authenticity required by star images to function effectively and believably. There are other types of masculinity where work, indeed excesses of work, function to demonstrate masculinity, for example Robert de Niro and Marlon Brando where their labour itself works to demonstrate masculinity.

    I think it would be interesting to extend this article to included issues of race and nationality that are referred to briefly here. In many of his films he appears as representative of patriarchal authority – police, armed forces. We know that Hollywood loves a black president, but how do these discourses work with the construction of masculinity evident in his star image?

    Thanks for publishing this star study and for the opportunity to leave comments. I’m doing my masters in masculinity, stardom and female spectatorship (Meriam Hansen-style) so I could talk about film stars and masculinity for days!

    • Annie says:

      Hi Belinda –

      Let’s see if I can address these concerns one at a time. First off, I agree that the conception of star, at least as concerns Washington, is a clumsy one. For a long time, I followed Dyer pretty seamlessly in the argument that

      Picture Personality + Extra Textual Information = Star Image

      Within that paradigm, if there was little to no extratextual information, then the person is not, per se, a star. Or at least not a cultural star capable of embodying/enacting/reconciling ideologies. But this equation doesn’t account for performers like Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, or even Kevin James — all of whom are clearly stars in terms of Hollywood capital (people go see their movies) but their images are almost wholly composed of their picture personalities. I’d put Denzel in this latter camp, despite all the work I did in this blog post to highlight the availability of extratextual information about him. It’s not that he’s a recluse like De Niro; it’s that the information he offers is generally so banal and focused on the discourse of acting that it signifies very little, “does” very little, save prop up the swagger and effortless masculinity already cultivated by his picture personalities.

      You could make an argument that that’s the only extra-textual discourse necessary — he doesn’t need to live conspicuously, and talk about that conspicuous lifestyle, to be a real star. I think that’s a valid argument. But then you also have the discourse of anti-image, anti-celebrity….of reticence to supply extra-textual information even as he sits for interviews and supplies it. It’s a complex mess, and I’m still uncertain of how to parse it (especially with the often unspoken representations of good/bad black masculinity, as Jason points to above). I guess the point is that he’s an exception to the rules — hard to classify in terms of the language we usually employ to talk about stars — which, of course, is why it’s so compelling (and difficult) to try and theorize his image.

      As for masculinity — I agree that I’m using a pretty facile conception, but I’ll also say that the Brando has be emasculated again and again. Not during the virile days, but almost immediately afterwards. It might have even begun with Guys and Dolls. First, he was weird, even if he was, as Hedda Hopper famously said, “MALE!” But anxiety over that otherness (he hung out with black people; didn’t abide Hollywood’s “glamour rules”; wouldn’t get married) led to a narrative of impotence, feminization, derangement. An out of control, unruly body. De Niro has also recently been emasculated (he wears breasts in Meet the Fockers, for goodness’ sake) — in part because of his age, of course. But think about De Niro’s Method-rooted portrayals of masculinity: all emasculated in some way, all ultimately impotent.

      And contrast Brando with the actors who just “play themselves” — Gary Cooper, John Wayne. The masculinity on screen appears all the more authentic because it is *not* performance. That’s the same idea you get, to some extent, with Washington.

      Finally, you ask me to extend the piece, which I’ve done, to some extent, here. But my blog posts are never intended to address every aspect of a star or a phenomenon — that’s why they’re called proto-scholarship. I hope they inspire others to address what I did not, but if I addressed every facet in every post, or thought that I should/had to, then I would never publish anything. That’s what the commenters are for — so thank you!

      • Belinda says:

        Hi Anne-Helen,

        Thanks for your quick response. I love the idea of proto-scholarship and I love engaging intelligently with great writers about star studies – that’s why I think this blog is great :)

        I do think the conception those stars existing solely as picture personalities overly simplistic because it seems to imply that extratextual discourses consists solely of personal information about stars shared via interviews/profiles/etc. Robert de Niro’s reclusiveness *is* part of his extratextual discourse, as is his political activity and his relationship with the Italian community (this has been discussed in ‘Choosing Silence: Robert de Niro and the Celebrity Interview’ in ‘Stars in our Eyes’, which argues that de Niro’s silence has discursive significance). I would also argue that de Niro’s boob-wearing in the Fockers’ series – in fact almost his whole performance in that series – is making fun of his established persona rather than emasculating it.

        I admit until I read this article I hadn’t spent any time conceiving of how Denzel Washington works as a star. I think his masculinity ties into existing discourses about family, authenticity (as you’ve highlighted) and race and nationality. I think you make a great point about his stardom being hard to define and I suggest that that is one reason why he’s so interesting to think about in terms of star studies. Thanks for the interesting discussion! Although it is just helping me procrastinate even more from working on my own thesis…

        I do agree that masculinity appears to operate most naturally when it appears effortless but it is always performative. It’s just that some stars and methods draw attention to the construction of masculinity, sometimes to question it (Cary Grant) and sometimes to reaffirm it (James Stewart).

        Is it wrong that this conversation is making me want to go back and watch old Marlon Brando and Denzel Washington movies? I did enjoy The Pelican Brief…

        Cheers :)

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  4. John Thacker says:

    “[W]hite men don’t want to see me go home with their women, he’s said to have argued.”

    He may have argued this. But I think that he probably also realizes that there’s a bit of “black women don’t want to see him go home with white women,” either. He has a lot of black female fans, and there are some undercurrents about the relative lack of availability of good successful black men and a bit of resentment when they end up with white women.

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