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Denzel Washington – A Man Set Apart

There’s only one style icon I know of whose charisma extends beyond clothes. He’s not trendy and street a la Depp. He doesn’t have the tailored leading man panache of Clooney, nor the staggering good looks of Pitt, yet there’s not one woman (and most men) I know of who doesn’t come running when his voice calls; reaching from beyond the silverscreen and down deep into your very fibre, illuminating areas in your brain cells never lit before and leaving your toes curled and your heart throbbing with anticipation.

Denzel Washington has intellectual weight, spiritual gravity, and a powerful sexual and romantic presence,” actor Kenneth Branagh (in a Vanity Fair interview).

I was captivated by Denzel Washington’s presence the very first time I watched him in the nascence of his career in Mississippi Masala. Since then I’ve tried not to miss any of his features and there’s been quite a few, boo; a smorgasbord of roles and films where he’s morphed himself into 100% believable characters. He WAS Malcom X. He breathed life again into Steve Biko, and was probably more bad-ass than Frank Lucas in real life.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll have forgotten just how many great films he’s been in. Let me remind you – Cry Freedom, Mo’ Better Blues, Malcolm X, Much Ado About Nothing (a personal fav), The Pelican Brief, Philadelphia, Courage Under Fire, The Siege, The Bone Collector, Training Day (for which he won an Academy Award for Best Actor), Man on Fire, Déjà Vu, American Gangster, The Taking of Pelham 123, The Book of Eli. Awe inspiring right?

The child of a beautician mother and an ordained minister father who also worked for the Water Department, Denzel was born near New York City in 1954, where he developed his dramatic tendencies in the spiritual surroundings of his father’s church and in the more secular environment of his mother’s salon. After college, he enrolled at the Lincoln Center campus to study acting, and played the title characters in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones and Shakespeare’s Othello.

Various theater roles paved the way for his major career break – starring as Dr. Phillip Chandler in the television hospital drama St. Elsewhere which ran from 1982 to 1988 on NBC.

That led to his 1987 role as South African anti-apartheid political activist Steven Biko in Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom for which he received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

The rest, as they say is celluloid history.

Denzel as Frank Lucas in American Gangster with Russell Crowe

When asked to characterize Washington’s talent, fellow actors tend to discuss his “inner process” (Zwick), his habit of “testing the parameters of the scene” (Tom Hanks), and his qualifications as a “cerebral, analytical actor” (Kelly Lynch). His colleagues admire him for his meticulous preparation for his roles, a process that Washington has himself likened to an investigative journalist’s exacting method of uncovering his subject. Washington draws upon lifelong memories of his father’s powerful presence behind the pulpit, and also reads extensively perfecting his delivery such as in his Oscar-nominated performance in Malcolm X (1992).

He continues to garner awards, the most recent being Best Actor at the 2010 Tony awards for his role in  “Fences,” August Wilson’s 1987 Pulitzer winner (named best revival of a play). Washington took the prize for his performance as Troy, a one-time baseball star turned sanitation worker who struggles to reconcile his past and present.

A menacing and menaced Denzel in Book of Eli

Off camera Denzel is the guy you just want to hang out with. He always seems relaxed, chilled back, and would probably be a great addition to your boys’ Poker Night – an all round good, and modest cool guy.

Denzel’s personal style leans towards minimalism and comfort first. Although named one of the sexiest man alive by People Magazine, he’s been known to claim that he’s “just a humble man trying to be good. I don’t worry about style.” Except that which involves the inner man, Denzel …right?

His nonchalance shows up in the level of understatement in his clothes, which really forces to then focus on the man within – the intellect, the wit, the charm, the almost evangelical pull and gravitas of his personality.

Is the man perfect? Not quite.

Denzel Washington with his wife Pauletta at the World Premiere of “American Gangster” held in the Apollo Theater, Oct 2007.

In a 1993 interview with Barbara Walters He first confided to Walters that he would never leave his wife, singer-actress Pauletta Pearson (they met when the two appeared in on the production of ‘Wilma’). Washington then broached the prickly subject of infidelity: “Being a star and all of that, temptation is all around, it’s all around, you know, and I haven’t been perfect. I’ll be quite candid about it.” Not surprisingly, since uttering those surely regretted words, Washington has spoken little about his private life.

But by most accounts, at this point, he passes for Mr. Family Values: Denzel, Pauletta, and their four children live in a Los Angeles mansion once owned by William Holden, and spend much quality time together, at home, at the Pentecostal West Angeles church, and on family vacations far away from dad’s moviemaking madness. On one such trip to South Africa in 1996, Denzel and Pauletta renewed their wedding vows in a ceremony officiated by Archbishop Tutu. Washington has generously given of his time (most notably as spokesman for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, an organization that had a profound impact on his own upbringing) and money to several charities, including his local church, The Gathering Place (a home for HIV-infected people), and the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund.

Denzel has considered becoming a preacher. “A part of me still says, ‘Maybe, Denzel, you’re supposed to preach. Maybe you’re still compromising.’ I’ve had an opportunity to play great men and, through their words, to preach. I take what talent I’ve been given seriously, and I want to use it for good.”

Denzel, not unlike the ye-olde biblical prophets and holy-men, it is certain that by some decree from a higher power, you are a man set apart.

Denzel’s next film ‘Unstoppable’ opens in theaters in November (USA) and December 2010 (Worldwide).


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