Denzel Washington: At his best when at his worst

Have you ever noticed that Denzel Washington is at his best when he’s behaving his worst?

The actor’s first Oscar win arrived in 1989, when he played the bitter, furious ex-slave Trip in Ed Zwick’s Civil War drama GLORY. Washington further embraced his dark side, and delivered his second Oscar-winning performance, by playing a corrupt L.A. street detective in Antoine Fuqua’s TRAINING DAY. And it’s likely he’ll earn a sixth Academy Award nomination early next year for his gripping portrayal of an alcoholic airline pilot in Robert Zemeckis’ FLIGHT.

It wasn’t until this pattern presented itself that we doubled back and realized just how often Washington willingly accepts the role of a hero mired in morality’s grey areas. Unlike Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks — bankable A-listers who desperately want to be loved by audiences worldwide — Washington repeatedly challenges his followers by asking them to accept a flawed protagonist who stands at an emotionally complicated crossroads and often makes an unpopular decision.

Take OUT OF TIME, Washington plays Matt Lee Whitlock, a Florida police chief faced with an unexpected financial crisis who makes one bad decision…and spends the rest of the airtight thriller trying to clear his suddenly besmirched name.

For many actors, the idea of playing the heroic police chief would be enough. But Washington routinely flips the script on his conventional heroes, exploring what seemingly decent men might do when faced with indecent proposals. In OUT OF TIME, Whitlock’s corrupted by money (which he needs for a valid reason). In movies like JOHN Q, MAN ON FIRE, COURAGE UNDER FIRE and SAFE HOUSE, Washington asks us to cheer for men whom we know are doing the wrong thing, often for the right reasons. And we do so willingly, because we have come to trust in the power of Washington as the anti-hero, the every-man.

And yet, even that’s an incomplete thesis. Zach Baron, writing about FLIGHT for Grantland, says, “There are antiheroes on paper, and then there is Denzel Washington, and there’s no comparing the two. [FLIGHT]‘s pat moralizing about deviancy and its reflexive need for [Washington's character] to atone for being a bad person would be something close to intolerable without Washington in it. Instead it’s transfixing, one of the best movies of the year.”

That’s Washington’s greatest trick. Yes, he’s capable of playing a clear-cut “good guy” on screen, for lack of a better description. But he’s far more interested in playing flawed men who must rise to the challenge of simply being decent…especially when being decent in a particular situation is downright impossible. And there are few in Hollywood right now — or ever — who are as adept at sympathetically portraying the broken savior as Washington is right now. As an actor, Washington embraces the dark side of the traditional Hollywood “White Knight.” And his fans, seemingly, wouldn’t have it any other way.

Image credit: IMDB