Every career has its moment of truth. For Denzel Washington, it came on a March evening two years ago, when Gwyneth Paltrow took the stage at L.A.'s Shrine Auditorium to announce what many friends and fans hoped would be his first Academy Award for best actor. "I remember buying three Armani suits for that night because I just knew Denzel would win and we were going to party all night long,'' recalls "Boyz N the Hood" director John Singleton. But Washington sensed he wouldn't carry the night. Controversy had erupted in the weeks before over whether his film "The Hurricane" had glossed over the more unsavory facts about real-life boxer Rubin Carter; by the time Hollywood marched down the red carpet, the smart money was on the critics' favorite "American Beauty" and its star.
After Paltrow announced the winner--Kevin Spacey--"I just went home and went to bed," Singleton says. Monday morning found black Hollywood groping for an explanation: had Denzel lost because of the "Hurricane" flap, or was it just more proof that Hollywood isn't nearly as colorblind as it likes to think it is? The question is dicey, and Washington, never one to spill his guts, weighs his response over sips of jasmine tea in a Beverly Hills hotel lounge, and then says diplomatically, "If they had wanted me to win the Oscar they would have given it to me. They didn't." But Washington is clearly not alone. In the 73 years since the Academy began awarding statuettes, hundreds of people have been nominated in the best-actor and -actress categories, but only 18 of those nominations have gone to blacks, with only one best-actor recipient ever: Sidney Poitier in 1963's "Lilies of the Field." (Five other black actors and actresses have won Oscars, but for supporting roles.)
"There was a change in how Denzel looked at things and the industry after that," says his longtime friend, boxing promoter Butch Lewis. "A reality set in that was always there in some ways, but really sank in a different way at that point, about how the rules work for you or against you." To see the transformation, look no further than Washington's star turn in "Training Day," the film that last week garnered him his third best-actor nomination from the Academy. Here is Denzel Washington as audiences have never seen him: malevolent, greedy, brutal. Washington's Alonzo Harris isn't just your average rogue Los Angeles cop. This is a guy who forces his rookie partner to smoke a PCP-laced joint at gunpoint--and that's just in the first reel. It isn't lost on Washington that he shifted acting gears after the "Hurricane" disappointment. "I definitely deal with my emotions through my roles,'' he says, settling back into an overstuffed chair. "I work through the things that bother me and let it all out on the screen. I just channeled those emotions, because they do build up inside, and that's how you let it all go so they don't eat you up. And it's much more productive than releasing it in other ways.''
Washington's dilemma isn't that of a temperamental actor with a sense of entitlement, but rather of a battle-scarred African-American male at the top of his craft, trying to stay on top of the game. With three black actors sharing top Oscar nominations this year, Hollywood's uncomfortable relationship with race is once again on center stage. Washington is considered Most Likely to Succeed in ending the embarrassing decades-long dry spell that followed Poitier's win. (Washington's fellow best-actor nominee Will Smith is a long shot for "Ali.") In fact, the spell could be broken with a double whammy if Halle Berry stages an upset in the best-actress category for "Monster's Ball." Yet Washington is noticeably ambivalent about it all. "To say that these nominations mean that African-Americans are now getting the recognition they deserve is to give a lot of power to people who don't have it. Three nominations means three nominations--nothing more or nothing less for black actors," he says. Washington loves to put on the voice he used for "Malcolm X," the role that earned him his first best-actor nomination, and so he adds with a flourish: "I don't worry about a statue that doesn't look like me.''
He's half-joking about the statue, but spend enough time with Denzel Washington and you get the distinct impression that the thrill is gone. On the surface, Washington would seem to have it all. His salary is in the business's upper range at $20 million a picture, he just finished directing his first film and, though his movie "John Q." opened Friday to tepid reviews, it's expected to perform respectably at the box office. Yet despite Washington's success over the years, the same question keeps popping up: if he is, as pal Julia Roberts sees him, "the best actor of this generation, hands down," then why hasn't the Academy bestowed that honor upon him yet? "He should be on his third Oscar by now, and that might not be enough. I mean, did you see 'Malcolm f---ing X' and 'Hurricane' and 'Philadelphia'?! I could go on," says Roberts. "I cannot absorb living in a world where I have an Oscar for best actress and Denzel doesn't have one for best actor."
Let's be honest. No matter how many perky stars tell Joan Rivers that being nominated is "honor enough," it isn't. Especially where black Hollywood is concerned. "Many things have changed in this industry, but many things have remained the same, and it's incredibly disheartening,'' says Poitier, who has been Washington's mentor and confidant for the past two decades. Director Spike Lee will be watching this year's race with keen interest, since Washington's closest contender, Russell Crowe, is embroiled in a controversy over historical accuracy that's almost identical to the "Hurricane" incident of two years ago. Crowe portrays mentally ill mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. in "A Beautiful Mind," but the movie fails to discuss the real-life Nash's divorce, alleged affairs with men or his illegitimate son. "It will be interesting to see if African-Americans are held to a higher standard of telling the truth on Oscar night," Lee says. "We'll see if Crowe's performance is strong enough to overshadow the inaccuracies."
The paltry number of statuettes for African-Americans is just one of the reasons the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the NAACP's Kweisi Mfume have taken Hollywood to task in recent years. Although some progress has been made--most notably on TV with the crossover successes of Bernie Mac and Damon Wayans, and on the big screen with comics Martin Lawrence and Chris Tucker--few avenues are available to black actors who want to do more than just comedy. "The new generation of actors like Mekhi Phifer and Omar Epps aren't even getting the vehicles Denzel got 20 years ago,'' says black-film historian Donald Bogle of New York University. Sitting in a canvas chair inside a hangar at the San Diego naval yard, where he is wrapping his as-yet-untitled directorial debut film, Washington is well aware of the problem. "There is a ceiling for black actors, no doubt about that. I mean, I'm not getting dozens of roles at my door either,'' he says. "But I try to keep thinking of it as a glass ceiling, one that can be broken at some point. I might not see it or do it, but somebody will.''
Pay close attention to any character Washington has portrayed in his 20-year career, and you'll see at all times a very proud black man: focused, strong and always in control. Washington doesn't stray far from those traits in real life. Few actors have been able to sustain a career as multifaceted and multilayered. From a rebellious slave in "Glory'' to a homophobic lawyer in "Philadelphia'' to a pioneering black coach in "Remember the Titans," Washington has covered the dramatic bases, and along the way slowly erased the boundaries that once limited black actors to "black" roles. "He's not going to shuck and jive for anybody," says director Singleton. Though just 47 years old, Washington's demeanor is that of a much older, and perhaps wiser, man who's seen and heard it all. A man who is keenly aware of the many ways in which prejudice could have limited his trajectory, but who isn't about to use that as a cop-out.
In that sense, Washington is just like his mentor. It was in the late '70s that a struggling Washington first encountered the man considered the greatest black actor of his time: he spotted Sidney Poitier in a Beverly Hills hotel, chased him down and tried, unsuccessfully, to hand him his head shot. Nearly a decade later, when Washington was offered his first starring role on the heels of "Power" and "A Soldier's Story," it was Poitier he turned to for advice. "So I get this script that I like to call 'The Nigger That Wouldn't Die'," Washington says with an incredulous laugh. "I don't remember the exact name--tried to forget it--but it was about a black man who raped and killed a white woman in the '40s. They tried to execute him but he wouldn't die, and then they tried to hang him but he wouldn't die. So he became a celebrity," Washington says. "It was nuts and I was sick about it. But it also was paying more money than I ever made." Poitier's counsel tipped the balance. "Son, your first three or four films will dictate how you are viewed your entire career. Choose wisely, follow your gut and wait it out if you can'," Washington recalls his saying. "It was hard, but I did it. And about six months later I got 'Cry Freedom','' the story of South African activist Steven Biko that garnered him his first Oscar nod, for best supporting actor.
One on one, Washington is more folksy than you might expect. His broad smile and signature "don't mess with me" strut are present, but a sense of the guy next door comes through. A Hollywood outsider by his own admission, Washington shies away from the in circles and red-carpet premieres. Washington rarely sits in his high-priced, courtside seats at L.A. Lakers games anymore, just so he won't be in the camera's eye. "You know how they want you to do those promos all the time about 'I love this game.' I decided to love this game at home. I want to see the game, not work.''
The son of a Pentecostal minister and a hairdresser, Washington dotes on his wife, Pauletta, and their four children. The Washingtons have been especially preoccupied these past several months as their eldest son, John David, gets ready to leave the nest. The 17-year-old just won a full football scholarship to Morehouse College in Atlanta, and his proud papa can barely contain his pride. "My son did that on his own. This is all his, and he won the scholarship because of his talent,'' Washington says. Since the family can afford to send John David to college, Washington plans to pick up the tab for several disadvantaged students if his son takes the scholarship. When he's not with the family, Washington hangs with a close-knit group of black men, among them rocker Lenny Kravitz. "We both have daughters," says Kravitz, "so we just kick it and compare whose daughter is doing what and the stuff all parents worry about. He's like a big brother."
That quiet reserve might be part of why it's easy to overlook the tremendous impact of Washington's presence in Hollywood. The actor became a standout almost from the start when he landed the part of Phillip Chandler on NBC's "St. Elsewhere" in 1982. Coming on the heels of the sitcom buffoonery of Jimmie (J. J.) Walker, Washington's portrayal of a serious young black doctor on the network's most successful show was definitely noteworthy. But Washington, then 23, had his eyes on the big prize. He proved that in the 1984 film "A Soldier's Story," which dealt with intraracial conflict among Negro military troops in the 1940s. "The first time you see Denzel, you see a movie star,'' says Bogle.
At a time when comedian Eddie Murphy wasn't just the biggest African-American star but the biggest box-office draw, period, Washington began amassing roles that made race the focal point, not the punch line. "I remember seeing Denzel on a studio lot one time and stopping to chat," says Poitier from his Los Angeles home. "I pulled him aside and told him something that I know he already knew, but I needed to say it anyway. I told him he had an amazing gift and with that gift came responsibility. Never lose sight of that.'' Poitier never could. From his role as the Southern convict in "The Defiant Ones,'' to his turn as the overachieving black doctor hoping to win his prospective in-laws' approval in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner,'' Poitier carried the burden of an entire race on his shoulders. "I had the responsibility to do a certain type of film because of the generation I was in and because of where we were as a people and as a country during those times," says Poitier, 75, who will be receiving an honorary Oscar this year. "We were considered less than human during those times, half a human being. There were no other options for me."
Washington's struggle might not include having to prove that blacks are full human beings, but he certainly faces the challenge of making them equal. Though the actor has been one of the industry's most highly recognized stars for years, his salary has only just begun to the match those of his white peers. And the line for platinum-plate roles still has Tom, Tom and Russell at the head of the queue. "Most roles are written disproportionately for white actors, and that's the truth of the matter,'' says Ed Zwick, who directed Washington in "Glory,'' "Courage Under Fire" and "The Siege.'' "Denzel isn't going to get the roles that Russell Crowe gets. He can't be in 'The Insider' or 'Gladiator,' and that's very limiting to an actor like him. But it's also what makes his career so astonishing, because he has done so remarkably well with those limitations.''
Privately, several producers and directors will tell you that Washington's name comes up for a lot of big-budget, Oscar-worthy flicks, but that he's often nixed when it comes time to consider how to round out the cast of characters: add a black wife and black supporting characters for Denzel, and you wind up with a "black" movie, the fuzzy logic goes. Director Reginald Hudlin ("Boomerang" and "House Party") says he has sat in a number of meetings where black actors are considered for roles, but then lesser-known white actors get the part. "It's not racism. Really, most people aren't racist. But a lot of people are prejudiced, and that includes Hollywood," he says. "Racism is 'I hate niggers,' and prejudice is not being able to see people in different roles or places. Or worst, not thinking about them at all. That's what Hollywood does.''
On the other hand, studios have been known to entirely retool a film to make room for Washington's talent, as happened most recently with "John Q." The transformation isn't always a smooth one, however. When Julia Roberts was tapped by Warner Bros. to play the lead in 1993's "The Pelican Brief,'' she told the movie's director, the late Alan Pakula, exactly who she wanted her costar to be: Denzel. What happened after that is a matter of some debate, but the next anyone knew, reports were flying that the studio was offering Washington his entire salary to leave the project. According to several people who worked on the film, author John Grisham hadn't envisioned the leading man in his novel as black, and was demanding that Washington be removed. "He saw himself in the role, and obviously I'm not anything like him in looks or otherwise. I wasn't what he wanted, and that was made clear," Washington says. That's not Grisham's recollection. "Alan Pakula called me about casting and said they were considering Denzel. I said fine,'' is all the author will say about "Pelican Brief." (As to Will Smith's recent allegation that Grisham didn't want him for the forthcoming "Runaway Jury" because he is black, Grisham did not comment.)
Whatever the impetus for the "Pelican Brief" drama, Roberts stepped in to settle things. "I had suggested him from the beginning, and he did amazing things with a character that didn't look like much on paper. What more could you want?'' What more--how about a kiss? Much has been made of the fact that Washington, named People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive" for 1996, never kissed Roberts on screen. But it's not because Roberts, Warner Bros. or even Grisham didn't want him to. "I have taken so much s--t over the years about not kissing Denzel in that film," Roberts says. "Don't I have a pulse? Of course I wanted to kiss Denzel. It was his idea to take the damn scenes out."
Washington says there were several reasons the interracial love scenes were deleted, and one was indeed the fear of offending some moviegoers--and the viewers he worried about crossing were black women. Washington learned full well the danger of stepping over that line during test screenings of 1989's "The Mighty Quinn," where an on-screen kiss with Mimi Rogers drew loud boos from the black women in the audience. Washington had the studio delete the kiss, and decided that he wouldn't be doing many love films at all, particularly since Hollywood seemed to show no interest in black love stories. "Black women are not often seen as objects of desire on film. They have always been my core audience," he says.
That doesn't mean Washington wants to leap at every "black" film role offered to him. When he was being considered for the lead opposite Oprah Winfrey in her big-budget film "Beloved," he balked at the notion of playing Winfrey's soft-spoken lover and even suggested that Danny Glover would be a better choice for the role of a former slave. "I didn't mean it the way it came out," says Washington, who apologized to Winfrey and Glover. "But it wasn't the role for me, and I should have left it at that and not said a word." Not long after, Washington's name was thrown around for the lead in Steven Spielberg's epic about the African slave trade, "Amistad." "When you read the script and you realize that the slaves were going to be speaking in subtitles, you knew the story was going to be told through the eyes of the white people in the film. The blacks would have no voice," Washington explains. A spokesman for Spielberg says, "The movie obviously turned out very differently, not from a white person's perspective, and we used subtitles to keep it pure."
In short, Washington has little interest in playing the slave at this point in his career. He's already done that, and quite well. One of the defining moments in black cinematic history is the shot, in 1989's "Glory," of a single tear rolling down Washington's face as the whip lands on his back. "I read a lot of slave narratives for the film," he says. "Truly haunting stuff that helped me convey the pain of that period. I'll never forget the line I used to get me through the movie, and in particular the whipping scene. 'The master threw the dog a bone, but I got there first.' That line just hit me hard, the type of survival black people had to go through. I didn't need anything else." Washington won his first and only Academy Award for that performance, as best supporting actor.
They say it's never as good as the first time, and that's been true for Washington as far as Oscar is concerned. Three years later he was up for "Malcolm X" and lost. The following year it looked like he might get a nomination for "Philadelphia." But Tri-Star wanted to push Tom Hanks for best actor and Washington for supporting actor, even though Washington had equal billing. No one would argue with the fact that Hanks played the central role as a young lawyer fired from his job because he has AIDS. But Washington's character in fact had more screen time, and it was his slow transformation from an ambulance-chasing attorney buried in stereotypes to a compassionate friend who fights ceaselessly for his client's rights that gave the story momentum. "With 'Philadelphia' my agent felt strongly that we were both contenders in the best-actor category. It made sense, if you thought about it. But people didn't understand." A big blowup with Tri-Star followed, and in the end the studio didn't push Washington's name during its pre-Oscar advertising blitz. Washington wasn't nominated in either category. Studio executives declined to comment.
Today, a savvier Denzel Washington is resigned to the idea that he may have to wait yet again to win. "It's all in the politics. It's more about that than anybody knows," he says. When Washington talks about his chances of taking home a little gold man this year, he compares himself to one of his early screen idols, Al Pacino. Pacino never won an Oscar playing the iconic parts for which he is most remembered, not for "The Godfather," "Serpico" or "Dog Day Afternoon." Instead, he won for 1992's "Scent of a Woman,'' beating Washington for "Malcolm X." "Hey, at least I'm not 0-8 like Pacino," Washington says, laughing. "Then I would be screaming bloody murder.'' Maybe this year, he won't have to scream at all.