best film: Malcolm X (1992) from Spike Lee is a masterpiece. It is different than David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) in some ways (lush 70mm exteriors for Lean’s film, how much of the subject’s life is covered) but similar in others (aggressively stylistic from the auteur, tour-de-force performance from the lead). It is Spike’s next strongest film after Do the Right Thing (1989) which is a compliment. So, this is not really a category of weakness or strength here for Denzel Washington. The problem here is the competition for Malcolm X – there really is none. His runner-up is either Philadelphia, He Got Game or The Tragedy of Macbeth. All films that flirt with the back end of their respective years’ top ten (10) – but that is it. Needless to say, Malcolm X is crucial to Denzel’s resume.
best performance: Malcolm X. There is no debate to be had here either. Denzel’s portrayal of Malcolm X is multiple performances in the same movie as it covers so many years in his life and different stages (criminal, prison, activist/leader). On the flip side, there is plenty of debate to be had for Denzel’s second-best performance or third-best performance – but as for his best – it is a non-starter. Denzel’s work in the 1992 biopic ranks among the best performances by an actor in the 1990s.
stylistic innovations/traits: Denzel Washington has nineteen (19) overall archiveable films, a whopping nine (9) Oscar nominations, and two (2) wins. He was born in 1954 and hit his stride at the age of thirty (30) in the 1980s. There is not really a hot or cold period – but that stretch from 1989 to 1999 with three (3) collaborations with Spike Lee and ten (10) archiveable films overall feels like prime Denzel. Denzel is a handsome leading man (there have been stories and studies about the symmetry of his face as an example), a box office Hollywood star, and has the respect of just about every actor and many movie fans (often cited as the best or their particular favorite). He can occasionally slip inside a character (Cry Freedom and definitely sections of Malcolm X) – but by and large he is a commanding figure who plays a type (closer to a Tom Cruise or John Wayne) and his resume is not filled with examples of wide range. Denzel is different though – very rare – in that he has both screen presence like a Steve McQueen or Clint Eastwood – and – he is just an immensely talented actor (like a Montgomery Clift of Philip Seymour Hoffman). Denzel’s strengths are his work with Spike Lee and the depth of that filmography with solid tier three and tier four performances (Crimson Tide, Devil in a Blue Dress). His weakness is undeniable – it is just the overall quality of films here. He suffers a similar fate to a Clark Gable or a Peter O’Toole (or Meryl Streep a little on the female side). Denzel is like a virtuoso musician who deserves to be part of a better rock band – or the sports athlete who lights up the statistics and highlights, but is never part of a team that competes for a title. Outside of his top two films with Spike Lee, Philadelphia (where Tom Hanks gives easily the best performance in the film) and The Tragedy of Macbeth – one can sum up the others by saying “Denzel is fantastic – but overall… the film is just good.”
directors worked with: Spike Lee (4), Norman Jewison (2), Edward Zwick (2), Jonathan Demme (2), Tony Scott (2), Ridley Scott (1), Robert Zemeckis (1), Joel Coen (1)
top five performances:
- Malcolm X
- He Got Game
- Training Day
- The Tragedy of Macbeth
|1984- A Soldier’s Story|
|1987- Cry Freedom|
|1990- Mo’ Better Blues|
|1992- Malcolm X|
|1993- Much Ado About Nothing|
|1995- Crimson Tide|
|1995- Devil in a Blue Dress|
|1996- Courage Under Fire|
|1998- He Got Game|
|1999- The Hurricane|
|2001- Training Day|
|2004- The Manchurian Candidate|
|2006- Inside Man|
|2007- American Gangster|
|2021- The Tragedy of Macbeth|
@Drake – Interesting you mention Cruise above because I see some similarities in their career paths just in the sense that they both seem to stop working with auteurs for the most part by the early 2000s. They are both mega box office stars who can carry mediocre films and make them enjoyable/watchable but still doesn’t change that they are overall solid films but far from amazing as you mention: “Denzel is fantastic – but overall… the film is just good”. They both seem to gravitate toward actions films, Cruise more than Denzel, but still.
@James Trapp- Good add here- agreed.
@Anderson – I have had a chance to see it – but no, it is not in the archives
@Anderson – great acting. Denzel directed it as well. Antwone Fisher (2002) is another film he directed and acted. In Antwone Fisher Denzel played the film’s 2nd most important character. Both of these films feature really strong acting but pretty non-descript direction. I still think Antwone Fisher (2002) is worth viewing but its definitely a fringe R
The film is extremely stagey and that definitely works against it, but it doesn’t take anything away from his performance. He’s magnificent as Troy. Shout out to Davis’s work too.
As far as pure acting talent goes, I think Denzel is bested by very few. You went 90s, I would say his performance in Malcolm X is one of the greatest of all time for a male actor, period. He’s a good action star and he can certainly do comedy, but above all, he’s an extremely gifted dramatic actor. Four of his top five performances are in average to ok movies, but that doesn’t eliminate the fact that these are all towering performances. Based on what he’s shown he’s capable of doing in front of a camera, I would place him way higher on the list, probably in the 10-20 range. But yeah, I guess that if you weigh the quality of the movies he’s in, he falters quite a bit.
@David O.- Yep, that is probably going to be the popular take. There’s the opposite argument where you look at that top end resume of work in great films (it is lacking)- and wonder why he isn’t closer to spot 75-80. This is the right spot here.
Well, sure, if you made a list called “Top 100 actors who have appeared in great films”. So I guess it depends on the criteria you set when making such a list. It’s all good though. To be honest, I thought you were gonna place him in a lower spot, so I’m actually pleasantly surprised.
@David O. – Yes, resume counts- and it should. The term “best” works here still. This isn’t “top 100 most talented actors but wish they had made better career decisions”. Is the best athlete the one with the most potential who didn’t realize it all – or the one who had the best results. I’d argue the latter.
I’m also arguing the latter. We just have different interpretations of what “realizing his potential” and “giving the best results” means.
@David O.- Sure – it is a common/popular complaint on the list in support of a Denzel or Meryl Streep -I get it. But I’ve look at this many ways over many years. Feel pretty confident that this is the way.
@Drake I mean, like I said, I get your perspective, I just do not share it, which I think is perfectly fine. And just to be clear, I’m not trying to be “right” here (or any time I’m talking about films), I’m simply sharing my thoughts, if that’s okay with you. We can respectfully disagree with each other hahaha. It’s still a very interesting debate which I’m sure could lead to hours of conversation.
@David O.- For sure – fair. I think we understand the thesis the other person is putting forward and it isn’t really about Denzel anymore, but how much being in great movies should factor in. I think it is pretty essential. But totally fair.
@Drake Yeah, that’s basically it. We kind of discussed it with Brad Pitt as well. That being said, even though we have different methodologies, our top 10s are not that different. We have 6 actors in common (there’s a bigger disconnect with actresses, maybe it’s a more competitive field and it’s more difficult to reach a consensus).
@DavidO@Drake – I think I get the points you’re both making. I know there is no mathematical answer but roughly how much should a great performance in a mediocre film compare to a passable performance in a great film. Like Forest Whitaker gives an incredible performance as the real life Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland (2006) but the film as a whole is solid but far from anything resembling a MP. How much weight does that performance carry compared to say Robert De Niro’s performance in The Irishman (2019) which most seem to consider a passable but far from great performance in a great film. I have it as a MP and I think most people on this site have it as MS or better
What is your top 10?
@James Trapp Yeah, I have The Irishman as a MS and The last king of Scotland as a R, but if I were to choose the stronger performance, I would pick Whitaker without a doubt. The fact that The Irishman is a much better film overall doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s got to better at absolutely everything.
@David O. and @James Trapp- Whitaker is the answer here over De Niro. For the most part I’m talking about great performances in great films vs. great performances in not so great films. I don’t find it overly difficult to do
@Matthew Like I said, I have six in common with Drake, including my top five: De Niro, Pacino, Brando, Mifune and Day-Lewis. Tony Leung and Dustin Hoffman are pretty locked in as well in that 6-7 range. As for the back end of that top 10, for now I’m settling with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jack Nicholson and Denzel, but there are a lot of candidates who are very close.
@David O.- This is certainly a very worthy top 10
@DavidO. – “Yeah, I have The Irishman as a MS and The last king of Scotland as a R, but if I were to choose the stronger performance, I would pick Whitaker without a doubt”
I agree that Whitaker is easily the better performance when compared to De Niro. The much tougher question is comparing Whitaker’s performance in The Last King of Scotland to the performances that Pacino and Pesci give in The Irishman. I would probably lean toward Pacino and Pesci but I guess the real question I am asking is:
Can an acting performance be graded in a vacuum?
I think that is the question much of this debate is about.
@James Trapp- There you go James. You got it.
@James Trapp – part if it is scarcity as well – there are just far fewer performances like Pesci or Pacino in The Irishman than Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland.
@James Trapp Yep, that’s exactly the question, and whatever your answer is will determine in which end of the argument you fall.
@Drake Thanks, Drake. I’m pretty tempted to squeeze Michael Fassbender in there based on that insane 2008-2015 stretch, but he’s done pretty much nothing since then. Let’s see if The killer can put him back on track.
I agree with Drake. Washington is like Barry Sanders. Great actor, one of the 20/25 most talented us actors ez.
@KidCharlemagne – I love the Barry Sanders reference haha. Sadly the same thing basically happened with Calvin Johnson, maybe the most physically gifted Wide Receiver of all time along with Randy Moss
I see the angle you are taking here but I don’t think anyone penalizes Sanders for playing on laughingly bad offenses. It might have even made his career more highly-touted because of the absolute carry jobs he was doing. But ofc we are getting way off topic here- haha. I get the point you are making
@Matthew – yeah I usually stay away from sports analogies but occasionally they work when trying to make a point.
Prediction: Sean Penn at # 44
@James-De Niro’s performance in The Irishman(2019) is better than passable. It has its flaws(the stomping scene for example) and some of the lighting/unrealisticness in his face when he plays the younger version. The only thing I agree with is Pesci and Pacino give better performances. I think it gets too much hate on this site but is generally well regarded almost anywhere else.
@Malith – Aside from the terrible stomping scene I don’t think there are really any other scenes where I would say De Niro’s acting is memorially terrible or that he “does anything wrong” so to speak. It’s just that it feels emotionally flat. In a way De Niro’s performance is not really that much different than Ryan O’Neal in Barry Lyndon (1975) and no I am not insinuating that Ryan O’Neal is on De Niro’s level or even remotely close. I bring up O’Neal because his character in Barry Lyndon is very passive; things seem to happen to his character rather than his character making things happen if that makes sense. O’Neal’s character finds himself a part of historical events by chance and coincidences. He doesn’t seem to think all that much about anything, he just goes along with whatever situation fate has seemed to bring him too.
De Niro’s character is actually quite passive as well, which might sound like a strange word to use since passive is often associated meek and certainly non-violent. I just mean De Niro’s character rarely makes decisions on his own; he is constantly following orders from Pesci’s Russell Bufalino or Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa; in fact it is this very reason that leads to his major conflict in the later part of the film. His character Frank is someone who will always take the path of least resistance which was picking Bufalino over Hoffa. In one of his initial conversations with Russell in the scene they are eating bread and drinking wine Frank recounts some of his experiences in WW2. He notes that he was instructed by his superiors to bring German prisoner’s of war “out to the woods”. He notes that they were subtlety telling him to kill them. In GEOFFREY O’BRIEN’S excellent essay titled “The Irishman: The Wages of Loyalty” he notes the following
“we find ourselves, briefly but essentially, in 1940s Italy as Frank tells Russell about summarily executing German prisoners of war. The latter episode—the prisoners obediently digging their own grave, then falling backward as Frank guns them down—registers Frank’s almost casual discovery of two prime and closely linked capacities: to follow orders, even if unspoken, and to kill without hesitation or regret”
Now to be fair to De Niro, Pacino and Pesci are both phenomenal in The Irishman (2019). But even so I don’t see much with De Niro’s performance that is worthy of high praise.
@James-Yeah. Pacino and Pesci’s performances are definitely stronger. They are pretty much perfect. But De Niro is in every scene of the movie and when you are the lead in a film like this playing way younger characters you have to accept there would be some scenes where his age would be a limitation. But overall for me it was a strong performance. There were some strong trademark intense De Niro stares especially towards the end of the film. And the phone call scene with Hoffa’s wife is a particular highlight.
There is definitely scope to wonder what another actor could do in the role. But this isn’t an easy role. Plus there is a certain chemistry that needs to be there with both Pacino and Pesci.
@Malith – “Plus there is a certain chemistry that needs to be there with both Pacino and Pesci”
I agree with you here for sure, it is that very reason that makes the murder and betrayal so heartbreaking. Pacino’s Hoffman saying “lets get outta here Frank c’mon” right before the shot to the back of the head. The friendship they develop over the course of the film really makes the scene that much for devastating. The bread scene with Pesci and De Niro’s characters early in the film with bread and wine is one of my favorite scenes, and it is brilliantly repeated with much lower quality bread and grape juice later in the film when they are in prison. While Pacino and Pesci are much stronger overall , these scenes are also to De Niro’s credit in establishing that chemistry as you note.
Again I am not saying its a terrible performance by any means. And I am certainly not saying De Niro’s performance holds the film back from being great. I find it impressive that De Niro was able to pull off the performance at his age. Maybe “passable” sounds like an insult but I did not mean it that way.
@James-For an old actor it is hard to pull off a lead role in a 3 and a half hour movie playing a younger version of himself. So some limitations are going to be visible. For me overall it was a strong performance but Pesci and Pacino were stronger for sure.
But there is scope to wonder what is harder to pull off a compelling lead performance throughout a movie or colourful supporting performances with limited screen time. Apocalypse Now is a similar example but a bit different.
@Malith – interesting example with Apocalypse Now (1979). In fact for that film you actually have two examples with Robert Duvall and Marlon Brando both appearing for about 15-20 min or so and giving incredible performances playing colorful characters. But as great as Duvall is Brando’s performance is absolutely mesmerizing. Then you have Martin Sheen giving a strong lead performance but without at singular moments on par with Duvall and Brando.
The 3rd Man (1949) would be a similar example I think with Joseph Cotten giving a very good lead performance but then Orson Welles comes along near the end and takes over, dominating every scene he’s in for the rest of the film (to be clear I’m not saying Welles blows Cotten off the screen just that he obviously is the strong performance in all the scenes they are in together)
Another example though to a lesser degree would be A History of Violence (2005) where Viggo is really great throughout. Then you have the Philadelphia scene near the end of the film where William Hurt takes over albeit Viggo’s performance still great in these scenes
@James@Malith – Something Wild is also an example. Jeff Daniels is pretty good in the entire run of the film but when Ray Liotta shows up he takes over the film completely.
@Altman – not familiar, will add it to my list of films to watch
@James-I have a love-hate relationship with Brando’s work in Apocalypse Now. Don’t get me wrong Colonel Walter E.Kurtz is a phenomenal character. And the film builds him up sublimely throughout. But Brando’s work here was below my expectations. It’s still a great character nonetheless.
@Malith – In what way was it below your expectations? For me it was the opposite. When I watched for the first time I think I may have subconsciously lowered my expectations to avoid disappointment given the massive build up. When the film finally arrived at the missions destination I was not really sure exactly what to expect but the second I saw Kurtz, actually I guess you hear him before you see him but either way as soon as his physical presence is established its impossible to look away. He dominates from that point on even with a very good performance from Martin Sheen.
@James-You are evaluating this performance the wrong way me thinks. It’s Brando playing a great character in one of the best films of all time. He is compelling even if he just stands there and does nothing. Coppola shoots him in a great way as well. But I simply expected more from Brando in this particular role. He is the right actor for this role for sure. And a lot of credit goes to whomever gave him this role. But this performance is far from perfect. I have only seen this once. Maybe it would get better in the second viewing.
@Malith – “It’s Brando playing a great character in one of the best films of all time”
Yes it is one of the best films and a truly great character which raises the stakes which means only a truly masterful performance justifies the build up. I don’t view Coppola’s amazing direction and Brando’s acting brilliance as a zero sum game; in other words Coppola’s great direction does not diminish Brando’s performance and vice versa. Brando had a screen presence that very few actors have ever achieved. His voice and diction demonstrates a strong command, someone who would be an effective leader. Yet it also has a haunting quality to it. I think its the type of role that one could easily go overboard in a sort of cartoonish way; its a delicate balance even if its the type of role open to being parodied.
@James-That’s the point. I’m viewing this in the eyes of knowing how good and insanely talented Brando is. He is the right actor for this role. Coppola directs him extremely well as well. It is undoubtedly a great character. Maybe one of cinema’s greatest. But I have indifferent feelings about his actual performance. I think there is a fine line between seperating a great performance and great character/great film/great actor.. This one is more in the latter.
@Malith – “That’s the point. I’m viewing this in the eyes of knowing how good and insanely talented Brando is”
Are you holding Brando’s talent against him? In other words if a much less talented actor had played the role equally well (in your opinion) would you view it any differently?
@James-This is an impossible role to predict how another actor would fare here. There are a number of ways to interpret this character.
But seeing how good the film is, how good this character is, and knowing how good Brando can be this performance didn’t fulfill my expectations fully. Duvall is a dynamo though. He is stunning. The performance.