by Quendrith Johnson, Los Angeles Correspondent
On Thursday night, when Denzel Washington is finally presented with his Leonard Maltin Masters Award at Santa Barbara International Film Festival, the award hand-off is done by a little girl from the cast of FENCES, in which he stars and directs. This is the movie that has him Oscar-nominated along with co-star Viola Davis, who gives what can only be called a go-to-God, heart-stopping performance. Saniyya Sidney, age 11, presents the honor with FENCES co-star Stephen McKinley Henderson. Saniyya will say “and he only needs one name, Denzel!”
The packed Arlington Theater will erupt in applause, this after a night of Denzel Moments from all of his major films dating back to A Soldier’s Story in 1984, directed by Norman Jewison. This clip is from a time when Washington wasn’t even among the top-billed. Leonard Maltin, for whom the Master Award is now named, will sift through the images and introduce the honoree as “One of our greatest living actors.”
“I discovered him on television in a show called St. Elsewhere,” Maltin begins. “Back in the 80’s, they had something called ‘Appointment Television’ and St. Elsewhere was Appointment Television. There was this young actor, part of the ensemble. Somebody you wanted to watch. Who held his own with all these experienced, much more mature actors. Some of the great ones.”
When he asks Denzel if Sidney Poitier was an influence coming up. The actor’s eyebrows arch, “I just came from Sidney’s house.”
“How is he?,” Maltin asks.
“He’s 90,” Washington says, throwing a laugh line. “But I’ll tell you a Sidney story. I’ve got a Sidney story.” Poitier was “in a book store in Beverly Hills, I got my picture and resume from the car, and it didn’t turn out too well.” Poitier snubbed him completely. “So don’t anybody give me their head shots or resumes, either,” he adds, looking half his age at 62.
It’s difficult to imagine Denzel Washington the icon of American movies as a young stage actor, but the next story he shares is so poignant, you get a sense of how far he has come. “I started acting in 1975, James Earl Jones was big in theater… we were theatre snobs — Theatre with an “re”.
As Leonard Maltin chips away at the memories on screen, Denzel jokes “This is your life.” And he somehow segues into “commuting to Zimbabwe.” He’s talking about the movie Cry Freedom (1987) in which he plays Steve Biko, an anti-Apartheid activist who died at the hands of the police. “That scene you saw me doing in Cry Freedom, I was so spaced out from jet lag, they had to give me another day. They shot everybody else and shot me last.”
“Again, I have to thank the late great producer Bruce Paltrow (Gwyneth Paltrow’s father) for allowing me to leave [his TV show] to do films.” On becoming famous, he recalls seeing “1000 people trying to get in to see [him]. [He was sitting on a ] Bench across from the federalist theater. All these people lining up. And I’m making 125 dollars a week. I knew there was something about it more than acting, not saying I’m a messenger, but I’ll try.”
That experience was during the run of a play called “When The Chickens Come Home To Roost.” “If I hadn’t done the play, hadn’t got the responses,” Denzel says he wouldn’t have known how to play Malcolm X for director Spike Lee when he got tapped to star. “I knew I could do the part, I had the glasses,” Denzel jokes. “And because it was Spike.”
Washington then actually takes off his shoe, demonstrating how he was so far into the part he could channel extemporaneous dialogue on the spot. “This sneaker is white and the black man is the sock, choked at the neck!” Snapping back into himself, he adds “no disrespect to white people or sneakers.”
His sense of humor is as powerful as his dramatic streak. Denzel confides that his wife of many years has been the solid ground for himself and his four children throughout his long career. “‘My wife would say, who’s coming home today?’ Malcolm X was coming home. And she’d say ‘okay, everything is the white man’s fault,’” with an eyeroll. “Another day it was the guy with trumpet, and she’s like ‘okay.’”
Security is ridiculous on Denzel’s Maltin Masters Award night, about nine guys in black suits with earpieces go by. Denzel himself is wrapped up with fans. But he makes special time for some young reporters. Later in line, one of the budding journalists will say “He Touched My Arm,” in a hysterical whisper. One piece of wisdom to this group of upcomers is “The best advice I can give is this: fall down seven times, get up eight.”
As for his own path, Warren Beaty literally helped teach him how to be a director. “I tried to BS my way through directing, but Warren Beatty helped me understand I could do it.” Beatty told him that “acting is a way in.”
As for his own adventure in becoming a famous person, now up for a potential third Oscar win with FENCES, the Oscar-nominee is circumspect. As his life was “changing” (re: becoming famous), it started to hit him hard that it was kind of a big deal. So he went to see his mother. “She owned a beauty parlor. And she started calling me ‘Superstar.’ ‘Hey Superstar, see that over there? Can you empty the garbage? Hey, Superstar, can you pick up a squeegee and do those windows?’ My mother brought me back to Earth fast.'”
Now one of his sons, also in the business, has expressed concern about the comparisons. “He said ‘ Your shadow is so big.’ I said you ever heard of Kirk Douglas? He said ‘no.’ I said you heard of Michael Douglas? ‘Yeah.’ Well go Google Kirk Douglas, then we’ll talk about a long shadow.”
The 32nd Santa Barbara International Film Festival is in full swing as Leonard Maltin awarded the Maltin Modern Master Award presented by Dom Perignon to Denzel Washington on Thursday, Feb. 2. SBIFF continues through Feb. 11, 2017.
Stay tuned for more about SBIFF, and get tickets/information at their website.
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