|Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher|
Good-looking men who become stars before they’ve had a chance to learn how to act generally work it out after they’ve appeared in enough movies – even if they aren’t as serious about acting as, say, Paul Newman, whose gifts, which turned out to be astonishing, were hidden beneath a mesmerizing physical beauty. Eventually age scrapes the pretty-boy patina off them, and as they acquire a more rugged, plausible, lived-in handsomeness they learn how to seed some life experience into their performances. It happened to Robert Redford and – dramatically – to Richard Gere (who turned into a superb actor about a dozen years ago); it happened to Brad Pitt, who gives another of his recent subtle performances in Killing Them Softly. These men have matured past any concern they once had with how they look on camera; they’ve become character actors.
|James Gandolfini in Killing Them Softly|
|Damian Lewis in Homeland|
|Bill Murray as FDR|
Among the most talented male American movie stars, perhaps the one who has been the most blighted by his stardom – and by his charisma – is Denzel Washington. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love to watch Washington, but he can be a shockingly lazy actor, gliding through his movies like a guest star on one of those old TV variety specials. Relaxation is usually a virtue for an actor, but it’s often been a self-imposed restriction for Washington: when you can act like Henry Fonda, you shouldn’t be satisfied to be Dean Martin. That’s why it was such a pleasure to see him give a committed performance as the train engineer in the gripping Tony Scott action picture Unstoppable. Washington’s work in the movie – like the movie itself – was so modest that it was easy to underrate, but when he’s at his best, here and in Glory and in the unjustly neglected mid-nineties detective noir Devil in a Blue Dress, he may be the most convincing proletarian actor since Fonda.
|Denzel Washington in Flight|
I wanted to love him as the pilot in Robert Zemeckis’s Flight, and he’s terrific in his best scenes, especially when his character, Whip Whitaker, is drawing on all his resources to bring his plane to ground after it’s started to fall apart in the air. The problem is that goddamn John Gatins script, which is simultaneously trite and grandstanding. Flight only pretends to be about what the trailers made it look like it was about – the heroism that comes from being able to do a job remarkably well under brutally tough circumstances (which would have placed it in the same category as Unstoppable). Instead it turns out to be just another movie about a substance abuser who can’t save himself until he’s hit rock bottom and admitted he has a problem. (It still amazes me that anyone would think that a movie that preaches that same old message of personal responsibility and spiritual uplift is somehow inherently important, but you can’t fight city hall.) And since Washington’s talent is for authenticity, not imagination, he can’t transcend the material, the way Michael Keaton was able to do in his addiction melodrama, Clean and Sober. I believe that you can do great work as an actor without a great imagination. (Montgomery Clift did, and in fact the more he had to use his imagination, the more strained his acting became.) But the script has to be on your side. When Whitaker struggles to hug his estranged son while the boy screams repeatedly at him to get the fuck out of his house, or when he breaks down in front of an NTSB committee investigating the crash and confesses that he’s a drunk, the script is working against him, and he’s got nothing to rely on but star power. That may be enough to keep us watching, but it’s not enough to remind us what can be so special about Denzel Washington.