Saturday, December 24, 2016

Showboating: Fences

Denzel Washington stars in and directs August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Fences.

When you watch Denzel Washington in the movie version of Fences, you don’t think, “This is a great actor”; you think, “This is an actor who wants to make sure you know how great he is.” In the mammoth role of Troy Maxson, the 1950s Pittsburgh sanitation worker who is the protagonist of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning 1987 play – and under his own direction – Washington yells and declaims, shambles and struts and puffs himself up. His recitations of the long, long speeches Wilson put in this character’s mouth are like tricky vocal exercises, and we have plenty of time to marvel at his mastery of modulation and tone, particularly since we’re not distracted by any emotional involvement in the performance. On human terms I didn’t believe a single word of it, at least until, late in the picture, Troy began to sing to himself while puttering around his yard building the symbolic fence we hear about in every damn scene. (It signifies, depending on the moment, Troy’s penchant for alienating the people closest to him, his refusal to let in the truth about himself, and his struggle, in the Edgar Allan Poe “Masque of the Red Death” sense, to keep death away from his door.) This song about an old dog named Blue feels genuine, as if for once in the movie Washington didn’t feel he had something to prove. Or maybe I was just relieved that the character had stopped talking.

To be fair, the problems with Washington’s performance aren’t entirely his fault. I saw James Earl Jones, one of the greatest stage actors of our time, play the part in the original Broadway production, and he couldn’t make it work either; I think it’s the only time I’ve seen Jones live and haven’t enjoyed the experience. He, too, seemed to fall back on technique, though not to the extent Washington does (and did, when he played the character in the 2010 Broadway revival that led to this film). The language Wilson lavishes on Troy is artificial without being poetic, and he’s not the kind of playwright who can find the grandeur in banality, like Eugene O’Neill in The Iceman Cometh. You can tell that’s what he’s going for, but Hickey’s amazing fourth-act (virtual) monologue in Iceman doesn’t feel rigged the way Troy’s speeches do; it has the rhythms of an expert sales pitch overlaid on those of a revivalist preacher at a tent meeting, and the character himself is mesmerizing. Troy is puny, which is a real liability, especially considering he’s such a prick that we have to search for reasons to care about him. He cheats on his selfless, loyal wife Rose (Viola Davis), who ends up raising another woman’s little girl when his mistress dies in childbirth; he mocks Lyons (Russell Hornsby), his son by a previous relationship, for choosing the life of a jazz musician; he puts his shell-shocked World War II veteran brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson) in a home and collects his benefits. He doesn’t show his and Rose’s teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo) even momentary affection, bullying him and lecturing him and refusing to let him play football – which the boy may be talented at – because, he claims, the game steals time away from his chores and his after-school job. Cory intuits the actual reason: Troy dreamed of playing pro baseball and, though he professes to want his son to have a better life than he’s had, he doesn’t like the idea that the boy might be able to trade on his athletic gifts when Troy couldn’t advance his own. In fact, Troy has a rosy memory of his own achievements. He blames racism for his inability to make it as a football player; it’s Rose, the truth teller, who points out that by the time he too returned from fighting the war he was just too old. (He became a thief instead, and served time in prison for accidentally killing someone during a robbery. When he got out, he rehabilitated himself and found Rose.) Wilson, who wrote the screenplay before he died in 2005, wants us to feel something for this man, but I never can: on the one hand his behavior is insufferable, and on the other he lacks the size and scope that might make you want to pay attention to him (to use Linda Loman’s famous phrase) despite it.

Wilson’s model for Fences was Death of a Salesman, which he emulates in a dozen ways, from the long-suffering wife who believes in her erring husband and eulogizes him at the end to the ball-player son to the way the protagonist lies about himself. I might be drawn to the idea of an African American version of Death of a Salesman if I liked Arthur Miller’s play more than I do. But at least Willy Loman, however confused his creator’s take on him always seems to me to be – Miller appears to want him to both embody the destructive consequences of believing in the American dream and to carry the blame for it – has coaxed staggering performances out of some of the men who’ve played him, most recently Philip Seymour Hoffman. Perhaps Wilson’s insistence that Troy Maxson’s views on how the inequality of the races in America has crippled black men like himself is both an excuse and the truth is his way of reproducing Miller’s confusion. And I have to say that on this point Wilson is more convincing than Miller. Otherwise Fences is much weaker than Salesman, which is intermittently affecting, mostly in the scenes between Willy and his estranged son Biff. Miller invented a melodramatic reason for the rift between them, but dramatically it serves the play adequately, and Willy’s anger at his son for not making good on the promise of his adolescent years makes more sense – and is considerably less grating – than Troy’s chilly and relentlessly didactic approach to Cory. And as stagy as Salesman is, with the flimsy expressionism of those terrible flashback sequences, Fences is much more so. I don’t think Washington is much of a filmmaker (though I enjoyed The Great Debaters, the second of three pictures he’s directed), but I can’t think of any way to put this material on the screen that wouldn’t betray its stage origins in every scene. Mind you, that isn’t the worst fate a play can suffer on the screen – but only if it’s a more interesting play than Fences.

Viola Davis in Fences

Viola Davis wasn’t at her best when she co-starred with Washington on stage in 2010; she seemed to be trying too hard, at least the night I saw her. But she has such great camera instincts and so little ego as a performer that she automatically scales back to life size in the movie, and her acting is graceful and beautiful as well as authentic, with an almost unerring sense of emotional balance. The only scene where I wasn’t completely with her was the one where Troy tells Rose that he’s impregnated another woman, and there Washington, as the director, doesn’t protect her: he shoots her too close in, with mucus streaming from her nose, as if the fact that she’s so deep into the character’s feelings that she doesn’t care about looking ugly on camera were a measurement of the quality of her acting. That is, I think, a popular misperception about what makes acting great, but since Davis is a great actress, indisputably, this mistake doesn’t make a dent in her accomplishment in this movie.

Russell Hornsby, so good in the TV series Grimm, brings some glints of dark mischief to the underwritten role of Lyons. The English actor Jovan Adepo is effective as Cory (he’s best in the final scene), and despite his gabby dialogue Stephen Henderson manages to underplay the character of Jim Bono, Troy’s co-worker and evidently his only friend. (Bono is a modified take on Charley, the next-door neighbor in Death of a Salesman who keeps trying to use reason and logic on the deluded Willy.) Unhappily, Mykelti Williamson gives a truly embarrassing impression of the erratic, childlike Gabe, but this is a role no actor, certainly not one of Williamson’s quality, should ever be asked to take on.

What is it with Denzel Washington? Everyone knows he’s a splendid actor, but the only times in the last twenty years I can remember seeing actual evidence of it were in the first forty-five minutes of Training Day and in Unstoppable, where he was completely subsumed by the character, a highly engaged professional whose job, in all its physical detail, was inseparable from the gripping action of the movie. It struck me at the time that what I loved so much about Washington in movies like A Soldier’s Story and Glory and Devil in a Blue Dress was less his undeniable charisma than the fact that he never did anything that didn’t convey the character in specific and articulate ways. Maybe there’s no way to play Troy Maxson without showboating, but what’s distressing about seeing Washington approach the role is that character is one thing he doesn’t seem to be remotely interested in.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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