• Cecil B. DeMille

Ready for My deMille: Profiles in Excellence – Denzel Washington, 2016

Beginning in 1952 when the Cecil B. deMille Award was presented to its namesake visionary director, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has awarded its most prestigious prize 69 times. From Walt Disney to Bette DavisElizabeth Taylor to Steven Spielberg and 62 others, the deMille has gone to luminaries – actors, directors, producers – who have left an indelible mark on Hollywood. 
From his first notable appearance on screen in A Soldier’s Story, Denzel Washington has always stood out among the crowd. And over a distinguished career, in which he’s won three Golden Globes and two Academy Awards, he’s been the ultimate Hollywood star. Who can forget his Detective Alonzo Harris in Training Day or Rubin Carter in The Hurricane. The list is endless: Malcolm X in Spike Lees’ eponymous portrayal, Joe Miller in Philadelphia, Frank Lucas in American Gangster, Whip Whitaker in Flight. And then there’s his work as a director where he always encouraged new talent: Antwone Fisher, The Great Debatersand Fences
After earning a B.A. in drama and journalism, he was accepted at Lincoln Center, where he played the title roles in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones and Shakespeare’s Othello. After moving on to the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, he was signed for two noteworthy roles in a TV film (Will) and a George Segal comedy (Carbon Copy).
It was, however, his performance in the Off-Broadway Negro Ensemble Company production A Soldier’s Play that landed him his first big break, a recurring role in the hit TV series St. Elsewhere, which ran for six seasons. It inspired Richard Attenborough to cast him as Steve Biko in Cry Freedom, for which he earned his first Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, but because the film was accused of making a white South African (played by Kevin Kline) the hero of Hollywood’s first anti-apartheid film, it had little impact. Still, it paved the way for his memorable turn in Glory, which earned him both the Oscar and a Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actor and made him a star.
It was a long journey for him to get there. Because of his dashing good looks, audiences assumed he was a fresh face, but in fact, he was 35 years old at the time. However, he made up for that slow start and has never stopped working proving himself the most bankable African American actor of all time. As he told the HFPA in a press conference: “There’s racism everywhere. People are racist. People are biased. That’s a part of life. All I know is I had to work very hard. Everybody has to work very hard no matter what color you are.”
He followed Glory with an action thriller, Ricochet, which became the template for dozens of other films in which he starred and which always did well at the box office. Mo’ Better Blues was his first encounter with Spike Lee, and they worked together again in one of his most striking performances as Malcolm X, which again earned him Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. Hot newcomer Kenneth Branagh invited him to join fellow English actors to play Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing, and then he succumbed to Julia Roberts’ charms in Alan Pakula’s The Pelican Brief. He played a homophobic lawyer defending AIDS patient Tom Hanks in Philadelphia (Hanks won the Oscar for the showier role) and then began a blockbuster relationship with Tony Scott that continued until the director’s untimely death. The first, Crimson Tide, was a huge moneymaker. Devil in a Blue Dress saw him teaming with Carl Franklin on a Walter Mosley crime fiction that introduced Don Cheadle to the screen. It was his second collaboration with an African American director. Courage Under Fire also showcased a new talent: Matt Damon, and it reunited him with his Glory director, Edward Zwick.
He wooed Whitney Houston in The Preacher’s Wife, a remake of the Cary GrantLoretta Young The Bishop’s Wife. He failed to connect with audiences in a psychological thriller Gregory Hoblit’s Fallen, but he hit the jackpot working again with Spike Lee on one of his most accessible movies He Got Game. Next, he did The Siege again with Zwick (the man defines the word loyalty in Hollywood) and followed it with Philip Noyce’s The Bone Collector which showcased a newcomer by the name of Angelina Jolie. The year was 1988 and he was working like there was no tomorrow. All three of these films were released in the same year. But now it was time for some serious acting.
The Hurricane saw him roaring back in a ferocious performance for which he was again nominated for both the Golden Globe and the Oscar as Best Actor. When Kevin Spacey won both awards, he publicly accused the Academy of racial bias. The following year he had a huge box office winner with Remember the Titans, and a year later he got retribution when he finally won the Best Actor Oscar for Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day, the fourth African American director he’s worked with.
But he was not done yet. He starred in serviceable thrillers with Nick Cassavetes and Carl Franklin and working again with Tony Scott on Man on Fire he had a huge moneymaker. Jonathan Demme’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate was a critical disappointment, but Spike Lee’s Inside Man was a box-office hit, as was Tony Scott’s Deja Vu, his third collaboration with the director. After that, it was back to serious acting: working for the first time with Tony Scott’s brother Ridley he earned a Golden Globe nomination for American Gangster, one of his greatest portrayals.
Then there was a spate of action films, two with Tony Scott, The Taking of Pelham 123 and Unstoppable, the latter their last film together and arguably their best, an edge of your seat suspense thriller. The Hughes Brothers’ The Book of Eli was followed by one of his best films ever, Robert Zemeckis’s Flight, in which he gives a virtuoso performance that earned him his sixth Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, as well as renewed respect. He returned to the theater in a revival of August Williams’ Fences, fulfilling a life-long dream, and then recreated his critically acclaimed role in a film version (Fences) which he also directed and for which again he was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe. In 2018 he was again nominated for both a Golden Globe and Oscar for Roman J. Israel, Esq.
All told he’s been nominated for eight Oscars and nine Golden Globes, not including his 2016 Cecil B. deMille Award for lifetime achievement.
He’s been married for the past thirty-five years to musician singer, Pauletta Pearson. They met in 1977 when they both appeared in Wilma and are the proud parents of four adult children, including their actor son John David. In spite of his unparalleled success, he prefers to stay out of the limelight. When he gave $1 million dollars to Nelson Mandela and the New South Africa there was no public announcement. That’s just not his style.
Some of his greatest performances: The Hurricane, Malcolm X, Training Day, Flight, and American Gangster.