The list of actors who have won three Oscars is vanishingly short. Walter Brennan (a character actor from Hollywood’s Golden Age), Jack Nicholson, and Daniel Day-Lewis are the only men to do it, with Meryl Streep, Katherine Hepburn (who won four), and Ingrid Bergman the only women. Awards season can be fickle, sometimes memorializing films and performances that don’t linger in the public eye, but multiple wins are rare enough that they usually cement an actor’s iconic status in the industry. This year’s Oscars are a mostly decided affair, with La La Land expected to sweep the major categories, but there’s one top award that still seems up in the air: Best Actor, for which Denzel Washington is nominated.
For months, the obvious frontrunner for the Best Actor trophy was Casey Affleck, whose work in Manchester by the Sea drew raves and a slew of critics’ awards. Washington, the director and star of August Wilson adaptation Fences, looked to be overshadowed by his co-star Viola Davis (still tipped to win for Best Supporting Actress). But the momentum shifted after Washington won the Screen Actors Guild Award to make it more of a toss-up. With every Oscar race comes a narrative, and for Denzel it’s a simple one—winning a third trophy would be an acknowledgment not just of his skill as an actor, but of the ubiquity of his stardom, which has lasted longer, and gone in more fascinating directions, than almost any of his peers.
Proof of that stardom is the simple fact that Washington made Fences, a project that has long been ignored by Hollywood because its author, August Wilson, had always insisted on hiring an African American director to adapt his Pulitzer Prize-winning play to film. In 1991, The New York Times reported on Wilson’s efforts to convince Paramount Pictures to hire someone like Spike Lee, Gordon Parks, or Charles Burnett—legendary names in the industry—and the studio’s intransigence on the issue, despite the involvement of A-lister Eddie Murphy.
In the intervening 25 years, the script bounced around the industry and was reworked by Wilson before his death in 2005. In 2009, the producer Scott Rudin offered it to Washington, who agreed but wanted to mount it as a Broadway revival first. Even after the play’s short Broadway run in 2010, it took years for Washington (who had directed two other films, Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters) to make the movie, and what he produced feels reverent and intimate. Fences is a hallowed piece of playwriting, and the film radiates respect for Wilson’s words, stripping away almost everything (from elaborate sets to camera movements) to live in its long, winding monologues and shocking, dense bursts of exposition and plot.
Fences at times feels like a showcase—a preservation of Wilson’s most famous work that is truest to his vision, rather than its director’s. But it’s also a showcase for Washington as an actor, a chance for him to channel his incredible charisma into a part that slyly comments on it. Troy Maxson, the protagonist of Fences, is a charming motormouth who spends much of the film holding court on various topics, some trivial, others not. His magnetism belies his malevolence. Troy is a seemingly settled, stable family man, but he boils with resentment, real and imagined, over the errant path of his life and the athletic achievements of his son, who he fears will eclipse his own past as a baseball prospect.
There aren’t many actors who could pull off what Washington attempts in Fences—to make a stagey film that’s profoundly un-cinematic in a lot of ways and that leans heavily on its performances. There’s little for Washington to hide behind. It’d be so easy for the film to feel inauthentic, like a museum piece in which monologues are delivered direct to camera just for some archival purpose. But Fences feels like a living, breathing work of character, a granular examination of a man’s passions and insecurities, and, especially as it races to its conclusion, the story of a woman (Troy’s wife Rose, played by Davis) who finally begins to acknowledge and push back against her husband’s stifling flaws.
Fences simply could not have been produced without Washington’s sway, but more importantly, it’s a film that succeeds (and was nominated for Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay along with its leads) because of Washington’s understanding and care for the material. In recent years, his movie appearances had largely concentrated on action films and thrillers, a genre in which he has always excelled—projects like The Equalizer, The Magnificent Seven, and 2 Guns. Fences was a departure only in that it was the first serious non-genre work he had taken on since Flight in 2012 (which led to his last Oscar nomination).
But Washington has taken that bifurcated approach—balancing roles in genre movies and weightier films— for most of his career, after breaking out on TV’s St. Elsewhere and getting his first Oscar nomination for playing the anti-Apartheid activist Steve Biko in 1987’s Cry Freedom. He won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Glory in 1990, and filmed his first of four collaborations with Spike Lee (Mo’ Better Blues) the same year. He began working with great directors like Lee, Jonathan Demme (Philadelphia), Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala), and Norman Jewison (The Hurricane) while also churning out blockbuster action films like Crimson Tide, Out of Time, and Man on Fire.
Unlike most of today’s biggest actors, who are often propelled to success by a franchise, Washington has never even appeared in a sequel. He has achieved a long-lasting run of sterling box-office success solely on the back of his on-screen presence. Fences, which has earned a terrific $55 million at the box office (more than double its budget) may mark a new stage in his career—one where he uses his clout to adapt less commercial work, such as Wilson’s entire 10-play Pittsburgh cycle, which he is working to bring to HBO. That influence is part of what the Academy would be honoring with a third Oscar on Sunday night. If Washington wins, his trophy would be a recognition of his rare, enduring star power.