Oscar 2007: Denzel Washington in American Gangster

I will review “American Gangster” shortly, but for now, I want to share my enthusiasm for an extremely well-acted crime-gangster biopic that's one of the best pictures of the year. Universal's high-profile film will be released on November 2.

I have no doubts that “American Gangster” will be compared to Scorsese's Oscar-winning crimer “The Departed,” Sidney Lumet's great New York policiers (“Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon”), but also to David Fincher's “Zodiac,” and Paul Thomas Anderson's “Boogie Night,” two other sprawling, uniquely American sagas, set in the colorful, sex-drugs-and music dominated 1970s.

Though “American Gangster” co-stars two lead actors, Denzel Washington and Russell Crow, and relies heavily on crosscutting between the stories of their respective characters, I think that, ultimately, the movie belongs to Washington, both as a character and as a performer. Washington renders such a bravura performance that he not only defines the film's moral dilemmas and dramatic conflicts, but also reaches for new heights in an already glorious career.

Hence, as of today, Washington is one of the front-runners for the Best Actor Oscar in a short list that includes James McAvoy in “Atonement,” Daniel Day-Lewis (sight unseen) in “There Will Be Blood,” George Clooney in “Michael Clayton,” Casey Affleck in “The Assassination of Jesse James” (if the studio will not move him into the supporting league to increase Brad Pitt's chances at getting a lead nomination), Tommy Lee Jones in “In the Valley of Elah,” John Cusack in “Grace Is Gone,” and Javier Bardem in “No Country for Old Men.”

Unfolding as the “success story” of a cult hero from the streets of Harlem, “American Gangster” centers on Washington's Frank Lucas, the quiet driver of one if the inner city's leading black crime bosses. When his boss suddenly dies, Lucas exploits the opening in the power structure to build he his own empirehe creates his own version of the American Dream. Through ingenuity and a strict business ethics, Lucas comes to rule the inner-city drug trade, flooding the streets with purer product at a better price. Outplaying all of the leading crime syndicates, he becomes not only one of the city's mainline corrupters, but also part o its circle of legit civic superstars.

Lucas is juxtaposed with Richie Roberts (Crowe), an outcast cop close enough to the streets to feel a shift of control in the drug underworld. Roberts believes someone is climbing the rungs above the known mafia families. He begins to suspect that a black power player has come from nowhere to dominate the scene.

Director Scott was attracted by the paradoxes of its central characters as the film's two adversaries. Frank, a charming, self-made drug kingpin who smuggled heroin from Vietnam in the caskets of American soldiers, the other an incorruptible cop with a weakness for women. As he explains: “Frank Lucas had all the attributes of someone to be admired–a touch of genius in his business prowess, yet he chose to peddle heroin. Richie Roberts was the antithesis of that: the paragon of morality in his work, but his private life could best be described as immature.' Both Lucas and Roberts share a rigorous ethical code that sets them apart form their own colleagues, making them misfits, lone figures on opposite sides of the law. The destinies of these two men become intertwined as they approach an inevitable confrontation where only one of them can come out on top.

In a year that's particularly strong for male actors, with such top-notch work from Casey Affleck (“Assassination of Jesse James,” “Gone Baby Gone”), George Clooney (Michael Clayton”), Russell Crowe (“3:10 to Yuma”), Daniel Day-Lewis (“There Will Be Blood”), Josh Brolin (“No Country for Old Men”), and many others, it's no mean feat.

Washington has done it again, bringing to the fore all of his dramatic experience in a performance that combines ingredients of his best screen parts, the heroic roles, such as “Glory,” for which he won a Supporting Oscar, and the non-heroic ones, such as Antoine Fuqua's “Training Day,” for which he won his second Oscar and first Best Actor Oscar.

It does help that Washington's performance is contained in a big-budget, high profile picture, directed by one of Hollywood's best helmer, Scott, who, despite three Oscar nods, has not won yet the coveted award. And Russell Crowe should get credit too, even though the two characters meet only briefly in the very last reel, in a climactic encounter that recalls the anticipated meeting between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Michael Man's 1995 crimer “Heat.”

Since Frank Lucas was a complex man, full of contradictions, the role enables Washington to draw on his rich and diverse skills. Early on in his career, Washington faced the danger of becoming the Sidney Poitier for the new generation, an actor who specializes in heroic roles, embodying the best qualities of the Afro-American tradition, evident in his first two Oscar nominations.
In “Cry Freedom” (1987), Washington played Steve Bilko, the activist who marshaled opposition to apartheid by attracting the sympathetic attention of the white South African editor Donald Woods (played by Kevin Kline). In “Glory,” Washington was cast as a fiery and defiant black soldier in the Civil War, placed under the leadership of young Union officer Robert Gould Shaw (played by Matthew Broderick). Embodying “Malcolm X” in Spike Lee's controversial biopic enabled Washington to play a more overtly political and ambiguous character, but in “The Hurricane,” he again played a noble hero, the wrongly convicted and imprisoned prizefighter Rubin (“Hurricane”) Carter, eventually set free by a committed ghetto teenager.

2007: A Vintage Year

You could say that the Oscar campaign for Washington begins on November 1, when the British Academy of Film and Television Arts/Los Angeles will honor Washington with its Stanley Kubrick Britannia Award for Excellence in Film at the 2007 BAFTA/LA Cunard Britannia Awards. “As both an actor and director, Denzel continually takes on challenging projects, and we are thrilled to honor and celebrate his immense talents,” said BAFTA/LA chairman Peter Morris.

A day later, on November 2, his new, exciting picture, Ridely Scott's crime-actioner-biopic, American Gangster,” in which heco-star with the estimable Russell Crowe in the fact-inspired story of a drug lord in 1970s Harlem.

This is a vintage year for Washington, who also directed and co-starred with Forest Whitaker in the drama “The Great Debaters,” based on the true story of Melvin B. Tolson, a professor at Wiley College who inspired the Texas school's debate team to challenge Harvard for the 1935 national championship. “The Great Debaters” will be released in December.

“American Gangster” is sharply scripted by Steven Zaillian, who won an Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Spielberg's “Schindler's List” in 1993. The film is produced by Brian Grazer and Ridley Scott, and executive-produced by Nicholas Pileggi (who penned Scorsese's “Casino”), Zaillian, Branko Lustig, Karen Kehela Sherwood, James Whitaker, and Michael Costigan.

In Good Company

If Denzel Washington receives an Oscar nomination he will join the company
Of other lead actors, who were nominated for deviating from their noble and heroic screen images, such as: Jimmy Cagney in “Love Me or Leave Me,” Humphrey Bogart in “The Cain Mutiny,” Daniel Day-Lewis (“Gangs of New York”), and a few others.

Washington's Oscar Record:

Washington has been nominated for five Oscars, three lead and two supporting. They are chronologically:

1987: Cry Freedom, Supporting Actor; the winner was Sean Connery for “The Untouchables.”

1988: Glory, Supporting Actor; won

1992: Malcolm X, Best Actor; the winner was Al Pacino in “Scent of a Woman.”

1999: The Hurricane, Best Actor; the winner was Kevin Spacey for “American Beauty.”

2001: Training Day, Best Actor, won