Award season is surreal. You find yourself on a first name basis with the world’s biggest stars and filmmakers—and I don’t attend a fraction of the events that occur almost daily. Every year I get the opportunity to be a fan, meeting and greeting the folks I admire. The day after the Academy Awards are handed out, this process comes to a screeching halt and I may never see them again, but it’s certainly nice while it lasts. My family and I often find ourselves overwhelmed by the conversations and experiences we’ve shared.
Monday I attended the Oscar Nominees Lunch, a privilege I never take for granted. It’s one of the nicest, most genteel events of the year, an oasis of calm and camaraderie in the midst of an often-chaotic period. When I asked Lin-Manuel Miranda if he’d flown in from London (where he’s working on the new Mary Poppins movie) just for this he replied with a smile, “I wasn’t going to miss the prom!” And he proudly introduced me to his prom date—his mother. I got a similar response from German filmmaker Maren Ade, whose Oscar-nominated Toni Erdmann has been a critical darling since its debut at Cannes last year. She said she doesn’t like the idea of competition, pitting one film or director against another, but this celebration of everyone’s work made her feel good.
I also got to say hello to Denzel Washington, with whom I spent an amazing couple of hours onstage at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival last Thursday night. The 2,000-seat Arlington Theater was sold out for this career tribute, and understandably so. He’s an Oscar nominee yet again with a milestone achievement as the star, producer, and director of Fences.
In fact, show producer Dana Morrow and I had a heck of a time figuring out which films to leave out! An opening montage provided glimpses of almost every major movie in our guest’s 35-year screen career, but we only had time for twelve excerpts in full. This process gave me a timely reminder of just how many significant films he’s made—and how powerfully good he is.
Because he’s been so absorbed by Fences, I wondered if Denzel would be willing to put that project aside and stroll down memory lane. He proved to be more than willing: he actually enjoyed revisiting some of his older films and said he hadn’t seen most of them since they were new.
He also answered a key question I had wondered about: why did he remain with the show that made him famous, St. Elsewhere, for its entire six-year run? The answer is simple: his boss, Bruce Paltrow, enabled him to take time off to make A Soldier’s Story, Cry Freedom, and Glory. (Since there were 16 principal characters on the TV series it was possible to write around Denzel when necessary.) He remembered commuting from Studio City to Zimbabwe for Cry Freedom and being thoroughly jet-lagged for an important scene, so director Richard Attenborough gave him time to recover.
Denzel was in high spirits throughout our evening. He bantered effortlessly with audience members who cried out at various moments and won us all over with his charm, intelligence, and quick-witted sense of humor. (He says he wasn’t intimidated by the idea of playing Malcolm X for Spike Lee because he’d tackled the role off-Broadway—and already had the right eyeglasses. He could even extemporize Malcolm-like speeches at the drop of a hat.)
He actually learned to drive a railroad train for Unstoppable, and because of experiences like that believes he has the best job in the world. When I asked where his two Oscars reside he said with a smile, “Next to each other.” He is proud of his many awards but said having four children puts that kind of thing in perspective. His daughter Katia worked behind the scenes on Fences, and his son (a recent AFI graduate) is now working for Spike Lee.
There was no shortage of enthusiasm for Denzel Washington in Santa Barbara last week, but I think it’s fair to say that many attendees left the evening more impressed with him than ever. I know I felt that way.