Culture Magazine

Leading Man on Fire — A Denzel Washington Primer (Part Seven): The Law is On His Side

By Josmar16 @ReviewsByJosmar

Americans love lawyers.

Now, before you have a fit or have me committed to Bellevue Hospital's psychiatric ward, let me elaborate.

We enjoy watching television shows (and movies, if you want to know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth) about lawyers because we're fascinated by the concept of law and its defenders, if not the mechanics of same. Whether we like them or not, issues related to the law are hammered out in trials, thus giving rise to the ubiquitous courtroom drama.

Courtroom dramas are the very essence, if not the bane, of our existence. They're part of everyday life, based on the incontrovertible view that people tend to commit crimes. Along with their criminal acts come the post-criminal investigations. Witnesses emerge, evidence starts to pile up. Soon, these assorted elements get introduced (or not) in a forum deemed appropriate to the circumstances. That forum happens to be the courtroom.

And where there are courtrooms, there are judges. Judges, as anyone who's ever met one will tell you, are the arbiters of the law; they are the experts, the so-called professionals in matters of jurisprudence. So who are the arbiters of the facts? Why, the jury, of course. And juries are made up of ordinary citizens - with all our biases and prejudices and accumulated wisdom, both pro and con, of the facts. For, indeed, we, the people, are the ultimate judges of what can be deemed factual.

Okay, but who are the individuals who bring these criminal cases to court, to be heard by a jury of one's peers, and to be adjudicated by a judge? Those individuals are the lawyers, the people trained in presenting a case and arguing the merits before a court of law. This is also where the heart of the "drama" takes place. You might call it a ringside seat, where the "ring," in this instance, takes the shape of a large rectangular room.

As fascinated as we get with high-tension courtroom dramas - and we can cite numerous filmed examples that fit that description - there is one actor I know of who, at one time or another, appeared to have cornered the market in his association with the law genre, both on the side of what's "right" and on the side of what's "wrong." And that actor is Denzel Washington.

Not only does Denzel make the perfect attorney at law (in looks and in speech), but his recurrent forays into such related subgenres as crime capers, police procedurals, investigative journalism, and criminal behavior - to include his participation in the crimes themselves (via his earlier ghostly "embodiment" in Heart Condition) - have given him a unique perspective quite apart from his fellow actors.

Certainly his stature as a figure of authority has had something to do with it. Writer and movie critic David Thomson, in his book The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, referred to Denzel's "extra confidence" and the authentic "command" he brings to his parts, even to the "silly films along the way."

We'll be exploring his commanding presence (and, along the way, some of those "silly films") in this next installment, which we have subtitled "The Law is on His Side."

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

We begin, of all things, with a star-studded production of Shakespeare's comedy of errors, Much Ado About Nothing. Filmed on location in Italy - specifically in the province of Tuscany, at a real Italian villa with sunny skies, verdant pastures, authentic settings, and lush greenery - this is your standard-grade period piece.

As straight a screen adaptation of the English poet's opus as you can get, much ado is made of the fact that good-ole reliable Denzel plays a supporting role, i.e., that of Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, instead of his usual male lead. It's back to ensemble work for the workaholic Mr. Washington!

Heading up this ribald dramedy, then, is Irish-born actor, director, and producer Kenneth Branagh, the closest Hollywood has ever come to that unrivaled thespian, Sir Laurence Olivier. An Olivier wannabe in everything but name only, the self-directed Sir Kenneth stars as Benedick, a member of Don Pedro's court.

Arrogant, boastful and self-assured to a fault, the handsome nobleman has a "thing" for the equally brash yet beauteous and witty Beatrice (Emma Thompson, Branagh's real-life wife at the time). It's that age-old quip where the one, Benedick, insists that the other, Beatrice, is beneath his contempt, and vice versa; where "I hate your guts" means "I love you madly." You get the drift.

The main conflict (besides the obvious one twixt Beatrice and Benedick) takes place when Benedick's companion, the young count Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard), expresses his heartfelt passion for Beatrice's comely cousin, Hero (the charmingly attractive Kate Beckinsale). Don Pedro is pleased with the union and forthwith blesses the couple to everyone's satisfaction - everyone, that is, except his rebellious half-brother, the jealous Don John (a brooding and bearded Keanu Reeves, who mugs his way through the picture). Don John has designs of his own where the bride is concerned; consequently, he hatches a side-plot to discredit the virtuous Hero before her betrothed. Zounds, the scoundrel (boo, hiss!).

Mixed into this exhilarating brew is the cretinous Constable Dogberry (Michael Keaton, who acts as if he had accidently stumbled onto the set of Beetlejuice), accompanied by comparably inept associates. In addition to Branagh, Thompson and Beckinsale (they sound like partners in a British law firm, don't they?), the other cast members, among them Richard Briers as Hero's father Leonato (and the owner of the villa), Gerard Horan as Borachio (his name, in Spanish, translates to "constantly drunk," which he is), Imelda Staunton as Margaret, and Brian Blessed as Antonio, Leonato's brother, bring their proficiency in iambic pentameter to Shakespeare's lines with enthusiasm and zeal.

As the only African American member of the group (and one of a handful of American English speakers), Denzel's Don Pedro comes off well enough physically. He certainly looks the part of a potentate, who here epitomizes the literal law of the land; and he performs it with utmost taste and distinction (there goes that word again) born of self-confidence. It's evident the actor's earliest stage encounters with the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon (in Othello and Julius Caesar) make all the difference.

Yet, there is something not quite right. To these ears, Denzel's dialogue sounds mannered and leaden. His speech does not "roll trippingly on the tongue." There's a clash of American English with its British variety in the enunciation department. Likewise, an absence of spontaneity creeps into passages that demand a less measured approach. Taking nothing away from his delivery per se, one notices an overly cautious reading of Don Pedro's speeches than there needs to be - an over-compensation, if that clarifies matters, as if the speaker had placed the emphasis on so as to make his meaning clear.

There are several examples of this occurring, the first in the scene where Benedick overhears Don Pedro, Leonato and Claudio discussing Beatrice's true feelings for him; the second, in the quieter moments between Don Pedro and Beatrice, where he gazes intently into her eyes and proposes a marital union between them. Thompson, as Beatrice, rattles off her riposte with a gentle but casual air of indifference, accompanied by a toss of the head. Whereas Washington, on the receiving end, ever-so-cautiously articulates every vowel and syllable, along with the appropriate punctuation.

Yes, yes, I know. I'm being excessively picky in my assessment. This is still a marvelously photographed and gorgeously costumed sojourn, if I can be blunt about it. For instance, that opening slow-motion sequence with the lusty male contingent bobbing up and down on their noble mounts, along with the buxom young women in various forms of undress, are notable for their air of anticipation - a balm to Shakespeare addicts.

More likely, I'm making ... well, much ado about nothing!

The Pelican Brief (1993)

On a more serious note, the initial pairing of Denzel Washington with everyone's favorite screen sweetheart, Julia Roberts, in The Pelican Brief was cause for celebration among their millions of dedicated fans. The onscreen chemistry this oddly-matched couple generated lifted the film adaptation of another of ex-lawyer John Grisham's windingly dense legal thrillers to near-Olympian heights at the box office.

If magnetism and "star power" can be manufactured, bottled, and sold over the counter, then these two brightest of movie lights might have cornered the world market. Call them the twin "flavors of the month," which, where their followers were concerned, had placed them at cross-purposes to one another. Despite that handicap, both Washington and Roberts shined at playing protagonists who win the audience's favor. One couldn't help but root for their success, no matter what project they took on.

Warner Bros. Studios' belief in their staying power as box-office draws led to this faithful if needlessly drawn-out conspiracy yarn about the murder of two Supreme Court justices. The book, written in 1992, was Grisham's third novel and second literary effort to top the New York Times bestseller list (after The Firm).

In the movie, Julia plays law school student Darby Shaw who unwittingly stumbles across an elaborate plot by a ruthless oil tycoon to exploit some oil-rich Louisiana marshland inhabited by an endangered species of pelican - to wit the raison d'être for the avian title. Her subsequent legal brief on the incipient nature of this scheme spells out the particulars in detail.

Before you can say, "What the hell does all that have to do with the death of two Supreme Court justices?", the next layer to be revealed connects Darby to the assassin Khamel (Stanley Tucci), the person responsible for those murders. While the late justices were on opposite sides of the political spectrum, they were both staunch environmentalists. The idea is for the tycoon to profit handsomely from this oil venture by getting the clueless U.S. President (Robert Culp), whose campaign for reelection has been financed by this same tycoon, to appoint two new justices favorable to the scheme. Thus everybody "wins," except for the defenseless pelicans.

We warned you this was a needlessly complicated story line. Having read several of author Grisham's books, I can report that this 1993 screen edition is true to the original tome, a rarity among films of this nature.

Readers may be wondering, too, where Denzel might fit into the action. Is he a cop or is he lawyer? He's neither, but on a seemingly unrelated note, Dee plays Washington Herald investigative reporter Gray Grantham, who receives a tip from an informant named Garcia about the two assassinations. One thing leads to another, and soon Darby links up with Grantham, as the two curious individuals - the rookie law student and the veteran journalist - join forces to begin the laborious task of unraveling the maze of deceptions and red herrings.

I would be remiss in my sworn duty to keep the dénouement a secret. But I will say this: the very antithesis of the usual slam-bang, shoot-'em-up police/crime thriller, The Pelican Brief, written and directed by veteran filmmaker Alan J. Pakula ( All the President's Men, Presumed Innocent), is a more thoughtful case in point. In view of our initial theme ( vide the guardians of law and order and their being on the right side of justice), Denzel occupies an integral secondary spot.

Some critics complained that there were no love scenes between him and Ms. Roberts - and why should there be? In fact, they don't fall in love at all, which is how the novel played it. "Any romance would have been rather tactless," wrote Roger Ebert in his December 17, 1983 review, "considering that the story takes place in the week or two immediately after her [law professor] lover has been blown to pieces."

How about that! A logical, well-thought-out screenplay for a change. Consequently, audiences ate this feature up, which only goes to show that Hollywood can still shock and awe you. On the other hand, in one of the myriad subplots to Robert Altman's labyrinthine The Player, released in May 1992 (a year and a half before The Pelican Brief made its big-screen bow), the little film-within-a-film Habeas Corpus (with Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts, of all people) subverts the whole idea of staying faithful to one's original work.

You're probably wondering: "What the hell is he talking about?" I'm glad you asked! Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to watch both The Pelican Brief AND The Player, in that order. To test your knowledge of same, there'll be a pop quiz on Wednesday.

Philadelphia (1993)

From our current crisis relating to the mounting coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, we harken back to a time when HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and the AIDS epidemic (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) were placed front and center in the debate about how to treat those afflicted with the sexually transmitted disease.

With an all-star assemblage of top-shelf acting talent (Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Jason Robards, Mary Steenburgen, Antonio Banderas, Joanne Woodward, Charles Napier, Ann Dowd, Roberta Maxwell, Roger Corman, et al.), an Oscar-winning music score by Howard Shore, and a similarly feted Best Original Song ("The Streets of Philadelphia") by Bruce Springsteen, Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia was the first mainstream Hollywood production that directly addressed the issue of AIDS in and out of the workplace.

Released in December 1993 - in the same month and year as The Pelican Brief - TriStar Pictures' Philadelphia took on the related topic of homosexuality. Unfounded fears of being infected with the HIV/AIDS virus through non-sexual transmission were an indispensable subtext in the screenplay's depiction of associate attorney Andy Beckett (Hanks), a rising star in one of those typical "white-shoe" Philadelphia law firms. With his worsening condition becoming more and more apparent, the firm's partners contrive a scheme to dismiss Andy on the grounds of incompetence.

The bulk of the drama follows Andy's pursuit of justice in a court of law - not only for himself but for others fighting for their choice of lifestyle or sexual orientation. This is where Denzel's participation as ambulance chaser Joe Miller becomes a lifeline for the terminally ill attorney. Andy wears the marks of his affliction not so much as a badge of honor but as a constant reminder of the life and death struggle that he, and others like him, face on a daily basis.

Combining many of the elements discussed above - that is, the law and its authority in Much Ado About Nothing and the criminal investigation intrinsic to The Pelican Brief - Philadelphia is a film both utterly absorbing and periodically cloying, itself tinged with what used to be termed the "Disease of the Week" syndrome.

It's been pointed out that Andy's parents are depicted as almost too nice to be true. Too, Andy and his gay lover, Miguel Álvarez (Banderas), are loving, caring individuals openly accepted by family and friends, but their emotional relationship is stillborn, as is their commitment to one another. (Note that a scene of the two men in bed was cut from the finished product; it's been restored for the home edition on Blu-ray and DVD).

Still, despite these deferential nods to outward civility, the movie's best moments look inward at the surrounding characters, most notably at Andy's legal representative, Joe Miller. Miller, a straight African American male, is frightened out of his wits with representing a gay man. He can't even bring himself to shake Andy's hand he's so biased. His hatred and disgust spill out in a potent scene with his wife, where his use of the word "faggot" colors his negative views of his client.

Interestingly, the film's screenwriter, Ron Nyswaner, recalled, in a December 2018 BuzzFeed News interview with reporter Adam B. Vary, how "Some people thought that [Denzel]," during a radio talk-show program, "was going to play the gay character. People called in [to the station] and said the most vile things about him. He was stopped on the streets by fans. People were pretty blunt about how they felt about gay people who were carriers of this fatal disease."

The misunderstanding was cleared up, but it proved the point that Americans at the time had a long way to go in their grasp and understanding of the problems afflicting recipients of the HIV/AIDS virus.

How Denzel's character begins to overcome his own prejudices occurs in several of Philadelphia's key scenes. Reluctant at first to take on Andy's case for "personal reasons," Miller experiences a change of heart when he observes Beckett at a library doing research on his case. When one of the librarians asks Andy if he'd be more comfortable in a research room by himself - where he'd be away from others who are uncomfortable with his presence (including the librarian) - Miller walks over to where Andy is sitting and greets him nonchalantly. Miller's steady gaze at Andy (and at the librarian) forces the librarian to depart, as does another researcher.

We can infer from this confrontation that Miller, an African American, had undoubtedly experienced the same kind of intolerance as a struggling law student, but for racially motivated reasons. Andy then hands Miller an extract from a 1973 law equating carriers of the HIV and AIDS virus as victims of discrimination, which perfectly underscores his dilemma. Other sequences in the picture either reinforce or obscure the argument, including one where an African American law student, thinking Miller is also gay, tries to pick him up at a pharmacy.

The trial scenes are handled in non-sensationalist fashion by director Demme. Outside of the occasional objection, they're almost matter of fact, a respite from the torpor of real-life trials or the heavy-handedness of TV courtroom dramas (I'm thinking of the worst of Law & Order).

But the most moving episode of all (for opera buffs such as yours truly) is the well-known one of Andy expounding to Miller the essence of soprano Maria Callas' art in a recording of the aria, "La mamma morta," from Giordano's Andrea Chénier. Without going into specifics, how both Washington and Hanks handle this sequence is a case study in how to convey emotional intensity with only their eyes and bodies as props.

While Philadelphia proved to be a feather in Hanks' cap (he won the first of two back-to-back Best Actor Awards for this and the following year's Forrest Gump), Denzel reconfirmed his own status as a co-equal contributor to its success - both by the subtly of his performance and the communal chemistry he shared with Hanks. Their dual roles as lawyers, one the defendant and the other the defendant's attorney, secured Tom and Denzel's positions as two of this country's hottest screen properties.

End of Part Seven

To be continued....

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

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