Denzel Washington, Viola Davis become instant Oscar frontrunners in 'Fences'

Before you go, we thought you'd like these...
Before you go close icon

Denzel Washington's big-screen adaptation of August Wilson's "Fences" has arrived, and it's an Oscar player to reckon with this year. But that's hardly a surprise for a project based on Pulitzer Prize-winning source material that has landed major Tony Awards in two separate Broadway productions.

The film unspooled for industry audiences Saturday, screening in Westwood before a crowd that included Screen Actors Guild nominating committee members, Academy voters and press. Washington was on hand for a post-screening Q&A moderated by Variety's Jenelle Riley, along with co-stars Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson and Saniyya Sidney.

When asked what drew him to the role of Troy Maxson, Washington let loose a chuckle and quipped, "The role of Troy Maxson." Indeed, when producer Scott Rudin first sent him the script for the film, which Wilson had penned himself, Washington wasn't interested in diving into it as a movie immediately. He wanted to work through the material on the stage first, which led to Rudin raising the money for the 2010 Broadway revival.

See photos of Denzel Washington through the years:

36 PHOTOS
Denzel Washington Through the years
See Gallery
Denzel Washington Through the years
ST. ELSEWHERE -- ' Tweety and Ralph' Episode 8 -- Pictured: Denzel Washington as Dr. Philip Chandler (Photo by Jack Hamilton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Publicity portrait of American actor Denzel Washington in his screen debut from the film 'Carbon Copy' (Avco Embassy Pictures), 1981. (Photo by John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images)
Denzel Washington (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1990: Photo of Denzel Washington Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Denzel Washington (Photo by Jim Smeal/WireImage)
Denzel Washington and daughter during Moscow Circus Opening at The Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California, United States. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
Denzel Washington during 62nd Annual Academy Awards at Music Center in Los Angeles, California, United States. (Photo by Barry King/WireImage)
Denzel Washington and Pauletta Washington during Screening of 'The Pelican Brief' at Mann's Bruin Theater in Westwood, CA, United States. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO -- Episode 777 -- Pictured: (l-r) Actor Denzel Washington and Jay Leno on September 28, 1995 -- (Photo by: Margaret Norton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Denzel Washington (Photo by SGranitz/WireImage)
Denzel Washington talks to Ethan Hawke in a scene from the film 'Training Day', 2001. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images)
Publicity still of American actors Halle Berry and Denzel Washington holding their Academy Award Oscars, 2002. (Photo by John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images)
Denzel Washington accepts the award for 'Dramatic Film Actor of the Year' on the 2002 GQ Men of the Year Awards at Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City, October 16, 2002. Photo by Frank Micelotta/ImageDirect.
Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks during The 17th Annual American Cinematheque Award Honoring Denzel Washington - Arivals and Press Room at Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, CA, United States. (Photo by Chris Polk/FilmMagic)
LOS ANGELES - FEBRUARY 23: Actor Denzel Washington (L) talks with Devean Fox, son of Laker player Rick Fox, at the game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Seattle Supersonics on February 23, 2003 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images)
Denzel Washington during A Hollwood All-Star Tribute to the NBA's Leah Wilcox at L'Ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, United States. (Photo by Steve Grayson/WireImage)
Denzel Washington during 19th Annual American Museum of the Moving Image Benefit - Salute to Richard Gere - Inside at Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by KMazur/WireImage for NBC Universal Photo Department)
UNITED STATES - JULY 19: Denzel Washington and Kimberly Elise arrive at Clearview's Beekman theater for the world premiere of the movie 'The Manchurian Candidate.' They star in the film. (Photo by Richard Corkery/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
Jodie Foster and Denzel Washington during Inside Man New York City Premiere - Inside Arrivals at Ziegfeld Theater in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage)
NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 20: (U.S. TABS OUT) Actor Denzel Washington and rapper Jay-Z appear onstage during MTV's Total Request Live at the MTV Times Square Studios on November 20, 2006 in New York City. (Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES - OCTOBER 29: Actor Denzel Washington and his wife Pauletta Pearson arrive at an industry screening of Universal Picture's and Imagine Entertainment's 'American Gangster' at the ArcLight Cinemas on October 29, 2007 in Los Angeles. California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Director Denzel Washington and producer Oprah Winfrey at the premiere of The Great Debaters at the Arclight Theater on December 11, 2007 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)
WASHINGTON - JANUARY 18: U.S. President-elect Barack Obama hug actor Denzel Washington in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the 'We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration At The Lincoln Memorial' on January 18, 2009 at the National Mall in Washington, DC. The event includes a diverse array of talent featuring both musical performances and historical readings and an appearance by U.S. President-elect Barack Obama. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
US actor Denzel Washington waves to Japanese fans during an event for his new movie 'The Taking of Pelham 123' at a subway station in Tokyo on August 20, 2009. The new film will be shown all over Japan from September 4. AFP PHOTO/Toru YAMANAKA (Photo credit should read TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 10: Actors George Lopez and Denzel Washington (R) attend the NBA game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Milwaukee Bucks on January 10, 2010 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2010 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
TODAY -- Pictured: (l-r) Matt Lauer and Denzel Washington appear on NBC News' 'Today' show (Photo by Peter Kramer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
NEW YORK - APRIL 26: Actors Denzel Washington and Viola Davis pose for photos at the Broadway Opening Night After Party for 'Fences' at the Bryant Park Hotel on April 26, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)
WESTWOOD, CA - OCTOBER 26: Actor Denzel Washington arrives at the Los Angeles Premiere 'Unstoppable' at Regency Village Theatre on October 26, 2010 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic)
Jennifer Lopez and Denzel Washington attend the Boys And Girls Clubs Of America Announcement With Denzel Washington And Jennifer Lopez at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 30, 2010 in Los Angeles, California.
PHILADELPHIA, PA - MAY 16: Denzel Washington speaks during the 2011 University Of Pennsylvania Commencement on May 16, 2011 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty Images)
MADRID, SPAIN - JANUARY 31: Actor Denzel Washington (L) and actor Ryan Reynolds (R) attend 'El Hormiguero' TV show at Vertice 360 Studio on January 31, 2012 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Juan Naharro Gimenez/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 07: Denzel Washington and Pauletta Washington attend the 'Safe House' premiere at the SVA Theater on February 7, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Rob Kim/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 03: Denzel Washington attends 'A Raisin In The Sun' Broadway Opening Night after party at Tribeca Rooftop on April 3, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Walter McBride/WireImage)
SAN SEBASTIAN, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 19: (EDITORS NOTE: This image has been converted to black and white) Denzel Washington attends 'The Equalizer' phtocall at the Kursal during 62nd San Sebastian Film Festival on September 19, 2014 in San Sebastian, Spain. (Photo by Juan Naharro Gimenez/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - MAY 09: Actor Denzel Washington delivers the commencement address at Dillard University on May 9, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Josh Brasted/Getty Images)
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE
SHOW CAPTION +
HIDE CAPTION

"August Wilson wrote a masterpiece," Washington said. "It's one of the great plays of all time. It's the gift that keeps on giving and as we found out, it works as a film as well."

Washington had directed Davis previously, in the 2002 film "Antwone Fisher." The actress said she considers herself "a friend and a fan," and spoke about how easy Washington made things for her and the other actors.

"The two things he said to us before we started was, 'Remember the love,' and the second thing he said, which is a frightening statement for actors, was, 'Trust me" — and we did," Davis said. "A lot of people don't know what to say to actors to unlock it. A lot of times they know what to do to keep it in there, and make you afraid, but not Denzel. He's a great leader. And he's an extraordinary man. He's a man of God and a man of great integrity, and I think it shows in his work."

Reviews of the film are currently embargoed until December, but it's fair to at least note that both Washington and Davis have now charged ahead in their respective Oscar races. The crowd certainly seemed to agree with that sentiment, greeting the whole team with an enthusiastic standing ovation and threatening to blow the roof off when Davis was introduced.

Washington's performance, to start, is infused with the same bravado and energy that brought him a Tony six years ago. It's incredibly layered, maybe even career-best work. He feels like the odds-on frontrunner in the lead actor category, and as laid out in a recent column, it seems to be him and "Manchester by the Sea" star Casey Affleck leading the pack: two strikingly different performances that nevertheless feature interesting parallels.

But three Oscars? Only six actors have ever done it. Washington's previous wins came for "Glory" (best supporting actor in 1989) and "Training Day" (best actor in 2001), but this performance towers over them both. And in a year already set to hold the #OscarsSoWhite sentiment at bay with contenders like "Fences," "Hidden Figures," "Moonlight" and — if it manages some support — "The Birth of a Nation," what a moment it would be for Washington to become just the seventh actor on a list that includes Ingrid Bergman, Walter Brennan, Daniel Day-Lewis, Katharine Hepburn, Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep.

As for Davis, the Academy can probably go ahead and engrave the statue. Due respect and appreciation to Michelle Williams, Naomie Harris, Nicole Kidman and the rest of this year's supporting actress contenders, who give exceptional performances and will rightly be in the thick of the conversation — but this race just ended.

See photos of Viola Davis:

17 PHOTOS
Viola Davis
See Gallery
Viola Davis
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - SEPTEMBER 20: Actress Viola Davis attends the #TGIT premiere event hosted by Twitter at Palihouse Holloway on September 20, 2014 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - SEPTEMBER 20: (L-R) Actresses Kerry Washington, Viola Davis and Ellen Pompeo attend the #TGIT premiere event hosted by Twitter at Palihouse Holloway on September 20, 2014 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)
LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 25: Actress Viola Davis (R) and husband Julius Tennon arrive at the 66th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on August 25, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Barry King/FilmMagic)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JULY 15: Actress Viola Davis arrives at the 2014 Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour - Disney/ABC Television Group at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on July 15, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Gregg DeGuire/WireImage)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JULY 15: (L-R) ABC's 'How to Get Away with Murder' actors Matt McGorry, Karla Souza, Katie Findlay, Alfie Enoch, Viola Davis, Liza Weil, Aja Naomi King, Charlie Weber, Jack Falahee and Billy Brown pose for a portrait during ABC's 2014 TCA summer press tour at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on July 15, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Christopher Polk/ABC/ABC via Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JULY 15: (Top L-R) Actors Jack Falahee, Aja Naomi King, Matt McGorry, Karla Souza, Alfred Enoch, Katie Findley, Charlie Weber, (Front L-R) Director/Executive Producer Bill D’Elia, Executive producers Betsy Beers, Shonda Rhimes, Creator/Executive producer Pete Nowalk, actors Viola Davis, Billy Brown and Liza Weil speak onstage at the 'How To Get Away With Murder'' panel during the Disney/ABC Television Group portion of the 2014 Summer Television Critics Association at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on July 15, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JULY 15: Viola Davis arrives at the 2014 Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour - Disney/ABC Television Group at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on July 15, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
GOOD MORNING AMERICA - Viola Davis is a guest on 'Good Morning America,' 6/12/14, airing on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Lou Rocco/ABC via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 29: Actress Viola Davis speaks during Variety Studio Actors on Actors presented by Autograph Collection Hotels on March 29, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Variety)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - MARCH 21: Actress Viola Davis attends the 26th annual GLAAD Media Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 21, 2015 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)
WESTWOOD, CA - MARCH 22: Viola Davis Viola Davisarrives at the 'HOME' Los Angeles Premiere at Regency Village Theatre on March 22, 2015 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - MARCH 21: Viola Davis attends the 26th Annual GLAAD Media Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 21, 2015 in Beverly Hills, California.(Photo by JB Lacroix/WireImage)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 22: Viola Davis arrives at the 87th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 22, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Dan MacMedan/WireImage)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 22: Viola Davis arrives at the 87th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 22, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Dan MacMedan/WireImage)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 25: Actress Viola Davis poses in the press room at the 21st annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on January 25, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 25: Actors Viola Davis (L) and Julius Tennon attend TNT's 21st Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on January 25, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. 25184_021 (Photo by Mark Davis/WireImage)
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE
SHOW CAPTION +
HIDE CAPTION

There was some deliberation internally about whether Davis would be campaigned in the lead or supporting category. The fact is she would have been a force in either field, but in supporting, she pretty much has an unencumbered path to Oscar victory laid out in front of her — three years after she was poised to win the lead prize for "The Help," only to drop it to "The Iron Lady" star Meryl Streep in the end.

Beyond that, Henderson (who also won a Tony), Williamson (who thought for sure he had blown the audition for the play) and Adepo (who delivers strong work that builds to complex emotions) will all gather their share of votes in the supporting actor category. And there are numerous possibilities for nominations besides: picture, director, adapted screenplay, below-the-line elements like costume and production design, etc.

"Fences" arrives as a robust player in the race, part of a Paramount awards stable already making waves with "Arrival" and "Florence Foster Jenkins," with "Allied" and "Silence" to come. It's the kind of work that simply demands trophies — and it will no doubt claim its share.


Read Full Story

From Our Partners