Twenty years ago this month—still early in this godforsaken Willennium—most Oscar bettors and prognosticators were predicting a historic, if slightly anticlimactic, finish to that season’s Best Actor race. Russell Crowe, who had won the year prior for his role in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, was poised to win again, this time for portraying mathematician John Nash in Ron Howard’s mawkish A Beautiful Mind. It would make him the third man (after Spencer Tracy for Captains Courageous and Boys Town in 1938 and ’39 and Tom Hanks for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump in 1994 and ’95) to win that award in consecutive years. All indications were that the statuette was Crowe’s: He took the corresponding categories at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the Golden Globes, and the BAFTAs, beating each of his four fellow Oscar nominees at least once.
But the campaign took a strange turn in London. After Crowe’s BAFTA acceptance speech was cut off and edited for the broadcast, the actor pinned that show’s director to the wall in a hotel storage room and berated him for the slight. This left the Oscar door slightly ajar—for Tom Wilkinson (Todd Field’s In the Bedroom), Sean Penn (Jessie Nelson’s treacly I Am Sam), and Will Smith (Michael Mann’s excellent, financially dead-on-arrival Ali), but especially for Denzel Washington, whose fraying, corrupt detective elevated Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day from competent thriller to minor sensation. On the night in question, while A Beautiful Mind held on to Best Picture (and Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress, and Adapted Screenplay), Washington swiped Best Actor from Crowe.
Smith’s turn as Ali had the silhouette of many past Best Actor wins—a megastar plays a Great Man under an auteur’s direction—but he was not believed to have been in serious contention. This year, he’s likely to get his revenge. Though not quite a prohibitive favorite—Benedict Cumberbatch could pull an upset with his role in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, the current front-runner for Best Picture—Smith leads the Best Actor race with his performance as Richard Williams in King Richard, the lighthearted drama about the man who raised Venus and Serena Williams. Even after a quietly atrocious run of films in the 2010s, Smith is galactically famous and widely beloved, and has never won an Oscar despite being nominated in this category twice before (for Ali and for 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness; he lost the latter to Forest Whitaker’s Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland).
That would all be very nice if it didn’t entail blotting out something truly extraordinary. Denzel Washington, who stars in Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, gives not only the best lead performance of the year, but one of the best in his storied career: a complex rendering of someone who he plays, at turns, as shrewd and insane, cowed and impetuous. His recalls the best portrayals of Shakespeare characters on screen—and is a fitting third act to his own work in Shakespeare, which dates back more than 30 years.
While Washington will almost certainly find himself watching from the audience as Smith or Cumberbatch accepts the Best Actor trophy, at least he was nominated. The film itself was snubbed, despite coming from a name-brand director and starring two critically adored actors in Washington and Frances McDormand, a three-time Best Actress winner—and even though the Academy for the first time since 2011 ensured there would be a full slate of 10 Best Picture nominees.
That’s a shame. The Tragedy of Macbeth is an inspired adaptation that, like a handful of Coens films this century—Hail, Caesar! and Burn After Reading come to mind—seems destined to become a belated classic. Shot in black and white by Bruno Delbonnel, Coen’s Macbeth is the rare compelling argument for digital photography, the smoothness and clarity at fascinating odds with the minimal sets and the nightmarish elements that infect them. It is at once surreal and hyperreal, as if the play were being staged in a black box theater by actors who were truly going mad. This sort of crystalline digital approach owes at least a small debt to Mann, who began using digital cameras in tandem with film in Ali; in that movie, the occasional lapses into digital make an iconic figure from history seem almost too tangible, at once larger and smaller than he exists in our shared imagination. Coen’s Macbeth pulls a similar trick, rescuing its title character’s descent into raw ambition—and then into something even baser—from history books, English seminars, the realm of parable. Though shadows real and figurative creep across the screen, Coen and Delbonnel leave nowhere for Macbeth to hide.
All of which means the film hinges on Washington. The first thing you hear from him is his laugh: bemused as he and Banquo (the British stage actor Bertie Carvel) stumble upon the three witches who reveal these two men’s fates. Washington is older than most actors who have played Macbeth—conspicuously so, the gray in his hair and beard popping in Delbonnel’s stark B&W—but instead of subverting something fundamental to the character, it accentuates a period-appropriate fact: that a figure of Macbeth’s military stature at the play’s beginning would, in the 11th century, be staring down the final chapter of his life. This in turn underlines the quasi-spiritual way royalty was talked about by those who respected its authority.
Coen and Washington isolate in Macbeth’s first act one of the text’s most compelling themes: the willingness of men who should know better to mistake the arbitrary for the divine. Washington’s reading, when he is about to be named Thane of Cawdor, of the line, “Why do you dress me in borrowed robes?” is at once defensive and accusatory, hopeful but full of suspicion. Is his new station—one predicted by figures either supernatural or mundanely deranged—a reward granted on a whim, or something predestined? Throughout the film, Washington plays Macbeth as someone who is unwilling to probe this, at least consciously, but whose megalomania may in fact be overcompensation for deep self-doubt. In his casual but precise reading of Shakespeare’s dialogue, Washington traces the outline of a better nature that’s struggling to get to the surface, but never quite does.
While Washington has the gravitas to make Macbeth’s moments of fury truly unsettling, his performance is also nuanced enough to make the king seem petty, petulant, small. Perhaps most impressively, he communicates—subtly but unmistakably—that, while Lady Macbeth pushes him to kill King Duncan, Macbeth enjoys having someone onto whom he can offload this moral weight. When critics study Will Smith’s career, most break it into two periods: his early, staggering run of blockbusters, and then his later work, which includes occasional hits and celebrated performances, but is marred by strange choices and some very public examples of Smith declining tantalizing opportunities—The Matrix and Django Unchained among them. At points in The Tragedy of Macbeth, especially in its second act, I thought of one notable offer that Washington passed on: the title role in Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton. That character, who was played by George Clooney instead, reverses Macbeth’s trajectory, seeing a man’s unexamined ambition melt away as a moral unease kicks in. When Washington’s Macbeth drags his feet on going through with the plot that would give him the throne, you can feel his relief when Lady Macbeth essentially asks him, “When did you become so fucking delicate?”
There is undoubtedly a LeBron thing going on with Washington, where his baseline excellence is held against him during awards season. Though a two-time winner (for Training Day and in Supporting Actor for 1989’s Glory), he has just as often gone unrewarded for great work in great films (Malcolm X), great work in pretty-good films (The Hurricane), and great work in films he directed himself (his adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences). He will not take home his third Oscar for The Tragedy of Macbeth, but Washington should take some comfort in the fact that there is now filmed proof of his Shakespeare mastery, evidence that was not so readily available when he played Brutus in the 2005 Broadway revival of Julius Caesar, which received middling reviews (though not for his performance). The only people who should be uncomfortable are his fellow nominees. Given the way he glared at Casey Affleck during that actor’s acceptance speech for Manchester by the Sea, it doesn’t take much to imagine an irked Denzel dragging some poor enemy’s severed head across the stage.
Paul Thompson is a writer based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York magazine, and GQ.