Denzel Washington earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor Tuesday morning for his performance as the title legal savant in “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” It’s a historic nomination for the veteran actor, and it comes at a meaningful time: it has been exactly 30 years since his very first nomination for “Cry Freedom” (1987).
Washington contended for Best Supporting Actor for that film, in which he played Steve Biko, a real-life South African anti-apartheid activist who was killed at age 30 after being held as a political prisoner. Since then the actor has racked up many more nominations, paving the way for a generation of black performers. That includes his current Oscar rival Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”), who wasn’t even born yet when Washington was recognized for “Cry Freedom.”
Washington’s first Oscar victory came just two years later, Best Supporting Actor for “Glory” (1989). He was only the second black actor to claim that award, following Louis Gossett Jr. for “An Officer and a Gentleman” (1982). Then he earned two nominations in the leading category for “Malcolm X” (1992) and “The Hurricane” (1999) before making history again by winning Best Actor for “Training Day” (2001). That made him the second black actor to win that award following trailblazer Sidney Poitier for “Lilies of the Field” (1963). Washington also became the first (and still only) black performer with two competitive acting wins, though Poitier did accept an Honorary Oscar that very same year.
It was more than a decade before Washington returned to the Oscars with a Best Actor bid for “Flight” (2012). Then came another nom in that race just last year for “Fences” (2016), which also earned him his first Best Picture nomination as a producer. He directed “Fences” as well, but missed the cut in that category.
His nomination this year for “Roman J. Israel” came as a bit of a surprise even though he had earned Golden Globe and SAG Award nominations for the performance along the way. We had ranked him eighth in our predictions with 100/1 odds based on the collective forecasts of almost 9,000 users. He may have been helped by backlash against another Best Actor contender, James Franco (“The Disaster Artist”), who was the subject of sexual misconduct allegations late during the voting period.
Now with eight acting bids Washington extends his record as the most nominated actor of color in Oscar history. And on the all-time list he ranks eighth as the most nominated performer of all time, tied with Marlon Brando, Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Geraldine Page, and Peter O’Toole. Ahead of them are Meryl Streep (nominated for the 21st time this year for “The Post“), Katharine Hepburn (12), Jack Nicholson (12), Bette Davis (10), Laurence Olivier (10), Spencer Tracy (9), and Paul Newman (9). That’s pretty good company to be in, with time for more nominations to come.
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