Denzel Washington: The last 90s-era A-lister with consistent drawing power

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This weekend, Denzel Washington landed another number-one film at the box office, with his action thriller Safe House. The film made an estimated $24 million in its second weekend, and is on track to gross $100 million through next week — pretty impressive for an aging actor with over 30 years of work under his belt. It’s an even more impressive feat when you consider just how many of Denzel’s peers aren’t able to guarantee success at the box office. When it comes to movies, Denzel Washington has a staying power that keeps audiences wanting more.

In the mid-1990s, Denzel Washington was among an elite group of A-list actors headlining big budget films. He, like Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, Julia Roberts and Harrison Ford, could lure audiences to theaters simply because his name was on the marquee.

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But in 2012, most of those big-name stars have seen their fan bases dwindle. Prior to Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Tom Cruise’s ability to pull in audiences was in serious doubt (and that movie’s success may have had more to do with the franchise than its star); Tom Hanks depends on book franchises to stay relevant, Julia Roberts’ only recent hit was also based on a best-selling book, and Harrison Ford is a caricature of his former self: the only time you hear Mel Gibson’s name these days, is at the end of a punchline. These aging actors are struggling to find their rhythm with 21st century audiences.

However Denzel, while certainly enduring a few flops, has managed to maintain a successful career, and is arguably more popular now than he’s ever been.

For starters, Denzel possesses an aura of mystery around his personal life. He doesn’t do a lot of press, and when he does, it’s strictly for the film he’s promoting. This smart strategy keeps scandal at bay, and his private life out of the media. Audiences can focus on his talent as an actor and not get distracted by trashy headlines and gossip.

In addition, Denzel appears to be singularly focused on his craft. Many actors choose to diversify their careers to get ahead — attempting singing careers, promoting political causes, or establishing a personal franchise complete with fragrances, clothing lines, and a few books. But the closest Denzel Washington comes to a side hustle is his production company, which is almost solely focused on his own films. In this way, Denzel is dedicated to acting — he’s not distracted from other obligations, just focused on picking solid scripts and delivering good performances.

Most importantly, Denzel Washington stays popular by giving audiences what they want. Denzel is at his best with strong characters with an element of intrigue and danger, a vague moral code and with plenty of action to boot. His recent action-oriented films, like American Gangster, Training Day and Inside Man, rank among his most successful works (critically and commercially), and this latest film is on track to be another big hit.

Safe House is the story of a rogue ex-intelligence officer who decides to sell U.S. military intelligence to the highest bidder. Audience polls revealed Denzel to be the single biggest reason people went to see the film. If Safe House continues to perform as well as it did this past weekend, it could become his highest-grossing film ever.

Denzel Washington fills theater seats off of his name alone because audiences know what they’re going to get — a great performance from an actor with a proven track record. Denzel has made excellent career choices, and it’s this consistency that makes him one of the most successful actors in America.

Follow Kia Miakka Natisse on Twitter at @miakka_natisse