Why You Want to Escape With Denzel Washington

boeWhen the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hands out Oscars this weekend, the smart money is on Daniel Day-Lewis to take home the best-actor award for the title role in “Lincoln.” It would be his third Oscar.

Day-Lewis is a remarkable actor, and his performance as the Civil War president is absolutely convincing. He disappears into the role. He probably deserves the award.

But one of his Oscar competitors has achieved something more impressive. In December, Denzel Washington, who is nominated this year for his performance as an alcoholic pilot in “Flight,” came in first when the annual Harris poll asked Americans to name their favorite movie star. It was his fourth time topping the poll.

To win that title, you have to be an excellent actor. But great performances aren’t enough. Your roles and what you seem to be off-screen also have to resonate with the audience — to represent something consistent about who they want to be.

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A movie star isn’t just an actor. He or she is what the author Margaret Farrand Thorp, writing during the golden age of the studio system, called an “escape personality” — a stand- in for the audience. Movie stars reveal something about the audiences that embrace them. That was true when Thorp published “America at the Movies” in 1939, and it’s still true today.

A great movie star manages a trickier feat than disappearing into a role. A star makes a…

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