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All ready for a storm

Some actors like to make out that simply being nominated for an Oscar is honour enough for them. Not Denzel Washington.

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He is a fighter in his new film, The Hurricane, and he is a fighter in real life, admitting he is fiercely competitive and would like to be picking up the statuette on Sunday night rather than sitting in the audience desperately trying to keep a smile in place while someone else collects the wee gold guy. Thirty-six years have passed since Sidney Poitier became the first, and so far only, black man to win the Best Actor Oscar. But The Hurricane always had the look of an Oscar contender for Washington. The true story of Rubin ''Hurricane'' Carter required him to lose 60 lbs and spend over a year turning himself into a boxer - a career route that spelled Oscar glory for Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. This time there was the added ingredient of racial prejudice and a battle for justice - Carter's career was cut short when he was framed by racist police for the murder of three white people in a New Jersey bar in 1966. His case was a cause celebre in the US and the subject of the song Hurricane on Bob Dylan's 1975 album Desire - ''Here comes the story of Hurricane, the man the authorities came to blame . . .'' Carter spent 19 years in prison before a federal court overturned the state verdict and released him in 1985. And Washington would be working with Norman Jewison, the veteran director whose credits include In the Heat of the Night, a Best Picture winner, also about racial prejudice and starring the aforementioned Mr Poitier and Rod Steiger, who makes a cameo appearance in The Hurricane as a judge. Kevin Spacey has long been front-runner for the Best Actor Oscar, for American Beauty, but Washington sprang a surprise in January when he beat him in the Golden Globes, traditionally the most accurate indicator to the distribution of the Academy Awards. The bookies now consider it a two-horse race and Washington has been planning his Oscar acceptance speech. ''No African-American has won best actor since Sidney Poitier for Lilies of the Field,'' says the handsome, currently-bearded New Yorker. ''No African-American has won best actor in the Golden Globes since Sidney Poitier, until I did the other day. So I would love to have the opportunity to talk about Sidney Poitier up there on the stage.'' Washington has already tasted success with a Supporting Actor Oscar for Glory and nominations for Cry Freedom and Malcolm X, as well as the Golden Globe and a Berlin Film Festival award for The Hurricane. ''To be recognised by your peers is wonderful,'' he says. ''We had an experience in Berlin that I will never forget . . . the applause just went on and on and on and on and on. I've been an actor for 20-odd years and I've never had an experience, an exchange with an audience, like that.''

But not everyone is applauding. Jewison says he is still in ''a state of shock'' after learning Washington's Oscar nomination was the only one for the film. He blames the distributors: Universal opened The Hurricane in the US in just a few cinemas at the very end of the year, qualifying for Oscar consideration but restricting the chance for voters to see it. But others are citing a different explanation, for the film has attracted controversy in the US over just how ''true'' it is. The Hurricane focuses on the relationship between Carter and a black American teenager called Lesra Martin, who read Carter's autobiography and took up his cause at a time when Carter had seemingly exhausted his avenues of appeal, cut himself off from society, told his wife to divorce him, and virtually given up hope of release. Martin, who had been adopted into a Canadian commune, wrote to Carter and, against all the odds, Carter replied. ''Rubin never answered any letters,'' says Jewison. The director asked him why he opened, and responded to, this particular letter. ''He said: 'Well, I looked at the stamp, and it had the Queen of England, and I was curious'.'' There have been allegations that the film reduces institutional racism to a single corrupt cop, hellbent on nailing Carter. But then there is a great line when the cops stop Carter and his friend after the murders and say they are looking for two black men in a white car, and Carter asks if any two will do. There is a lawsuit pending involving another boxer, Joey Giardello, following the film's suggestion that he beat Carter simply because the judges were racist. There have been reports that Carter's imprisoned son feels deserted by his father. And there have even been objections from a few who maintain Carter is guilty. Some have even complained that, while Carter lost an eye in prison, Washington still has two (which surely exposes his performance as a sham and disqualifies him from serious Oscar consideration). ''Rubin is 5ft 8ins, 150-odd lbs; I'm 6ft 1in and north of 200 lbs, so I guess the controversy should have started right there,'' says Washington. We get this debate every time there is a feature film based on real events, whether it is the story of William Wallace or the assassination of JFK, whipped up by people who do not understand what makes a feature film and by editors who understand only too well what makes a news story. Washington first became involved in attempts to film Carter's story in the early nineties after he was approached by producer John Ketcham. ''I flew up to Toronto, met Rubin and his Canadian friends, and was very much interested in the possibility as a producer and/or as an actor.'' He seemed a natural for the role, having become something of an ambassador for his race with his Oscar-winning turn as a Unionist soldier in the excellent Civil War drama Glory, and his performances as Steve Biko, in Cry Freedom, and Malcolm X, in Spike Lee's controversial biopic of the American Muslim leader. Washington's roots are in theatre, though he took a degree in journalism, before going to the American Conservatory Theatre School in San Francisco. As a child, in the New York suburb of Mount Vernon, he was more interested in American football than acting. Washington and Ketcham lost out to Beacon Films on the rights to Carter's story and it looked like the project might go ahead with Wesley Snipes before Washington, Ketcham, and Beacon joined forces. Washington went into strict training with boxer Terry Claybon, who plays one of Carter's opponents, Emile Griffith, in the film. Carter was left-handed and - for the sake of the anoraks out there - they worked exhaustively on building up Washington's left hook. The star threw himself into the regime and ''went at it'' in the ring for all he was worth. Washington discovered an aptitude and appetite for the sport. ''I found out I liked to fight,'' he says. ''I didn't mind inflicting pain, didn't want to get hurt, but I had it in me. I know I am a competitive person.'' When Washington met Carter he was surprised. ''I was looking for the angry man,'' he says. Instead, he found a man at peace with the world. ''I was convinced I had met the wrong person. Rubin says he wouldn't change a thing, because everything that has happened to him has made him who he is now.'' Washington is not only one of the very few black American screen actors to reach the top of the profession, he is also one of the most intelligent and articulate of any colour. If he does win the Oscar it might just provide the platform for one of the most interesting acceptance speeches since Marlon Brando decided he wanted to make a point about Indians.

l The Hurricane opens in Scotland on April 7

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