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Denzel Washington's Best Co-Stars Ranked

Denzel Washington stands as one of the greatest living actors in the entire world. His vast career has included everything from Shakespearean comedies and historical epics to intimate family dramas and high-stakes action flicks. In pretty much every film, no matter the genre, he manages to turn in tremendous work. He's received an incredible 10 Oscar nominations since his career launched in the 1980s. He's long been one of Hollywood's most revered stars, putting in an array of fascinating performances and regularly pulling in impressive box office numbers.

Even the best actors can't succeed all alone, though. Washington's career has featured some really impressive collaborations with directors like Spike Lee, Antoine Fuqua, and Tony Scott. He's also been paired with some really extraordinary talent in front of the camera. He's worked with up-and-coming actors, but also megawatt stars with loads of Oscar wins between them, which had us thinking: who have been Washington's very best co-stars over the years? We've done the difficult work, so sit back and enjoy Denzel Washington's best co-stars, ranked.

13. Matthew Broderick (Glory)

In "Glory," the 1989 war film directed by Edward Zwick, Matthew Broderick played Captain Robert Shaw. Raised by abolitionists, Shaw has always been on the right side of history, though that doesn't make his task of leading a volunteer 54th regiment comprised of African-American soldiers in the Civil War any easier. Faced with prejudice from every angle, Shaw soon realizes that his idealistic and rather naive worldview is not reflective of a much harsher reality.

Broderick is strong in the film's lead role, but the most memorable performance of the film comes in the supporting role of Trip, a fictional member of the 54th regiment played by Denzel Washington. Washington takes a relatively small role and makes it magnetic, showcasing powerful emotions in a sequence where he gets the members of the regiment to tear up their pay in protest over receiving far less than their white counterparts. What really cemented Washington's brilliance is a difficult-to-watch scene where he is flogged on the wrongful charge of desertion. As the camera cuts between close-ups of Trip and Shaw, a single tear rolls down Trip's face—a move that Washington magnificently improvised. Washington won his first Oscar for the performance, which helped further his star persona.

Looking back on the film, Washington overshadows Broderick in a supporting performance, so we're putting Broderick at the bottom of this list. He's no slouch, though, with a long, impressive career that has seen him shine especially brightly in the movies "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," "Election," and "The Producers." He's also been a huge success in the theatre, winning two Tony Awards.

12. Chris Pine (Unstoppable)

Chris Pine's career exploded after starring in the reboot of "Star Trek," propelling him to stardom after largely performing in small tv roles and the odd romantic comedy. His first big role after the sci-fi movie was a pretty awesome opportunity to star alongside the legendary Denzel Washington in "Unstoppable," directed by the talented Tony Scott. The plot is a bit ridiculous (in the best way): an unmanned train is headed straight toward a town at devastating speed, and a grizzled engineer Frank (Washington) and a newly hired conductor Will (Pine) have to work together to stop unfathomable destruction.

Despite being a lot less experienced than Washington, Pine delivers an impressive performance. The two have chemistry that helps the film crackle with excitement. As he did in "Star Trek," Pine exudes a remarkable charisma that proves why he was the right choice for the movie. As a character struggling with a troubling relationship with his wife (including a restraining order against him), Pine adds a real emotional core to a very physical role. "Unstoppable" is a thrilling and underappreciated movie, and Washington and Pine prove to be a great duo that we'd love to see perform together again.

11. Colin Farrell (Roman J. Israel, Esq.)

"Roman J. Israel, Esq." is a strange but intriguing film. It follows Washington's Roman J. Israel, who works at a small defense firm alongside his hero (and boss). When the man suddenly passes, Israel's life is shaken. Without a job, he's recruited by the slick-haired George Pierce (Colin Farrell) to work at his firm. The two see the world very differently, but Israel's former boss taught Pierce everything he knew, and Israel has quite a unique reputation.

Farrell gives dimension to what could have easily been a flat, stereotypical smarmy lawyer-type. It's exciting to watch his character develop throughout the film, as Israel has clearly made a lasting impression on Pierce. Though Farrell can't quite match the abrasive and compelling performance that Washington delivers in the titular role (Washington earned his 8th Oscar nomination for the film), he makes for a worthy presence alongside the great actor. That shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, as Farrell is an impressive talent in his own right. Though he manages to often fly under the radar, Farrell has been a force in Hollywood for many years, starring in films including "Phone Booth," "In Bruges," and "The Lobster." He has recently had some big television roles, too, including "True Detective," and "The North Water."

10. Christopher Walken (Man on Fire)

In one of his grittiest roles (and films), Denzel Washington stars as John W. Creasy in "Man on Fire," a former CIA officer who is convinced by his dear friend Paul Rayburn (Christopher Walken) to work as a bodyguard for a young girl named Pita (Dakota Fanning). Creasy struggles with an immense depression from his time at the CIA, but when Pita is kidnapped in a shocking scene, Creasy becomes hell-bent on getting the girl back, no matter the cost.

Walken is an actor of vast talents, winning an Oscar for his fearless performance in Michael Cimino's "The Deer Hunter" in 1978, three years before Washington made his first feature film appearance. Walken has been a force in the entertainment industry since he first appeared in television in the early 1950s, and he's been acting consistently since then, featuring in "Catch Me If You Can," "Pulp Fiction," and many more. The only reason he isn't higher on the list is the scope of his role, which feels quite minor compared to the hulking power of Washington's lead role in "Man on Fire." He's as good as he always is, but it's really a role that is there to set up and support Creasy's character, rather than to do much on his own.

9. Kevin Kline (Cry Freedom)

With just a few film roles under his belt, Denzel Washington put himself on the proverbial Hollywood map in 1987's "Cry Freedom," which scored the actor his first Oscar nomination. Washington stars in the Richard Attenborough-directed film as Steve Biko, an activist in Apartheid-era South Africa. Biko is one of the leading members of the Black Consciousness Movement, and his activities are followed with great interest by a white journalist Donald Woods, played by Kevin Kline. Though their politics don't always align, Woods finds himself drawn to Biko, and when Biko is arrested by law enforcement and tragically dies while imprisoned, Woods sets off on a mission to clear Biko's name and implicate the police in his death.

Kline's performance as the real-life journalist Woods (whose books provided the basis of John Briley's screenplay) is strong, though, like many great actors, he struggles a bit to match the magnificence of Washington, who ultimately overshadows him despite having more of a supporting performance. This isn't to say Kline isn't any good in the movie, because he is, but despite Kline having the lead role, this is really Washington's movie, and Biko is regularly at the center of the film's most passionate scenes.

Kline himself is no stranger to glory. His next role after "Cry Freedom" was 1988's "A Fish Called Wanda," which won him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, proving that Kline was not only a great dramatic actor but a wonderful comedic one, too.

8. Clive Owen (Inside Man)

Director Spike Lee and Denzel Washington have had an impressive working relationship and the pair have collaborated on a number of great films since 1990's "Mo' Better Blues." Lee helped Washington deliver what might just be his finest performance in 1992's "Malcolm X." They also collaborated on the most financially successful film of Lee's career, 2006's "Inside Man." The film is a stunning, complexly constructed heist movie set in the heart of New York City, where detective Keith Frazier (Washington) finds himself up against the biggest test of his life: a bank robber Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) who has masterminded an elaborate scheme down to the most minute detail.

Owen has made a career out of delivering stellar performances (e.g., "Children of Men"), but he's rarely been better than in "Inside Man." As Detective Frazier's nemesis, Russell takes immense pleasure in slowly and steadily peeling back the layers of his operation, revealing complication after complication for Frazier and the police to fall victim to. Owen's character exudes a menacing yet effortless cool that is downright mesmerizing to watch, and he regularly steals the show from a fantastic cast that includes Washington, Jodie Foster, Christopher Plummer, and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

7. Russell Crowe (American Gangster)

When thinking about Denzel Washington's highest-grossing film, the answer may surprise you: it's Ridley Scott's 2007 gangster flick "American Gangster." Based on an amazing true story, the film presents a thrilling ride following an enormous drug empire run by Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and the one officer determined to take it all down, Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). What's fascinating about "American Gangster" is the dichotomy between the two characters. Roberts behaves more like a drug kingpin, and Lucas feels more like the ultimate family man, albeit with a serious vicious streak.

Every bit as impressive as Washington's fascinating portrayal of Lucas, Crowe turns what could have been a pretty typical cop determined to solve a case into a refreshingly well-rounded character you want to follow. What sets "American Gangster" apart from the rest of the films on this list is that Crowe and Washington aren't seen on screen together until near the very end of the film. When the two finally face off, the tension is palpable and thrilling.

Though Crowe's career took off later than Washington's, particularly after he starred in another Ridley Scott film, 2000's "Gladiator," Crowe is more than up for carrying the film alongside Washington. His performance has real energy simmering through it, and it's fascinating to watch his honest-cop facade regularly conflict with his chaotic personal life.

6. Forest Whitaker (The Great Debaters)

Denzel Washington found himself both behind and in front of the camera in 2007's "The Great Debaters." In the film, which Washington directed, he stars as debate coach Melvin B. Tolson at Wiley College. In the Jim Crow era, Tolson is faced with the extraordinary challenge of trying to get his debate team to compete against white colleges and universities. While the film follows a rather predictable formula, it's well-written and features exceptional performances. "The Great Debaters" is a harrowing yet heartwarming story of fighting a hateful system and overcoming impossible odds.

Alongside Washington, the film stars Forest Whitaker as preacher James L. Farmer Sr., who regularly finds himself at odds with Tolson's methods. Farmer's own son is part of Tolson's debate team, which is the source of conflict between Washington and Whitaker's characters. Whitaker delivers his trademark brilliance in the film and is particularly powerful in a key scene at the Sheriff's office, when, despite their differences, he comes to Tolson's aid. Whitaker's character delivers an impassioned speech to the Sheriff with the iconic line "an unjust law is no law at all," ultimately preventing Colson from being wrongfully imprisoned.

Whitaker is a sensational performer in his own right, winning a Best Actor Academy Award for his role in "The Last King of Scotland" the year prior. He's a fantastic complement to Washington, and certainly one of his most accomplished co-stars.

5. Ethan Hawke (Training Day)

Washington's expansive career has often seen the actor play heroic roles, including characters who, despite the odds, act bravely. Antoine Fuqua's 2001 film "Training Day" offered Washington a big opportunity to try something completely different. In "Training Day," Washington is Alonzo, a narcotics officer who works for the LAPD. Over the course of a day, his task is to train a rookie cop named Jake (Ethan Hawke). Jake is very much on the straight and narrow path, joining the force to be an agent of positive change. It soon becomes clear that his trainer Alonzo has a very different approach to police work, and Jake's training day soon becomes an endless nightmare.

Seeing Washington play against type as a genuinely evil guy (albeit with his own strong moral code) is thrilling. He truly deserved his second Oscar win, his first for Best Actor. As a man who experiences all his worst fears coming true, Hawke is sublime. It's fascinating to watch his happy-go-lucky persona and desire to make good in the world dissolve over the film's two hours, and Hawke is completely convincing through every beat. He's every bit as good as Washington is in the film, which is no small feat. He would have been a worthy Supporting Actor winner alongside his co-star. Hawke is a four-time Oscar-nominee in his own right (including an acting nom for "Training Day") and we'd link to think he'll have a win or two of his own before his impressive and varied career ends.

4. Gene Hackman (Crimson Tide)

Denzel Washington has had a number of fruitful collaborations with directors, but Tony Scott may just take the cake. Before the director passed in 2012, the pair had worked on five films together, including "Man on Fire" and "Unstoppable," both of which are on this list. In 1995's "Crimson Tide," Scott's film placed Washington against his most worthy adversary to date in the phenomenal two-time Oscar-winning actor Gene Hackman.

As Captain Frank Ramsey, Hackman provides a formidable foe to Washington's Hunter. The two clearly have extremely different opinions when it comes to the very concept of war. Hackman provides such an intense, fearsome presence that is eerily matched by Washington's calm confidence. Hackman delivers every line with an impressive theatricality that makes him a delectable villain. That's not to say Hackman's character is cartoonish—far from it. He's a complicated figure so scarred by war that he's lost any respect he once had for it, saying to Hunter, "What'd you think, son? That I was just some crazy old coot putting everyone in harm's way as I yelled 'Yee-haw!'?" The film is one of the all-time great submarine films. Its war-within-a-war construct features some pulse-pounding thrills, and watching Hackman and Washington face off is simply awesome.

3. Viola Davis (Fences)

In "Fences," Denzel Washington (who also directs) stars as Troy Maxson, a man whose dreams of being a professional baseball player were dashed by racism. It's something he's never fully processed, and it's made him increasingly cantankerous over the years. Perhaps nobody has borne the brunt of this more than his wife, Rose (Viola Davis).

As the long-suffering Rose Maxson, Davis is positively electric. The actress showcases her brilliance throughout the entire film, but is especially explosive when her emotions finally overflow in a staggering monologue, where she expresses how difficult her life has been because of her husband for the last 18 years. When she erupts with, "I've been standing with you. I've been right here with you, Troy," Davis vanishes into the character, completely transporting the audience. As tears flow, she continues in heartbreak and rage. In the film's defining moment, she completely steals the show.

Few performers are as gifted as Viola Davis, who, with her incredibly raw energy, can make any character feel completely and utterly believable. Davis won her first Oscar for "Fences" for best Supporting Actress, and she's so incredibly good in it that we're willing to overlook some serious category fraud, as she is definitely the lead actress in the film—and we're willing to bet she would have won that award too. Davis is currently experiencing a well-earned meteoric rise, and we're thinking she has plenty more nominations, and wins, in her future.

2. Frances McDormand (The Tragedy of Macbeth)

In Joel Coen's "The Tragedy of Macbeth," Denzel earned his ninth acting nomination for the Academy Awards for his bold performance as the eponymous Macbeth. The story, originally written by William Shakespeare, has been told time and time again in theatre, television, and film, and Coen is the latest director to take a crack at the immortal tale. Alongside Washington is the gifted Frances McDormand as his hugely ambitious wife, who will do whatever is necessary to help her husband ascend to the throne.

McDormand proves why she's one of Hollywood's most in-demand performers in her role as Lady Macbeth. As Hannah Flint explains in a piece detailing the fascinating history of the character for BBC Culture, "McDormand commands the screen with matriarchal authority. There's nothing hysterical or overtly 'evil' about her performance; rather she plays the character as someone who is determined that their murderous actions are for the good of her hard-working husband until the guilt becomes too much to bear."

Many actresses sadly struggle to stay relevant after reaching a certain age thanks to an unfair dearth of opportunities, McDormand has continued to shine with each passing year, and her star has never burned brighter. She's won an incredible three Academy Awards for Best Actress, tying Meryl Streep and trailing only the magnificent Katherine Hepburn.

1. Tom Hanks (Philadelphia)

"Philadelphia," directed by the versatile talent Jonathan Demme, broke serious ground for having a frank discussion of the AIDS virus at a time when it was extremely taboo to do so. The screenplay, written by Ron Nyswaner, follows Andy Beckett (Tom Hanks), a successful lawyer who keeps his personal life—including his homosexuality and AIDS diagnosis—from his co-workers. In the wake of a sudden and unexpected dismissal from his job, he hires lawyer Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), the only one willing to take on his case.

Tom Hanks was already a big-time Hollywood star before his role in "Philadelphia," having already starred in films like "Big," "Splash," and "A League of Their Own." But his sensitive and heartbreaking performance as Andy Beckett is what really made him a bonafide superstar. While Washington delivers a characteristically strong performance, he's completely overshadowed by Hanks. In Washington's defense, nobody could, and "Philadelphia," at its core, really is all about Hanks' character. The film earned Hanks his second Oscar nomination and his first win for Best Actor, a feat he'd repeat again one year later for his role in "Forrest Gump." Unafraid to help lend a voice to the AIDS crisis, Hanks delivered an unforgettable performance to help bring more attention to an epidemic. There's no doubt that through Washington's illustrious career, Hanks is his very best co-star.