Denzel Washington and Viola Davis have both been nominated for...

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis have both been nominated for Oscars for "Fences." Credit: David Lee

Denzel Washington’s “Fences” heads toward the Academy Awards as part of a long cinematic tradition: The acclaimed play that becomes an Oscar-nominated movie.

Plays and movies have been closely linked since the dawn of Hollywood. One of the first films to win an Oscar, 1927’s “7th Heaven,” was based on a play, and so was the first feature-length talkie “The Jazz Singer.” For decades, the theater would be considered a “higher” art form than the movies, but there was never any doubt that movies were more popular. Surely more people have seen the 1966 film “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (a five-time Oscar winner) than a live production of Edward Albee’s play. The same could probably be said of “Amadeus” (1984), “Glengarry Glen Ross” (1992) and many other Oscar-nominated adaptations. Some movies have become so famous that few people remember they were ever plays at all. Examples range from 1989’s “Steel Magnolias” (one nomination, for Julia Roberts) to the 1931 version of “The Front Page” (three nods, and several remakes).

“Fences” is Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s play about a working-class patriarch (played by Washington) and his long-suffering wife (Viola Davis). It premiered in 1987 and won widespread acclaim, earning several Tonys, Drama Desk Awards and the Pulitzer Prize. In 2010, Washington and Davis revived it into another Tony-winning production, and now it’s vying for four Oscars. Both actors are up for awards, the film is in the running for best picture and Wilson himself is nominated for best adapted screenplay.

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