' ' Cinema Romantico: The Arc of Will Smith

Friday, March 25, 2022

The Arc of Will Smith

After years of only being on the mic as a Grammy-winning (Grammy-boycotting) rapper, when Will Smith first stepped in front of the camera in 1990 on the NBC sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” he could not really act. Smith has admitted it; his co-stars have lamented it. His performing skill set to that point, mugging to the cheap seats alone centerstage, did not lend itself to fitting in with an ensemble on a camera where smaller tends to be bigger and bigger too big. The moment in the tenth episode of the first season, in which the show’s Will sets up butler Geoffrey (Joseph Marcell) of Uncle Phil’s (James Avery) family on a blind date with a younger woman, Helen (Naomi Campbell), only to become infatuated with the date himself, where he boxes Geoffrey out on the dance floor to cut a would-be mating rug with Helen instead, evoked Smith’s own penchant for trampling over his co-stars. To his credit, though, Smith gradually grew as an actor, highlighted in Season 4 Episode 24, Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse, when his character’s estranged father (Ben Vereen) visits Bel-Air and abandons his son all over again. 

After his father leaves, Will at first sort of hams it up, trying to hide his real feelings, before eventually breaking down on Uncle Phil’s shoulder. In a way, it mirrored Smith’s actorly growth, his initial comical exaggeration for emotional effect, rather than cheap laughs, transforming into poignant truth. The story goes that when they finished shooting the scene, Avery whispered into Smith’s ear “That’s fucking acting right there.” If Will graduated by dressing up as sunflower and singing “You’re My Only Sunshine” in earlier episode, this scene was Smith’s graduation from makeshift acting school. And given that Smith is on the verge of winning an Oscar for playing Richard Williams in 2021’s King Richard, it is tempting to see a cosmic echo between Avery’s benediction and the scene toward the end of “King Richard” in which the eponymous character says to his daughter Serena (Demi Singleton) that one day she will be the greatest tennis player of all time. 


Someone predisposed toward the conquering the world, however, was not going to wait around for the transition from small screen to big screen, and even before Smith got to that truly special Very Special Episode, he had already been featured in three movies. His first two roles of note were both in 1993 and suggest the differing routes his career could have taken – toward the broad comedy of Richard Benjamin’s “Made in America” or the more challenging dramatic work in Fred Schepisi’s “Six Degrees in Separation.” Instead Smith went bigger, starring first with Martin Lawrence in Michael Bay’s “Bad Boys” (like their co-star Kevin Corrigan, I’ve never seen it) and the 1996 box office champion “Independence Day.”

In the latter, Smith’s inherent movie star magnetism was such that even though director Roland Emmerich envisioned the movie as concept-driven rather than star-driven, and even though Smith did not show up onscreen for nearly 30 minutes, he still stood out. It also underlined how he could temper his magnetism to play with others, forming a nimble comic chemistry with Jeff Goldblum, one on even more winning display in his 1997 blockbuster follow-up “Men in Black” where another theoretical special effects movie was as much about Smith playing off the deliberately taciturn Tommy Lee Jones as a pair of government agents maintaining a secret extraterrestrial population on Earth. “Will is more generous than anyone, and he spreads joy,” said the notably irascible Jones and that’s how the whole movie plays, like a joy-spreading force. That Smith’s character has little backstory to speak of and is then rechristened as the deliberately anonymous “J” only underlines how the character just sort of is Smith – or Smith’s screen persona, that is.

I often like envisioning modern movie stars in Golden Age terms, imagining how they might have been plugged into the Star Machine to achieve maximum wattage. In Smith’s case, I would have latched onto what he’s doing in “Men in Black”, specifically the alien autopsy scene opposite Linda Fiorentino’s Dr. Laurel Weaver where he is masquerading as a physician, getting by on a comical irrational confidence. That, that thing he’s doing there, so, so funny but so, so charming, only he could do. But Smith thought of movie stardom not in terms of persona, or even presence, but formula, as the oft-cited story goes, in which he and his producing partner James Lassiter identified the traits of most major blockbusters: special effects, creatures, and a love story.

Indeed, the movies developed under his Overbrook Entertainment umbrella with Lassiter have tended to follow that template exactly: “I, Robot” (special effects), “Hitch” (love story), “I Am Legend” (creatures). (That umbrella also includes his two other Oscar nominated roles, “Ali” and “Pursuit of Happyness”, which, consciously or not, adhere to the Playing Real People Yields Oscar Nods equation.) His company’s mission statement, as he told Variety’s Tatiana Siegel in 2008, was “extraordinary entertainment art delivered to all people of the world.” That might be true, but Siegel’s piece is more interested in the latter part of that credo than the former – nay, only interested in the latter. That also goes for a similar Overbrook-themed New York Times piece from two years earlier in which the focus is overseas distribution; “you have to think with a global perspective,” says Smith in discussing how he and Lassiter focused on a new foreign market with each new release. 

In Stephanie Zacharek’s review of “Hitch”, she writes that pictures like it “aren’t “doing (him) any favors,” wondering why it’s so hard to build a motion picture around an actor so good. It’s an astute take that nevertheless does not consider Smith’s role as producer, essentially asking without asking why Smith doesn’t build better motion pictures around himself. Paradoxically, or perhaps not, it’s as if Smith the producer has creatively stifled Smith the actor, an issue which has only worsened in the Twenty-Tens, with movies like “After Earth” and “Concussion” and “Collateral Beauty” failing creatively and commercially. 

Of course, framing not just a contemporary actor but a contemporary black actor through the prism of the exclusionary Golden Age is far from fair. Smith took control of his own career rather than having the terms of it dictated, no small feat, so shrewdly that he was even able to reframe the infamous 1999 “Wild Wild West” calamity as the perseverance bullet point of his ongoing professional TED talk. And he was early in recognizing the industry, at least toward the top, almost entirely dissolving the lines between commerce and art. Siegel’s piece for The Hollywood Reporter in 2019 explains how Smith “cracked the code on making real money in Hollywood”, outlining “savvy social media moves and investments” more than any artistic choices, noting how starring in Netflix’s “Bright” “extend(ed) his global grand thanks to the streamer’s reach into more than 190 countries.” That it was a critical flop is not glossed over; it is not mentioned at all. 

The “creative rebirth” that one exec mentions is creativity more in terms of marketing, similar to the final analysis Julian Kimble proffers in a Smith overview for The Ringer, writing “Only now, his persona no longer rests solely on the success of his movies. It’s taken Will Smith a decade to figure out the lay of the new land, but now that he finally has, his movies are less of a defining proposition than they were when he ruled a foregone iteration of Hollywood.” That is written in a tone of triumph, but it just sounds like tragedy to me. “His movies are less of a defining proposition” drifts close to movies as Jetsons Dial-a-Meal territory, cinema reduced to content marketing. And it’s why, in the end, I don’t feel the cosmic echo between his character in “King Richard” and James Avery telling Smith all those years ago “That’s fucking acting right there.” No, the echo seems to be more in Richard Williams concocting a 78-page blueprint for making his daughters into champions, a man who sees life as as a business plan and balance sheets in the stars.

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