He sits atop a rotating throne, rebuking gravity in a spray-painted netherverse, a spinning emperor with a golden scepter. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was indebted to the graffiti and Reebok aesthetic of hip-hop’s golden age, from which Will Smith had emerged 3 years earlier. Today, Fresh Prince remains his most iconic image, the subject of countless nostalgic reconstructions, an iconographic hip-hop tarot card. It reaffirms Smith’s story as he would have it, all winking jester origins preceding movie-star ascendency. And though he may have long ago discarded the day-glo troubadour persona, Smith’s public image has always thrived on the illusion of self-awareness.
From the cartoonish histrionics of his first music video to the affability of his most recent talk show appearances, Smith is forever lifting the mask of his fame to reveal the face beneath it. As he has matured, Smith has gone from fool in emperor’s clothes to movie star tempered by humility. In a recent conversation with Esquire, he comes across as honest and vulnerable. He talks about his past and his perspective on massive wealth, and it’s tempting to identify with him. He has been with us for decades. We have watched him mature with more consistency than some of our own relatives. We must know him by now. But Will Smith lives on a razor’s edge between constant visibility and unreachability. The endurance of his appeal lies in his ability to maintain the illusion of intimacy while never quite turning his face to us.
It’s a position that echoes Smith’s first high-profile cinematic role, the young conman in Six Degrees of Separation. If Smith sees his career as a slow maturation process from West Philadelphia semi-poverty to global recognition, one notable scene in Six Degrees mimics that process in miniature. We spend half the film watching Smith as the clearly duplicitous Paul, a man who plies sympathy from a pair of Manhattan socialites. The narrative then snaps into Paul’s past to reveal him as an itinerant thief taught upper-crust mannerisms by a bitter, trust-fund preppy. Smith begins in his drawling, relaxed cadence, the one-liner-spewing braggadocio familiar from his rap and sitcom career and soon to be on full display in Bad Boys.
We watch the character, and perhaps Smith, literally learn to act. Just a few scenes later, he is teaching an embryonically young Heather Graham how to pronounce “bottle” and ply the rich with gifts of fancy jam. The character’s end comes with what seems like a heartfelt plea to a wealthy matron (Stockard Channing) who has discovered his deception. He will reveal everything to her, if only she will care for him again. It was a desperation that Smith invested so deeply he reports actually falling in love with Channing. But he never wholly drops the veil, holding on to vestiges of the performance, to assertions and mannerisms that we know to be fabricated, until the line between real and imaginary is demolished. He never tells her or the audience his name. And yet she tells him that she loves him. She accepts the lie, even against all reason, because accepting it feels wonderful. It’s a dynamic attached to any performer who lives both onscreen and in the public eye. The only other faces we see so up close in the dark are those of our lovers. So there must be truth in what they tell us.
Smith’s face has persisted ever since. He spent a decade raking in a musical fortune without anyone ever noticing that he danced like your dad at a wedding. He appeared in a relatively small number of movies that all made enormous amounts of money. Sometimes he wrote songs for those films, bridging his musical career to his movie stardom with invisible sutures. As((The author needs to pause here to acknowledge a mostly forgotten field trip to an Ohio roller-skating rink during the final years of the 20th century, the sole surviving memory being the opening hook to Smith’s Men in Black theme song beginning to pound out in the darkness and the sense of an entire skating rink deciding that it was time to get out there and skate to that song. ))a screen performer, he settled into a few comfortable tics and employed them while running from explosions and punching things. Then he made a movie about a giant robot spider that no one liked, finally remembered he could act and appeared in Ali to great acclaim. He’d been eyeing the role for years before the film went into production, but even after that performance, Smith continued making terrible special-effects films for a decade more.
I Am Legend’s dour tone may have been betrayed by its marketing and unnecessary special effects, but Smith holds the film together single-handedly from one scene to the next. Lying in a bathtub with his dog, lonely, afraid, and possibly insane, Smith is allowed to project every ounce of wounded warrior pathos. In Hancock, he takes on the role of a belligerent, brutish superhero and makes it consistently, bitterly funny. But Smith brings to the crude material a subtext of hurt, a man who becomes more alone the harder he searches for connection.((The best example of this is excised from the movie entirely, a scene built around a seemingly juvenile punchline by way of super-powered ejaculate, but truly peaking with the look on Smith’s face as he watches a terrified date flee his isolated compound. Beyond just the depth of his performance, it was likely Smith’s attachment to the project that kept it afloat in the first place. Given the script’s long history of rewrites and retooling (including punch-up work by a pre-Breaking Bad Vince Gilligan), Hancock not being a complete disaster testifies to Smith’s kind of turning-shit-into-not-shit-miracle-working that would make David O. Selznick proud.)) Somewhere in between that spinning throne and today, Smith learned how to project vast seas of wounded interiority. Smith has become an actor of legitimate presence. One can imagine him 15 years from now playing the Paul Newman role in a remake of The Color of Money. One can imagine him gradually becoming some sort of elder statesman. And if Smith were less famous, that might be enough. But he has also become one of the most enduring movie stars of the past 20 years, if not the most famous black actor in film history. Just as we ask ourselves to what degree we accept Smith’s acting on screen, he also compels the question: to what degree do we accept him off of it? Where does the performance end and the man begin? Is it even possible for us to know?
In 2013, Smith told New York magazine, “I think for the most part (our family is) transparent in the sense that there’s very few big family secrets,” adding, “(The) forum of media that we’re in can’t really handle the complexity of things that we say all the time.” Peel back the passive condescension, and Smith is pleading for loyalty. He doesn’t even explain what it is we think we know about him. Whatever it is, it’s probably true, and any suspicions of weirdness are just because we just don’t get it, man. So do we take his word for it, given that the same interview featured Smith describing himself as a “student of patterns,” a physicist in search of “the theory of everything?” Consider that, in the same interview, his failed movie-star son, Jaden, described his search for the “special equation for everything.” Or do we take the word of Patton Oswalt during an interview with A Special Thing podcast in 2012, in which he describes a brief encounter with Smith during the 1998 VMAs? Describing the enormous group of people with whom Smith traveled on a daily basis, Oswalt said:
He hangs out with 300 people a day…at one point I was backstage and they had this cordoned off area for Will, and he’s back there in his area just sitting on a couch in his area… Alone, totally alone just staring at the ground. Because he has to hang out with 300 people every day. He can’t just go I’m just gonna get a nice book sit down have a cup of coffee in a little restraint somewhere and just read and be in my head. And for that moment I actually felt kind of bad for him.
None of this is meant to demonize Smith. The Philly communities largely supported both Silver Studio City and the W Hotel, and Smith is hardly alone in splitting his time between high-profile acting jobs and real estate (Jeremy Renner and Perfect Strangers star Bronson Pinchot just two of many celebrity property flippers). To criticize Smith for failing to funnel his millions back into his home community would necessitate equal criticism of every other successful person to rise out of less than affluent circumstances. And, far from a reclusive miser, Smith and wife Jada’s charity foundation helped make them among the largest contributors of celebrity charity in 2014.
His habits speak instead to something intrinsic to career celebrities, and how our efforts to understand them must recognize the relativity of all normalcy. Like any other person, Smith bothers his neighbors, only he does it by parking a 1,200-square-foot trailer in the middle of Soho. Like most intellectually curious teenagers, his children spout half-informed distillations of concepts they can’t quite grasp, only they happen to do it with a nationwide microphone stuck in their faces (their privileged dismissal of public education, especially in light of the struggling Philadelphia school system for which their own grandmother once served on the school board, is perhaps another story). But hey, celebrities, they’re just like us! Except, be it through real-estate maneuvering or cultural influence, they also imprint their own tendencies on the physical world.((This providing the potential to digress into that other consistent thread in Smith’s public life: his gospel of self-actualization, interviews about “bending the universe,” weird anecdotes about treadmills, the tendency to attribute his success to his manipulation of reality through sheer will power. And when you wade out into this territory of magical thinking—and all the ensuing Dianetics-style, star-cult membership speculation that Smith can neither confirm nor deny his participation in—you start to consider to what extent celebrities of Smith’s caliber have been granted through wealth and fame the ability to gradually transform reality into a mirror of their personality. But these are murky waters. Come back. You can still see the shore from here.))
It is comforting to think of a film career as a series of windows, snapshots in time allowing us to peer into a set of famous eyes and sense a shared continuity. It becomes easy to miss the invisible curating beneath every ounce of celebrity biography. We can look back across the years since 1987 and see Will Smith develop as a performer. We can see his face age with time and his personality mature. And, true for Smith perhaps more than most global celebrities, we can watch the mask flip upwards, suggesting the revelation of some intrinsic truth. As if that young man winking to the camera from beneath the upturned neon pink cap were as real to us as a cherished friend.((You could almost catch yourself starting to speculate, “Does anyone really know anybody, man?” before realizing you’re not in a freshman dorm anymore, and even if you are, such self-indulgent questions are really just best left ignored.))
If we take what has been presented to us as gospel, Will Smith sees himself as a humble man with a normal family whose success lies entirely in hard work. Is he correct? Are we more qualified to judge him than he is, provided the objectivity of our viewers’ remove? Then again, even after years of flops, after robot spiders and After Earth and Winter’s Tale, the idea of Smith’s return to true movie-star form this year still feels exciting. Maybe he knows us in ways we can’t. Maybe he knows where it is we want to be for a few hours at a time and we should just let him take us there. Give in. Let the music play.
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