Where there’s a Will…
In The Pursuit of Happyness Will Smith does something new. He struggles. And that might be the one thing that doesn't come naturally to him. This is one of those people who makes everything look easy. He's tall (6'2), athletic and handsome, but then you could say the same for any number of movie stars - Colin Farrell, say, or Ben Affleck - and they haven't got what he's got. You can see they're working at it.
Smith seems so comfortable in his skin, it's like he came out fully formed. He's a natural salesman because he knows that ultimately what you are selling is yourself - and that you give away free.
'Smith is the first black actor to capitalise on the widespread white realisation that you don't have to act to be in pictures,' David Thomson writes in A Biographical Dictionary of Film. 'Far more fundamentally, just be in them and let it show that you're not overly impressed or intimidated.' If you're bigger than the movie screen, we'll look up to you.
When he was still a teenager they nicknamed him 'Prince' because he could charm his way out of anything. The name stuck - he's an aristocrat by divine right, in the lineage of 'Duke' Ellington and 'Count' Basie. In the early 80s he became a commercial rap star as 'Fresh Prince', but steered clear of the gangsta bad attitudes that made the mainstream wary. Instead he fronted his own TV sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. It made The Cosby Show look dangerous. The Fresh Prince was wealthy, privileged, fun and 100 percent guilt-free.
Fred Schepisi was quick enough to cast him as Paul in the 1993 movie of John Guare's play Six Degrees of Separation - an interloper in an Upper West Side Manhattan household who passes himself off as a friend of the family, playing his blackness like a trump card. Who could say, maybe he really was Sidney Poitier's son? It was an auspicious performance, but that kind of literary property was an anomaly in the 90s, and it seemed like Smith graduated to blockbuster megabucks overnight.
First up, Bad Boys (1995), a buddy cop flick with Martin Lawrence that grossed more than anyone anticipated. He scored the best role in Independence Day (1996), and by the time MIB rolled around (1997) Smith seemed to be synonymous with big summer fun. In five years, he made five monster hits, with only one miss (and the less said about Wild Wild West the better). People enjoyed watching him save the world with a shrug. His diffidence seemed like a blessing.
Ali (2001) didn't do what he hoped it would for his career (he was nominated, but lost the Oscar to Denzel Washington), though the movie looks better in retrospect than it was given credit for at the time. It was the first time Smith seemed to break a sweat and punch above his weight but the public wasn't sure it wanted to be party to it. Why spoil all the fun? Maybe Smith thought so too - his next pictures were MIIB and Bad Boys II.
The Pursuit of Happyness is more than a change of pace. It requires real acting and acting real: marital strife, economic adversity, single parenthood, homelessness. A second Oscar nomination should be in the offing, but this is also a role that plays to Smith's strengths. The character, Chris Gardner, is a salesman with an affinity for numbers. He never gives up hope because he believes in himself. He knows he's a winner; it just takes a while for the rest of the world to catch on. And you know what? He makes it look hard.
Titles related to this article