Each time a movie star breaks out, the media reach into Hollywood's history for precedents. Kevin Costner becomes the new Gary Cooper, Tom Hanks the new Jimmy Stewart, Denzel Washington the new Sidney Poitier.
Will Smith, who earned an Oscar and Golden Globe best-actor nomination for his searing performance as the homeless stockbroker trainee in The Pursuit of Happyness, defies any such categorization.
For an actor who started out as rap royalty and then played a sitcom version of himself in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Smith has shown surprising versatility and guts from the beginning of his big-screen career. To follow Smith on DVD is to trace the progress of a performer who's unafraid to try on new colors.
Six Degrees of Separation (1993) --Smith landed his first starring role (and still one of his best) in this great, too-little-seen movie. Director Fred Schepisi's exuberant adaptation of John Guare's famous play is about "class" as in "class act." Smith's anti-hero is a young hustler named Paul who aches to acquire the hauteur of the with-it and the well-to-do on New York's Upper East Side. He manages to convince a group of cultured Manhattanites that he's Sidney Poitier's son, down from Harvard to meet his father, who's about to cast a film version of Cats. Paul's chief targets are a private art dealer and his wife, Flan and Ouisa Kittredge (Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing); they also become his favorites, because when he pulls his scheme on them they spend the whole night bonding. Paul maintains that what he wants from them is "everlasting friendship" - and Smith makes you believe him. The movie celebrates feelings struck by real artists and con artists, and counterpoints them with a Gotham lifestyle that's equally tasteful and jaded. Smith anchors and energizes the whole scene with his open-faced freshness.
Independence Day (1996) --This huge hit was the kind of fantasy film that reviewers feel obliged to say "will give audiences their money's worth" because it's packed with gimmicks - flying saucers so big they're more like flying Lazy Susans, or squidlike aliens that would burst the bounds of an aquarium. But the affable, humorous teaming of Smith, as a sassy fighter pilot, and Jeff Goldblum, as a computer whiz, is what lent the picture's facetious blend of paranoid sci-fi and cheesy melodrama some much-needed, odd-couple charm. "We're gonna have to work on our communication," Smith quips to Goldblum, but the two share an off-kilter wryness that gives the wheezing action a hit of oxygen. Their chemistry is vastly preferable to that of Smith and Martin Lawrence in ...
Bad Boys (1995) and Bad Boys II (2003) --The first movie at least gave Smith a chance to turn matinee idol as an improbable playboy and Lawrence the opportunity to mug at will as his family-man partner on the Miami force. The second movie is the apotheosis of adolescent junk. Every sequence spews or splats carnage-filled effects. Smith plays a super-sized Mr. Cool and mostly just chills himself out. He fares better in another pair of buddy movies:
Men in Black (1997) and Men in Black II (2002) --Smith, as Agent Kay, and Tommy Lee Jones, as Agent Jay, are black-suited, Ray-Banned alien-busters who regulate Earth-dwelling extraterrestrials from a base in New York City and use a device called a "neuralyzer" to make civilians who stumble upon goopy space folk forget they ever saw them. This fact sums up the Men in Black movies: They're amiable, not memorable. Still, Smith proved his resourcefulness and inventiveness, especially in the second one, where he sported a zingy, world-weary nonchalance that struck sparks not just with Jones but also with a raspy-voiced, quipster pug.
Enemy of the State (1998) and Hitch (2005) --The first is an ace Tony Scott thriller about a successful labor lawyer who stumbles into a mess involving the National Security Agency, the second a limp romantic comedy about a "date doctor." What links them is Smith's star power, which proves to be as flexible and worldly as that of Cary Grant, who also ranged from playing a well-tailored Everyman enmeshed in espionage to the most elegant lothario imaginable, sometimes in the same film (say, Charade). Smith's agreeably smooth presence puts velveteen on the rickety works of Hitch and allows this slap-happy, sap-heavy farce to run pleasantly for about an hour. (Unfortunately, it goes on for an hour more.)
Ali (2001) --In this woefully underrated piece of epic movie biography, writer-director Michael Mann and Smith succeed in dramatizing the internal growth of a man who became public before he became fully himself. Smith has what an actor playing Muhammad Ali needs most of all: the capacity to embody contradictory emotions. His identification with Ali goes deeper than the fighter's reputation for being "the original rapper." The actor imagines his way under Ali's skin. He understands the joyous bravado and instinctive audacity of the fight world prodigy. Yet he also grasps the shrewdness and wariness of a man who knows that his genius in one realm, boxing, doesn't extend to every aspect of his being. Smith never resorts to playing a legend. His Ali may not let his public see him sweat, but he lets his friends and loved ones see him worry and brood. And, of course, this vulnerability makes his public defense of conscience during the Vietnam War seem all the more heroic.
Ali earned Smith his first best actor Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations in 2001.
Willard Christopher Smith Jr.
Sept. 25, 1968
actress Jada Pinkett Smith of Baltimore, whom he married in 1997.
three - Willard Christopher III (Smith's son from a previous marriage) and Jaden Christopher Syre and Willow Camille Reign (his children with Pinkett Smith)