In Focus: A Look at Will Smith Acting Serious


This week Will Smith appears in Seven Pounds, or roughly the weight of an Academy Award. While Smith hasn’t taken an Oscar home yet, he has been nominated twice. So it’s time to look at Will Smith’s efforts to add a little drama to his life.

Perhaps we’d better start from the beginning. But before we do, allow me to offer a little perspective on Will Smith’s career. To date, Smith has proven himself to be an actor with a certain amount of range. How much range he truly possesses is yet to be seen. It would be nice to see Smith break out of the roles he has been typecast in, films like Hitch or Men in Black come to mind . Of course, part of that will be affected by how willing his audience is to let him play those parts. Does America want to see Smith as a villain? Maybe not, but roles like that could go a long way toward defining Smith’s career. Look at Denzel Washington’s turn in Training Day, for example. An actor with such talent shouldn’t squander it by making Bad Boys 18.

Still, Smith is one of the only A-list actors that has the ability to bring moviegoers into the theaters for both a comedy and drama. Let’s not forget that Smith at one point was best known for being The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. To be able to make such a remarkable jump from that forum and become an Academy Award nominee is nothing short of exceptional. That is something we should all applaud Smith for.

So with apologies to Smith’s film debut in Where the Day Takes You, which I tried to find everywhere but couldn’t, we will start with Big Willie Style’s role in Six Degrees of Separation and examine whether the films were better or worse because of  Smith’s performance.

Six Degrees of Separation

willsmith-sixdegreesA brilliant examination of the upper class white society’s interest in the other, Six Degrees of Separation shows just how easily a group of emotionally paralyzed people can buy into a story if they want to believe it, particularly one told by a young man fascinated with the idea of imagination. Stacked up against an all-star cast of Donald Sutherland, Ian Mckellan, and Stockard Channing, Smith is able to provide a mature performance beyond his years as Paul, a young con artist who holds up a mirror to the inadequacies of everyone around him. Having a background in acting, I enjoyed watching the scenes where Paul prepared his delivery before embarking on his attempt to deceive the Kittredges.

Homosexuality was not as accepted in 1993 as it is now, and playing the part of a gay man could have been a career killer for Smith, mainly popular with teenagers based on his television and rapping efforts. Instead, it proved to be a good move and gained Smith critical acclaim. Smith has stated in interviews that he regrets his refusal to do a kissing scene with Anthony Michael Hall, saying that he was immature and not emotionally ready at the time. Even with that being clear, the performance is solid and more than a few people have told me that it is his best work to date.

Verdict: Smith is able to make the leap from pop star to sophisticated actor with relative ease, something that almost ever happens. But his inability to commit to controversial content proves that he still has room to grow as an actor.

The Legend of Bagger Vance

willsmith-baggervanceThis film could have been called How Matt Damon Got His Groove Back, although The Bourne Identity was the real film that did that for Damon as an actor. Golf is never an easy sport to make a film out of, unless it’s Caddyshack and to a lesser degree, Tin Cup. But if film has been described as a long walk spoiled, many critics called this a long film spoiled. I didn’t think it was that bad, it’s a period piece. Did you expect it to fly by? And who knew at the time that this film would one day boast three Oscar nominees in Damon, Smith and Charlize Theron?

Smith plays Damon’s sidekick and experiments with an aged role, preparing him for his role later on in his career as Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness. If subtlety and charm is what you’re looking for, Smith provides it in Bagger Vance. He also is able to restrain himself in the film, an acting style that Smith hasn’t been asked to do in the majority of his roles. It’s not Smith’s best dramatic performance but he plays his part well.

Verdict: Smith’s portrayal of Bagger Vance shoots a birdie on the acting scorecard, but the film turns out to be par for the course.


willsmith-aliLet me start by stating that I am not a fan of biopics. I don’t feel that actors should be rewarded for impersonating celebrities. If talent was measured by one’s ability to make us see them as someone famous, then Frank Caliendo should have a room full of trophies. Having said that, Smith deserves credit for attempting to play one of pop culture’s most famous icons. Philip Seymour Hoffman can flub a little bit in Capote, but there is no room for error in playing Muhammed Ali. Smith may not have won the Best Actor Oscar for his role ,but he wins the Actor with Biggest Balls award for having the courage to take this role.

Smith finds a way to bring a human element to a man whose appeal came in his perceived invulnerability, never an easy thing to do. Jamie Foxx also gives a nice performance and perhaps was inspired to do a biopic of his own, later winning the Best Actor award for Ray.

Verdict: It’s hard to imagine any other actor pulling this part off. Smith is about as close to being Muhammed Ali as you can get without watching When We Were Kings. The film blew up Smith on the awards circuit, also effectively opening the public’s eyes to Smith’s dramatic acting prowess. Smith is the best thing to happen to boxing since Mike Tyson’s Punchout.

The Pursuit of Happyness

willsmith-happynessIt’s not often that I describe a movie as inspiring, but The Pursuit of Happyness fits the bill. Smith plays Chris Gardner, a struggling  salesman who has to beat the odds in order to capture his dream. Any of the sappy flavor that comes from sentences like the one I just wrote or the story is handled skillfully by Smith, who left me in tears. There, I said it. Maybe it’s due to my background from living in a family of lower social class, but I found this performance to be incredibly moving. Furthermore, it’s not often that you get to see a film that focuses on a genuinely positive relationship between a son and father. Much of the success of the film stems from the chemistry between Smith and his son, Jaden Smith.

The Pursuit of Happyness finally displays Smith’s ability to carry the weight of a movie without any bells and whistles. Not from aliens invading our planet. (Independence Day, the Men In Black franchise),  not from explosions and one-liners (The Bad Boys franchise) and not from playing the most famous boxer of all-time (Ali). Smith was nominated for an Academy Award for the role and was definitely deserving of the recognition. The moment I walked out of the theatre I told my friends as much. If we see more parts like this and less Hancock, Smith will end up winning an Oscar before it’s all said and done.

Verdict: Smith gives us reason to believe in ourselves as a character that refuses to cave in to the overwhelming burden of single fatherhood, as well as belief that the best of Smith’s career is yet to come.

Adam Sweeney has a background in journalism, having spent 4 years on the Lone Star Lutheran as an Opinions and Arts & Entertainment columnist. He graduated in May 2008 from Texas Lutheran University with a Dramatic Media degree and hopes to become a filmmaker/journalist/radio host/actor extraordinaire. He also writes film and play scripts and figures if Good Luck Chuck can make it to the big screen then why can't he? He can also be read at TalkHoops.net as a feature writer on all things basketball, and his personal blog covers everything from politics to why Keira Knightley is looking more like Jack Skellington every day. (www.myspace.com/theadamlee)

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