As anticipation for Quentin Tarantino’s visionary “Southern,” Django Unchained, nears a fever pitch, my thoughts have turned to the man who was initially approached to essay the role that eventually went to Jamie Foxx – and what his ultimate refusal of such a controversial role means on a macro level.
With a filmography stretching back to 1992 (anyone remember Where the Day Takes You?), Will Smith has transformed himself from hip-hop pioneer to global megastar, arguably one of a few actors, black or white, who can guarantee a top opening weekend for any movie in which he stars. Forget Black Hollywood’s A-List – Will Smith is a star in any solar system.
What’s surprising then is the lack of “risky” roles in Mister Smith’s nevertheless glorious resume. The nineteen films he’s starred in have grossed a total of almost six billion dollars, but only one of them – to my mind, at least – can be considered controversial. Six Degrees of Separation (photo above) based on a John Guare play – itself based on the antics of real-life con man David Hampton (with whom I share a birthday) – introduced Smith as a serious dramatic actor who could sink his teeth into a nuanced role. Stockard Channing got the Oscar nod but it was “Big Willie” who stole the show.
Despite the opportunity, Smith refused to kiss (in character) another man (fellow thespian Anthony Michael Hall). Instead, the two actors were filmed at an angle that implied a kiss. Smith’s reasoning, later blasted by Sir Ian McKellen as “the disease” of homophobia, was that his kissing another man would “gross out” his fans. Smith wasn’t the first actor to “go gay” for a major film role (think Al Pacino in Cruising); in fact, playing a homosexual while being straight nowadays can actually up one’s acting cred – you’re welcome, Jake Gyllenhaal. (It should also be noted that Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, the duo behind Independence Day, specifically cited Six Degrees as the reason they picked Smith for the breakout role of Capt. Steven Hiller.)
But I digress. This is not an examination of heterosexual actors navigating gay roles but rather a question about Smith’s avoidance of roles that could perhaps violate an image or persona held by fans, media and perhaps the Hollywood machine. Breaking from type, from an ain’t-broke formula that puts asses in seats, is a tightrope walk for any actor associated with a certain breed of character. Perennial hero Henry Fonda took a chance when he signed on to play – gasp! – bad guy Frank in Sergio Leone’s epic western, Once Upon a Time in the West. The gamble paid off, however, resulting in a performance that’s every bit as powerful as his Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.
The same could be said for 2002’s Academy Award winners for Best Actor and Actress, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry. Denzel has played baddies before – his performance in A Soldier’s Story is chilling – but he’d grown comfortable, if you will, playing real and fictional good guys in movies like Cry Freedom and The Preacher’s Wife. Alonzo Harris, a role Bruce Willis turned down, allowed Washington to tap into his dark side and burn up the screen in Training Day, a type departure that netted him the elusive Best Actor Oscar and expanded the possibilities of how he could be utilized by studio execs. (think Safe House, or any other film where he coaches up a rising white actor). Halle “uglied” herself up and worked at a discount to help bring Monster’s Ball to life. Baring her soul, and so much more, Berry breathed life into a role other well-known black actresses had turned down – and struck gold.
I’m not saying Mister Smith or any other actor has to play it grimy for accolades, but it’s a shame that the star of Pursuit of Happyness hasn’t at least tried to take on more risky roles. Besides Six Degrees, the only other “controversial” movie I could even point to would be Ali, and even then only with regard to past issues of race in America and concerns about historical accuracy. All the great actors have played against type, showing the range that the truly talented chameleons are blessed with. If Smith counts himself among them, I implore him to consider going in a direction opposite that of a Hancock or Robert Neville or Agent J. In other words, don’t turn down another Django!
It’s not lost on me that black actors have more to lose if a risky role doesn’t sell – although Will Smith is hardly typical. So I put the question to those here on S&A: Do you think an actor of Smith’s prestige can benefit from riskier, edgier roles? What about lesser-known, lesser-paid – but no less capable – actors such as Anthony Mackie and Viola Davis?