None other than the great William Goldman disagrees with me. He believes that we have one movie star right now and only one: Will Smith.13 I find this depressing since these were Smith's past eight movies
Men In Black II
Bad Boys II
The Pursuit of Happyness
I Am Legend
That's nine years of work: one alien sequel, one buddy-cop sequel, two futuristic/apocalyptic action movies, one superhero movie, one romantic comedy and two overly sappy dramas. My favorite of those efforts, by default, was The Pursuit of Happyness. I'm a sucker for "father and son hit rock-bottom, bond, then eventually turn things around" movies dating back to Kramer vs. Kramer, and only because my parents got divorced and I spent two years living with my father in a Boston apartment, sleeping on a sofa bed, eating grilled cheeses and going to Celtics games. Throw an alien in there and I think I'd have the plot for Will Smith's next movie.
Goldman's argument is simple: He believes Smith is our only movie star because every one of his movies makes money. Lots and lots of money. If you trade for LeBron, you're guaranteed 82 games, 26 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and 50 percent shooting for every regular-season game, followed by a mysterious collapse in a huge playoff series. If you fund a Will Smith movie, you're guaranteed a $150 million worldwide gross minimum. It's impossible NOT to make money from Will Smith. He's a sure thing. He's foolproof.
Not even Leo DiCaprio can say that: Back in 2008, Leo released Body of Lies, a decently reviewed action movie with Russell Crowe that tanked at the box office ($70 million budget, $39 million U.S. gross). That was his next movie after The Departed and Blood Diamond, two critical and commercial hits that had seemingly vaulted him to Smith's level of bankability. Nope. If you swapped Will Smith for Leo in Body of Lies, the movie would have made at least $150 million worldwide. You know how I know this? Because I, Robot made $347 million, Seven Pounds made $168 million and I Am Legend made $256 million. Those movies all stunk. If I gave you those three Blu-rays for Christmas, you would regift them to someone you didn't like. Doesn't matter. Will Smith's movies make money.
The big question: Do his movies make money because he's Will Smith (and people simply enjoy seeing him on a big screen), or because he figured out some loophole in the Star System? His career choices these past two decades were, for lack of a better word, creepy. As if a computer program spit them out.
(Oh, wait that's basically what happened!)
True story: When Smith was trapped on the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air set in the early '90s, dreaming of starring in movies instead of selling Alfonso Ribeiro's jokes, Smith and his manager, James Lassiter, studied a list of the top 10 grossing films ever. Here's what Smith told Time Magazine in 2007: "We looked at (the list) and said, O.K., what are the patterns? We realized that 10 out of 10 had special effects. Nine out of 10 had special effects with creatures. Eight out of 10 had special effects with creatures and a love story."14
Pretty shrewd. Smith established himself as bankable with 1994's Bad Boys, then went right after that top-10 list, starring in 1996's Independence Day and Men in Black one year later. Those two films grossed nearly $1.4 billion worldwide. Will Smith was right. In a perfect world, Smith would have used that success to create the career that we would have wanted him to have. You know, a little like how DiCaprio does it: go make a big-ass movie in which you get to be a movie star (Blood Diamond), then an action movie (Body of Lies), then an artsy one (Revolutionary Road), then a weird one (Shutter Island), then a super-ambitious one (Inception), and the whole time, you're stretching yourself as an actor, working with talented directors and keeping your fans on their toes.
Will Smith had no interest in "stretching himself," just printing money. After those alien movies, he spent the next 12 years running the Hollywood equivalent of Dean Smith's "Four Corners" offense. He made an "action hero who gets framed and has to spend most of the movie sprinting" choice (Enemy of the State), another wacky science fiction choice (the excruciating Wild Wild West), a sappy period choice (Legend of Bagger Vance, also excruciating), then a calculated "I had to get in incredible shape for this biopic" choice (Ali, which should have been great but never got there, although I blame Michael Mann more than Smith). That was followed by Men in Black II and everything else above.
In that 2007 Time Magazine feature, he freely admitted to studying box office patterns much like Theo Epstein studies XFIP and BABIP, saying that he and Lassiter got together every Monday morning to look at "what happened last weekend, and what are the things that happened the last 10, 20, 30 weekends." Later in the feature, he unwittingly describes why the movie industry sucks so much:
"Movie stars are made with worldwide box office. You put a movie out in the U.S., and let's say it breaks even. Then the studio needs you to go around the world and get profit. Being able to get $30 mil in England, 37 in Japan, 15 in Germany is what makes the studio support your movies differently than they support other actors' movies."
Again, totally logical and totally depressing. Will Smith hasn't taken a chance since 1993's Six Degrees of Separation — his first major movie, by the way — and only because it doesn't make sense for him to take chances. He studied a system that spit out a certain outcome, then rigged his career to benefit from that outcome. Even in real life, he plays a character of sorts: Will Smith, the happy family man who handles the media spectacularly, doesn't flaunt his wealth, never says anything controversial and lacks any personal demons (at least none that we know about). If you were picking him apart, maybe you'd point to his Scientology connection (fair or unfair, there's a stigma that goes with it) and how he turned his children into self-sufficient brands (although he's not the first to do so).15 Neither damaged his career in any way. At least not yet.
When a Soho neighborhood rebelled against his monstrosity of a trailer this spring, Smith's reaction was fascinating: basically, "I thought you'd love having me here! I'm Will Smith! I can't believe this!" It's the way you would react if you believed your approval rating was unassailable. Which might be true.
See, people like Will Smith because he's never given them a reason not to like him. He would never play an evil cop like Denzel did (Training Day); he doesn't want us to see Evil Will Smith. He would never play someone trapped in a damaging 1950s marriage like Leo did (Revolutionary Road); he doesn't want us to think about Bad Husband Will Smith. Remember when Cruise released Magnolia and Eyes Wide Shut back-to-back, two of his rawest performances and the two single weirdest movies he ever made?16 Smith would never take a chance like that, much like Starbucks would never add grills to their stores and start flipping burgers and hot dogs. What's the point?
Just last month, a story circulated around Hollywood that Quentin Tarantino was desperately pursuing Smith as the lead for his next movie, Django Unchained, in which a freed slave teams up with a German bounty hunter to find his wife and ends up killing a bunch of plantation owners along the way.17 Supposedly the script is incredible. Supposedly Smith's agents at CAA, and even his manager, begged him to play Django. And supposedly, Smith turned it down. He didn't want to risk what he had. He didn't want people to meet Angry Slave Will Smith. He didn't want to mess with a sure thing.
So yeah, Will Smith might be our only movie star right now, but that says more about Hollywood's faults than anything else. Goldman once wrote that, in Hollywood, nobody knows anything. He was wrong. Will Smith figured out where Hollywood was going well before anyone else did. These days, it's all about making alien movies, superhero movies and sequels. Will Smith beat everybody there. He could see the future and the future sucked. You can't call him a failure because he accomplished exactly what he wanted to accomplish. But shouldn't his career have been better? Didn't he have a responsibility to push himself? Isn't that what good actors are supposed to do?18
I keep coming back to Six Degrees of Separation, the biggest gamble he ever made, when everyone doubted that the "Fresh Prince" could pull off a gay con artist in an indie movie. He pulled it off. Within that movie, Smith hits a couple of places that he hasn't hit since: It's a really good performance, a little like Leo in This Boy's Life (same year, by the way) in that you left the theater feeling like you just watched the seeds planted for a meaningful movie career.
Of course, there was a moment in the script when Smith's character had to kiss Anthony Michael Hall's character, only Smith refused. They edited the movie so that, as Smith leans in for the "kiss," we're seeing him from behind and hear a smooch only it never actually happened. Even at 25 years old, Will Smith was thinking ahead. He didn't want to film a scene that could be thrown back in his face later. Or, he was afraid to kiss a dude. Or, he knew he couldn't play anyone other than himself — as the past two decades have pretty much backed up — so kissing another man in a movie was impossible because he's Will Smith and Will Smith doesn't kiss guys. It's a totally inauthentic moment in a performance that, otherwise, was totally authentic.
If you think Pursuit of Happyness or Ali is Will Smith's defining performance, you would be wrong. It's Six Degrees of Separation. Everything is on display: his once-in-a-generation charisma, his acting chops, his sense of humor, his sense of the moment and, most of all, his self-awareness. He made Six Degrees to prove he wasn't just a rapper-turned-sitcom star, that he could actually act, that he cared about his craft. You know, as long as he didn't have to kiss another dude. It was a chance, but a calculated one. He never took another one. Now he's our one and only movie star, according to William Goldman. There's a lesson here.
Bill Simmons is the Editor in Chief of Grantland and the author of the recent New York Times no. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball, now out in paperback with new material and a revised Hall of Fame Pyramid. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland. Follow him on Twitter and check out his new home on Facebook.