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Putting it out there

Charles Arrowsmith

THE WASHINGTON POST – In 1996, days after The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air ended and shortly before Independence Day almost destroyed the Earth, Will Smith went to the opening of Planet Hollywood in Sydney to seek the advice of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

What was the key to his pharaonic success? “Think of yourself as a politician running for Biggest Movie Star in the World,” replied Arnie.

Smith was an excellent student. “I was never promoting a movie,” he wrote in his new memoir, Will. “I was using their USD150,000,000 to promote me.” The result: astronomical success.

In a Hollywood – and a music industry – that was even Whiter than it is today, Smith’s bankability was without precedent or rival. Men in Black and Enemy of the State; Oscar nominations for Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness; an unequaled golden run, from Men in Black II through Hancock, of eight consecutive movies grossing more than USD100 million.

A quarter-century after Planet Hollywood, it’s hard to imagine a shrewder move than publishing a memoir the same month you release your biggest Oscar contender in years (the tennis drama King Richard).

As most candidates know, a little vulnerability is also a vote-winner. And thus: “What you have come to understand as ‘Will Smith’,” he wrote on Page 1, “the alien-annihilating MC, the bigger-than-life movie star, is largely a construction – a carefully crafted and honed character – designed to protect myself. To hide myself from the world. To hide the coward.”

This is the story Smith wants to tell about his life: that of a fierce drive for success rooted in powerful feelings of inadequacy. Unfortunately, what feels like real anguish – and the seed of a worthwhile read – is repeatedly obscured by braggadocio and pat moralising.

Will Smith in a scene from ‘King Richard’. PHOTO: AP

Willard Carroll Smith Jr was, like the song said, in West Philadelphia born and raised. His middle-class childhood was one “of constant tension and anxiety”, lived in fear of a violent father. Young Will developed the emotional acuity that would serve him as an actor out of necessity; “a missed glance or misinterpreted word could quickly deteriorate into a belt on my thigh or a fist in my mother’s face”. After one of Daddio’s assaults on his mother, when Smith was 13, he considered suicide.

After meeting DJ Jazzy Jeff he decided, against his mother’s wishes, to ditch plans for college (Smith was good at math and science) and try to be a hip-hop star.

The duo’s first hit dropped before Will had even graduated and he never looked back. He became the first rapper to win a Grammy. Fresh Prince ran for six seasons. His film career is the stuff of legend.

There were errors, including a tax snafu that left him with huge debts to the IRS, and he’s candid about parenting and marital mistakes. Yet despite the book’s self-deprecating set-up, it’s Will the Invincible who shines. Writing about the inspiration that produced Summertime: “Sceptics call it self-delusion; I call it ‘another Grammy’ and ‘my first #1 record’.” On the period following Independence Day: “an absolute, unadulterated, unblemished rout of the entertainment industry”. Prideful statements like these pump out of Smith like an oil spill in a sea of good intentions.

Perhaps this is just his way of demonstrating the “overcompensation and fake bravado” that, he said, “were really just another, more insidious, manifestation of the coward”. But such clunky teaching moments are overshadowed by the megalomaniacal ambition and greed on display.

After I Am Legend broke box office records for a December release, he wondered what could have made it more successful. After Jim Carrey became the first actor to pocket USD20 million a movie, “the conversation with me started at…21”. Smith’s choice of writing partner, Mark Manson – author of the bestseller The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F – implies a desire to hold up his life as a model of sorts. Most chapters contain some hokey self-help boilerplate to signpost learning – “I’d conflated being successful with being loved and being happy”, etc. But these nuggets feel so precision-engineered to showcase Smith’s hard-earned self-awareness that they appear trite, even insincere, when juxtaposed with his riotous magniloquence. The result is half-baked: real epiphanies bypassed; lessons unlearned. The book ends with a charity heli bungee jump over the Grand Canyon for Smith’s 50th birthday – an act of philanthropic egoism that perfectly embodies the unresolved tension between his saviour impulse and an insatiable need to be The Man.

In 1993’s Six Degrees of Separation, Smith plays a con artist who woos a wealthy couple by pretending to be the son of Sidney Poitier.

Even after the couple wises up, the attraction, at least for the wife, remains. Finally, something similar occurs in Will. You like him despite the evident calculation at play: His foundational insecurity is part of his appeal; even while consciously selling his own vulnerability, he inadvertently reveals its true depths. And so, despite Will feeling more like part of a corporate strategy than a work of real introspection (even the acknowledgements redirect you to Smith’s Instagram), you’d probably still vote for him.

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