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28 March 2022

How Will Smith sabotaged his moment of glory

All was going so well. Then came that slap: an act of violence that seems especially disruptive since Smith has traded so much on sheer likeability.

By David Sexton

The 2022 Oscars will be remembered for one thing: The Slap.

Presenting the award for documentary, the ever crass Chris Rock made a crappy joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaven head (she has alopecia): “Jada, I love you! GI Jane 2! Can’t wait to see it! All right?”

After initially laughing along her husband, Will Smith, suddenly sprang up on to the stage and hit Chris Rock hard, before returning to his seat and shouting: “Keep my wife’s name out of your f***ing mouth!” Even more angrily the second time. He had lost control, right there on the biggest possible stage.

There he was, cruising towards finally winning an Academy Award (he’s been nominated twice before) to complete the full house of prizes he had already taken for King Richard, the biopic in which he plays the driven father of Venus and Serena Williams. The long lull in his career, since, say, I am Legend (2007), was over at last. The flops, like the awful sci-fi indulgence After Earth (2013) with his son Jaden, and the daft older-self-fights-younger-self action thriller Gemini Man (2019), were behind him. He recently published a successful memoir, Will. His next movie, Emancipation, about a slave who escaped to join the Union Army during the American Civil War, has been bought by Apple for a record $120 million.

All was going so well. Then came that slap. Such an angry face, such sudden violence seem especially disruptive because throughout Smith’s phenomenally successful career — his films have grossed $9.3 billion — he has traded so much on sheer likeability, a kind of innocence, whatever the trouble he finds himself in. The archetypal Will Smith role remains his breakout performance in Roland Emmerich’s 1996 blockbuster Independence Day, as the larky, super-confident pilot who not only saves the planet but marries his gorgeous dancer girlfriend and becomes a great dad too.

Since then he’s often played inspirational role models, such as the humble single father, reduced to homelessness, who manages to turn himself into a wealthy stockbroker and create a better life for his son in The Pursuit of Happyness (2006), and the geeky but fantastically determined outsider Richard Williams in King Richard.

Perhaps Smith’s appeal has always been, if not a façade, a quite deliberate projection. He had long planned to turn himself into the biggest movie star in the world (which he called “Global Willing”), just like those obsessive characters he plays. And he himself has acknowledged that he wasn’t going to get there by being the most accomplished actor in the world. His performance in King Richard, all supertight shorts and long socks, a shambling gait and incessant proclamation of “there you go!” is not really a triumph of technique. What he does best is make himself liked.

Accepting the Oscar minutes later, he did his best to recoup, tearfully identifying himself with Williams as “a fierce defender of his family”, claiming Denzel Washington had just advised him: “At your highest moment, be careful: that’s when the devil comes for you.” He went on to describe himself as motivated by love: “I am being called on in my life to love people and to protect people and to be a river to my people. I want to be a vessel for love. I want to be an ambassador for that kind of love and care and concern.”

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Some river, some vessel. But perhaps sudden frontal attack is more excusable than holding reprehensible opinions these days? We’ll see. 

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