Bill Simmons wrote an interesting article today (if you haven’t visited his new Grantland site, there is some good material) regarding the anatomy of the Hollywood star, while attempting to quantify the value of a movie star’s success, much as we would an athlete’s through statistics, while claiming that Hollywood’s one acting giant, Will Smith, earned his success because of a pre-determined decision to study movie trends that suggested the public liked creature blockbusters that involved love stories. Simmons postulates that because Smith involved himself in these mostly safe blockbusters, where he gets to play the hero, he may have figured out the secret to Hollywood. And while Simmons brings up some great and true points, he ignores many of the variables that make Will Smith a unique case. Though Smith’s decision making process played an undeniable role in his success, his background, and maybe more importantly, his timing, is what vaulted him to his current lofty status.
In 1985, when rap music was first finding its footing in American culture, Will Smith (along with DJ Jazzy Jeff) helped pioneer the genre to the mainstream with catchy, radio-friendly singles like “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “Summertime.” These hits, along with his albums, made him an instant success that stood apart from essentially everything else on the radio. More importantly, Smith’s music was humorous, non political, and played to the younger generation that would one day spearhead his film fanbase, and most importantly, his music bridged a possible racial divide. His style was charming, catchy, safe, and could be appreciated by any young audience looking to differentiate themselves from older generations, even if only by the music they purchased. This made Smith, perhaps unintentionally, a symbol of “cool” for this younger generation. And, of course, Smith’s music career was spawned long before the internet, when all we had was the radio to learn our new music, so he enjoyed much greater exposure than a similar act would today.
But, of course, this was only the beginning.
After a debilitating bout with the IRS, Smith was given yet a second opportunity to become a likable pioneer when NBC greenlit the soon-to-be hit sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Like his music, this show brought the world of rap to the mainstream, and given prime network real estate on NBC’s slate of highly popular comedies. And, just like his music, Smith portrayed himself as relatable, lovable, and most of all, “cool.” I can still remember it being the most talked about show in my elementary school, while all the kids tried to perfect the secret handshake used by Jazzy Jeff and Smith in the show. And, of course, ANYONE in my generation can sing you the entire theme song. The show premiered in 1990, again before the internet, with a 13.6 rating…which is unheard of by today’s standards (to give you an idea, any episode of Two and a Half Men this year hovered around the 9’s. Of course, the Fresh Prince didn’t have to deal with multiple digital cable/satellite channels or the internet. Again, he had maximum exposure due to limited availability of other forms of entertainment) Because of the above, Will Smith quickly became a household name, a household name that managed to combine “street” culture and “white” culture. Essentially, his show appealed to everyone without even a semblance of controversy. Think Bill Cosby, if Cosby also pioneered a musical genre for an entire, young generation that would one day soon be the first to embrace every single thing that is popular today.
But it gets even better.
Though Smith proved himself capable in the 1995 hit “Bad Boys” with Martin Lawrence, he headlined an ensemble for what would become the pioneer (there's that word again!) for the modern day blockbuster that has completely taken over the movie industry today: Independence Day. Again, Smith played the likable, cool air force pilot who saves the day. And again, Smith had direct involvement in ushering in the “cool,” family, action blockbuster that would define a generation of moviegoers.
But also, Smith never forgot what brought him to the public’s eye in the first place. And that, of course, is his music. Much more memorable than mediocre, yet successful movies Men In Black or Wild Wild West were, was the fact that he also created hit songs for both those movies. And, this just in, America likes multi-dimensional talent (just ask Justin Timberlake, Michael Jackson, etc). At this point, he had now hit a trifecta with unquestioned, and most of all original, success in music, television, and film.
And, somehow, Smith did this all with humility and a self-deprecating sense of humor. He never seemed arrogant (in interviews or in his roles/music), and always appeared to be even keeled. Calming even. He proved himself a guy in control, a guy who could be trusted. And Smith continued to live a wholesome lifestyle off camera. Never was in the tabloids, stayed married to Jada Pinkett, had his now famous kids, and didn’t over expose himself much like Ben Affleck (a guy who had a similar movie career trajectory) did. Simply put, because of ALL the above, every new Will Smith movie became an event. And, till this day, this thought has been grandfathered into our new way of viewing and understanding entertainment.
My major point is that Will Smith, unlike many of today’s actors, became a brand. And he became a brand for an entire generation that grew up with him and watched him become an icon in three different mediums. And, luckily for Smith, he resonated with the first real generation that consumed the entertainment that is still popular today, and also probably the same generation that yearned for a post racial society and willingly searched for "street" culture and entertainment. Though Smith’s talent always shined, and he is a unique likable talent, his strengths were aided by the movement of society. Essentially, he was the right guy at the right time and became a Jackie Robinson of sorts (not even in the racial sense) for Generation Y.
So, sorry, just simply putting yourself in successful blockbusters won’t make you a Will Smith-esque star. Just as Sam Worthington. Ask Elijah Wood. The list goes on and on. Smith is an exceptional case...and not one that was created just because he and his manager studied movie trends.