Why Will Smith Is a Modern Master

Mr. Smith Goes to Santa Barbara

WSmith.jpgHe’s tall. He’s a two-time Grammy winner. And as far as we know, Will Smith has no official opinion on antidepressants. Otherwise, though, the actor has a lot in common with his good friend Tom Cruise. Both are a rare breed of superstar, producing their own movies and commanding salaries of more than $20 million for years.

The two admit to a friendly professional rivalry. Smith and wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, flew to Italy to attend Cruise’s recent nuptials to Katie Holmes — a spectacle that inspired Smith to start planning an equally grand celebration for his own 10th wedding anniversary next year. Weeks later, Cruise and Holmes showed up at the Westwood premiere of Smith’s latest movie, The Pursuit of Happyness.

“We mark ourselves off each other,” Smith told Entertainment Weekly earlier this month — but only one of them is receiving the SBIFF’s Modern Master Award this year. That would be Smith, who is accepting the fest’s highest honor this Saturday night at the Arlington Theatre. He’ll be interviewed by film historian Leonard Maltin between clips of his movies, which include the edgy and intimate Six Degrees of Separation, the alien-whomping blockbuster Men in Black, and the romantic comedy Hitch. Cruise, ahem, will introduce Smith at the event.

“Will Smith has arrived at the peak of his powers in acting,” said SBIFF Director Roger Durling, who “sobbed like a little kid” while watching Happyness. “He’s absolutely phenomenal in the movie. He’s a throwback to Jimmy Stewart or Sydney Poitier.”

Nominated for both a Golden Globe and Academy Award this year (the Globe went to fellow festival honoree Forest Whitaker), Smith, 38, produced and costarred in Happyness with his real-life son, Jaden, 8. Based on the true story of single dad Chris Gardner’s journey from homelessness to professional success, the film is Smith’s 10th movie to gross $100 million. (Cruise, who’s had 13, trumps him there.)

Smith has said he chose the film because its story embodies the American dream. As a triple-threat entertainer — TV sitcom star, action movie hero, and Grammy-winning rapper — the same can be said of Smith himself. Growing up in the middle-class suburbs of Philadelphia, he released his first album as half of the duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince at age 18. Teens across the nation memorized the lyrics to 1988’s “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” the first rap song ever to win a Grammy Award.

Banking on his boyish charm and G-rated lyrics, NBC built a sitcom around the new star. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, about a ghetto kid sent to live with his rich uncle, ran for six seasons. It was there he met Jada Pinkett; she auditioned to play his girlfriend, but was thought to be too short for a believable match.

The couple is now approaching a decade of marriage and has a reputation as devoted parents to Jaden and daughter Willow, 6. A best actor nominee for Ali, Smith left the 2002 Oscar ceremony before his category was announced because Willow was sick with a high fever.

But family life doesn’t keep him from jet-setting across the planet to, well, stay one step ahead of Tom Cruise. Just back from a Happyness promotional visit to Japan, Smith is midway through shooting his next movie, a mutant vampire flick called I Am Legend, due in theaters in December. Lucky for Santa Barbara, he’ll be making a stop at the Arlington this weekend.

4·1·1 For a complete schedule of the 22nd Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival, see the Film Grid on pages 56-57. For tickets, passes, and a more detailed description of films, see or call 963‑0761. And for more in-depth coverage of individual films and firsthand reports from events, be sure to visit’s new Film Fest 2007 blog on our homepage.

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