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 sbfilmfestival.org or call 963‑0761. And
for more in-depth coverage of individual films and firsthand
reports from events, be sure to visit independent.com’s new Film
Fest 2007 blog on our homepage.

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