The latest trending topic in the Hollywood circle is #OscarsSoWhite. With no black actor being nominated for an Academy Award for the second year in a row, there has been a lot of talk about the lack of diversity within the Academy. One of the big names leading the ‘Oscar boycott’ campaign is Will Smith along with his wife Jada Pinkett Smith. Calling the Academy itself racist seems harsh to me, though I do feel that roles / movies available to black actors in Hollywood itself are considerably lower which gets reflected in the fewer nominations, or none, as is the case this year. More opportunities are required for black actors, more variety of roles need to be written for them, which can eventually translate into nominations and awards.
Irrespective of the on-going controversy, it is easy to see why Will Smith would have been disheartened with the lack of an Oscar nomination. One of the biggest leading men of Hollywood for almost two decades, Will Smith’s lack of an Oscar win somehow gets forgotten in the rallying cry to get Leonardo DiCaprio one. Unlike DiCaprio, Will Smith has not even won a Golden Globe. 2015’s Concussion, based on a true story of a pathologist who uncovered the truth about brain damage in football players, looked to be a promising Oscar-vehicle for Will Smith. The reviews on the movie and Will smith’s portrayal have been terrific, and he even got nominated for a Golden Globe for this role. Earlier in December, he won the Best Actor Award from the African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA). But the elusive Academy Award still seems like a distant dream.
Twice in the past, Will Smith has been nominated for an Academy Award. Two terrific roles indeed, which in possibly some other year might have led to a win. But not then. Will Smith’s previous Oscar nominations were…
For playing Muhammad Ali in Ali (2001)
By the time Will Smith officially signed on for Ali in 2000, he had already grown in stature in Hollywood with the likes of Bad Boys, Men in Black and Enemy of the State. These movies displayed the ease with which Will Smith could handle an action movie; his style and attitude quickly made him a fan favourite. But films like these might make money at the box-office, they don’t win Academy Awards. For that, Smith had to do something like Ali. A biopic on Muhammad Ali, deemed the greatest boxer ever, Will Smith plunged into this role with the kind of dedication we have come to expect from him. He bulked up, trained hard, took dialect classes, and threw the punches with gutso on screen to show the depth of his acting abilities. Michael Mann’s movie did not work its magic at the box-office, but it got an Oscar nomination for Will Smith for Best Actor and another one for Jon Voight for Best Supporting Actor.
Back in 2002, when the brightly lit Kodak Theatre hosted the Academy Awards, there was no backlash on the lack of recognition of black actors. The Best Actor category had in fact two nominees, Will Smith and Denzel Washington, while the Best Actress category had Halle Berry. It was the year when the Honorary Academy Award was given to Sidney Poitier, the legendary actor who was also the first African-American to win in the Best Actor category back in 1964. Fittingly, Halle Berry won the award for her performance in Monster’s Ball. Soon it was time to hand over the Oscar in the Best Actor category. To be fair, Will Smith was against some outstanding performers that year – Denzel Washington for his role of the rogue cop in the explosive Training Day and Russell Crowe for playing the brilliant mathematician John Nash in A Beautiful Mind were clearly front-runners. The other two nominees were Sean Penn for playing a mentally handicapped father in I Am Sam and Tom Wilkinson for his performance in the lesser-known crime drama film In the Bedroom. Will Smith eventually lost out to his senior artist Denzel Washington, a decision which few can complain about. Jon Voight did not win too.
For playing Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
Ali may not have done well at the box-office, but whatever followed after that cemented Will Smith’s position as one of the biggest stars of Hollywood. Men in Black II, Bad Boys II, I, Robot, Shark Tale and Hitch – that’s the lineup between 2001’s Ali and 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness. Each of these movies earned more than $100 million in North America; each one of them a financial success. The real test of Smith’s stardom was to be the biopic The Pursuit of Happyness directed by Gabriele Muccino. The movie is based on the inspiring story of Chris Gardner who was a struggling salesman with a young son when he decided to try his hand in the world of finance. From the bottom, when he had no place to live, no money in his pocket, still trying to protect his son from the hardships of life, Gardner rose to great heights, eventually starting his own successful brokerage firm. The movie may appear to have been of a man’s struggle, but Will Smith’s captivating performance brought it closer to what the title suggested – his pursuit of happiness. When Smith wept, we wept with him; when Smith jumped with joy, we jumped with him. The movie was another big hit for Will Smith as his success run continued. In my opinion, Will Smith’s performance in The Pursuit of Happyness completed him as an actor; it was that kind of performance after which you go – “Oh wow! What can this fellow not do!” An Oscar nomination was hardly a surprise.
I would have placed Will Smith as a very strong contender when the Best Actor nominations were announced for the Academy Awards to be held in 2007. Just like now, there would have been a huge cry for Leonardo DiCaprio to bag the Oscar for a stellar performance in Blood Diamond. Fantastic though DiCaprio was in that role, was it something as memorable as Smith playing Chris Gardner? – I wouldn’t think so. Though spare a thought for the legendary Peter O’Toole who was nominated for the eighth time for an Academy Award, this time for his role in Venus – four years after he had been given an Honorary Academy Award! Barring the sentiments, Peter O’Toole as well as Ryan Gosling (for Half Nelson) stood little chance for an Oscar glory that year. Then why did not Will Smith grab the spotlight? Because of one reason, one performance, and interestingly, by an African-American actor. Forest Whitaker. Playing the egoistic terrifying dictator of Uganda, Idi Amin, Whitaker delivered an unforgettable act reaching such a peak which he has never ever come close to. Forest Whitaker literally won everything that was to be won that year, leaving Will Smith and the rest quite a distance away.
Will Smith has since then been part of other big movies playing memorable roles, but it was only now with Concussion that he had a shot at the Oscars again. A chance that has slipped away. The curtains have not closed on Will Smith, one should remember, and maybe the hunger to win an Oscar could keep getting the best out of him. Look at Leonardo DiCaprio, a story which might find a happy ending in February this year. Maybe something similar lies for Will Smith ahead.