Will Smith Had To Shatter His Image To Get That Oscar

After three decades in Hollywood, the muilt-hyphenate star finally dropped his pristine persona in one of the wildest and most memorable runs for Academy Award glory.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty/Warner Bros.

If you were to say back in 1994 that Will Smith would win an Oscar one day, folks might not have believed you. It’s not that it was completely absurd to suggest that he had the chops to achieve what is considered Hollywood’s highest honor. After all, that same year he wowed audiences when he showed another side of the goofy, fish-out-of-water yet oh-so-cool Will on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” with the heartrending storyline of a young Black man disappointed by his deadbeat dad (Ben Vereen). And he went toe-to-toe with heavyweights Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland in “Six Degrees of Separation” just the previous year.

It’s just that he never really played the insidious Hollywood game of the “campaign,” the exhaustive exercise of transforming yourself from an actor into a celebrity throughout the entire awards cycle. Sure, the affable star charmed us with his hilarious quips and signature guffaw in myriad interviews about delving into the psyche and physical demands of Muhammad Ali for his first nominated turn in “Ali” in 2002. And he continued to discuss his journey from a Blockbuster surefire, Grammy-winning rapper and lovable character from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” to a well-respected actor when the Academy recognized him again for “The Pursuit of Happyness” five years later.

But it wasn’t really until the months leading up to the release of “King Richard” last year when Smith decided to shatter the dam between his personal life and professional persona — and subsequently paved himself a smooth path to Oscar victory. But while it proved to be a triumphant method for him, it was a wild and ceaseless routine for the rest of us to witness.

Will Smith as Richard Williams, Demi Singleton as Serena Williams and Saniyya Sidney as Venus Williams in “King Richard."
Will Smith as Richard Williams, Demi Singleton as Serena Williams and Saniyya Sidney as Venus Williams in “King Richard."
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

You can argue that that was a necessary act for his arduous portrayal of Richard Williams, the deeply flawed yet devoted father of real-life tennis champions Serena and Venus (Demi Singleton and Saniyya Sidney). Richard is direct, uninterested in whether or not he’s liked and willing to risk it all to secure his dream of turning his daughters into two of the greatest athletes ever. On the other hand, Smith has generally always taken the safe option.

Unlike Richard in “King Richard,” Smith has historically donned the image of a loving and equal partner to his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. He seemed to have very much cared about how his fans will view him. He famously refrained from using curse words in his songs, dodged any hint of controversy by turning down roles like Jamie Foxx’s role in “Django Unchained,” and denying all kinds of awkward rumors about him and his wife.

Ever the good guy both on-screen and inside his own carefully curated personal narrative, he cleared up any concerns about the stability of his marriage with a surprising visit to Pinkett Smith’s chatty “Red Table Talk” in 2018. That was filled with many revelations, but he made sure that the takeaway was: “There’s nothing that could happen that we won’t be together and love each other,” he said to Pinkett Smith. “Because I’ve never met anyone like you. And I knew if I wasn’t with you, I’d be searching in vain for the rest of my life.”

But a few years later, Smith clearly ran out of fucks. He dropped the act and yanked all his skeletons and demons out of the closet to reveal a more flawed version of himself that became more compatible to Richard.

Will Smith and Janet Hubert in "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion."
Will Smith and Janet Hubert in "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion."
Photograph by HBO Max / Saeed Adyani

Though we saw traces of it with the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” reunion in November 2020 where he finally admitted that he was, essentially, a pompous jerk to Janet Hubert and apologized, his meteoric effort to blow up his own image in the most respectable way possible came in 2021. And it started at a level of about 25 and went up to 10,000 in what felt like a day.

The once-ripped action star exposed his belly on the Internet and vowed to get fit again. Then Smith spilled all the tea in the much-talked-about GQ cover story pegged to the releases of his memoir “Will” and “King Richard,” in which he acknowledged that his persona all these years has been a ruse to hide some of the emotional scars he’s had since childhood.

Smith candidly discussed how his dad, his biggest champion, abused his mother growing up and how he lived both in fear and awe of him. The article includes this excerpt from his book: “My father tormented me. And he was also one of the greatest men I’ve ever known. He was one of the greatest blessings of my life, and also one of my greatest sources of pain.”

There was also the admission that despite him and Pinkett Smith working out their relationship issues, he longed for “a harem of girlfriends” that included Halle Berry, and how she “never believed in conventional marriage.”

Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, Halle Berry and Venus Williams attend the 27th Annual Critics Choice Awards at Fairmont Century Plaza on March 13, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.
Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, Halle Berry and Venus Williams attend the 27th Annual Critics Choice Awards at Fairmont Century Plaza on March 13, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.
Alberto E. Rodriguez via Getty Images

And just tonight: He slapped Chris Rock on live television at the Oscars after the presenter/comedian made a joke about Jada's shaved head. Then he yelled to him from his seat in the audience, "Keep my wife's name out of your fucking mouth!" twice.

Lest we forget all the chaotic details that emerged once more readers got their hands on “Will.” His experience with a psychedelic drug following a particularly exhausting spat with Pinkett Smith. His teenage suicidal ideations. Falling in love with Channing during his first marriage. His desire to murder his dad when he was growing up. His urge to vomit after having sex? It was a lot, and continued to be rolled out on a daily basis like an increasingly uncomfortable alarm clock.

But apparently it paid off. The once tight-lipped, eager-to-please star who rose from the ’90s and early aughts is now in, as he told GQ, his “fuck-it 50s” and has fully committed to the ridiculous expectations of celebrity culture. He did it in his own time and in his own bizarre way, but it worked out. And the best part about it? He hasn’t lost an iota of respect from neither his peers nor his fans.

Popular in the Community