Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 22 August 2019

Newsmaker: Will Smith

The multimillionaire movie star and musician was all over Dubai in recent days, racking up headlines for everything from a live performance to skydiving. While his career has slowed, the Hollywood headliner is far from old news, says Kevin Hackett.
Kagan McLeod for The National
Kagan McLeod for The National

The New Year just past was obviously offering only slim pickings when it came to the disturbing obsession of celebrity spotting in Dubai. And evidence, if any was needed, came in the form of the Hollywood jack of all trades Will Smith, who was here spending some time with his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, on the occasion of their 16th wedding anniversary.

Not that they appeared to see much of each other. If the resultant social media frenzy was an accurate barometer, Mr Smith mostly left Mrs Smith at their hotel, to go hanging out with his friend, the actor, model and rapper Tyrese, who has been in the UAE filming scenes for the next Fast & Furious film.

And his former cohort, DJ Jazzy Jeff, whom he joined on stage in an impromptu performance on New Year’s Eve at the Dubai bar Barasti.

And another singing celebrity, Maxwell, whom he jumped out of a plane with.

And, to top it all off, Smith and Tyrese were seen – via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter et al – hanging out with Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, the Crown Prince of Dubai, who treated the boys to some indoor skydiving.

In the desert, in a kandura, in restaurants, on the golf course, in the headlines (even the fact that he had his hair cut while in Dubai made it into the local media) – it was almost enough for the cynics to start wondering aloud if Smith was actually here to spend quality time with his other half or simply trying to help reboot a flagging career.

“He’s just trying to find a balance between being the biggest movie star on the planet and making a record. And that’s why, every chance we get, if I’m spinning at an event, he’s back on the mic,” said Jazzy Jeff, whose real name is Jeffrey Townes, in an interview just before the Barasti event. If that quote had been made a decade ago, it might have rung true with cinemagoers, but Smith has been rather quiet of late.

With the exception of 2012’s rather successful Men in Black 3, Smith hasn’t hit cinema pay dirt since 2008’s Seven Pounds and Hancock, neither of which garnered rave reviews but found critic-proof audiences in the millions.

As one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars, Smith won’t be short of cash, so perhaps his Dubai ­sojourn was just a bit of fun after all. Anyhow, these days he seems more keen on getting his children into blockbusters than himself.

It’s easy to see how the man born Willard Carroll Smith Jr in 1968 ­became a megastar. About as wholesome as a leading man gets: he’s steered clear of controversy in his personal life, his chosen film roles and the lyrics that he’s belted out over PA systems since he started in the music industry in the late 1980s.

While many of his contemporaries have stayed in the headlines for ­being in and out of rehab or being abusive to spouses, fans and press photographers alike, Smith has simply got on with the lucrative business of being a really nice guy.

That’s not to say that he hasn’t been in trouble with the US authorities from time to time. His early career as a musician was one of fits and starts. Having met Townes at a party when he was 16 years old, the two became friends and set up the duo Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince.

The style was radio-friendly, free from the anger and profanity of contemporary rap, and the hits eventually started coming in, even bagging two Grammy Awards in 1988 and 1992. Smith had no difficulty in spending the spoils and was nearly bankrupted by the Internal Revenue Service in 1990 for massively underpaying his taxes to the tune of almost $3 million (Dh11m).

Salvation came, not from his career as a rapper, but as the star of a sitcom built around him by the NBC network. It came just in time, too, because while the IRS was busy confiscating his furniture, he ­began filming the pilot episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The first episode was broadcast in September 1990 and it continued through six seasons, finally ending in 1996.

Playing a fictionalised version of himself (Will “The Fresh Prince” Smith), his character was a young man who got into trouble in Philadelphia and was sent to live with his wealthy aunt and uncle in Bel-Air, Los Angeles. Like his lyrical style before it, the television show was good old-fashioned, clean family entertainment and it made Smith a star all over the world.

He was also nominated for two Golden Globe awards during his comedic tenure, but it was obvious that Hollywood was going to come knocking on his (by then financially secure) door.

During his time on the show, ­according to various sources, Smith decided that he was going to become exactly what Townes referred to him as: the biggest movie star in the world. And to help facilitate this transition from sitcom cutie to Hollywood hero, he began to study the science behind what makes a film a blockbuster. There was to be none of that straight-to-video nonsense for Will Smith.

His first major role was in 1993’s comedy drama Six Degrees of Separation, which was followed by the action-crime-comedy Bad Boys in 1995. Once that film was out, it was obvious that The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air had had its day and, the following year when the series drew to a close, Independence Day became the second-highest grossing film of all time – his fate as blockbuster fodder became a certainty.

Men in Black followed Independence Day, which allowed Smith the opportunity to get back in the ­recording studio for the film’s theme song. Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State in 1998, meanwhile, saw him getting serious.

After that, he made what he refers to as a terrible mistake, turning down the star role of Neo in The Matrix. Instead, he made what everyone (including Smith himself) views as a turkey: 1999’s Wild Wild West. Although he has gone on record as saying that he thinks Keanu Reeves played a far better Neo than he ever could have.

His choice of film roles did, however, prove that Smith had range as an actor – something that was proved beyond doubt in 2001’s Ali. Directed by the almost always-excellent Michael Mann, Smith played the boxer Muhammad Ali in a biographical picture that bagged him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in 2002.

During his rise to Hollywood stardom, Smith did manage to find time for a family. He has been married twice. First to Sheree Zampino, whom he met on the set of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and with whom he has a son, Willard Carroll “Trey” Smith III, born in 1992. They divorced three years later and Smith married the actress and singer-songwriter Jada Koren Pinkett, who gave birth to a son, Jaden, and daughter, Willow, both of whom have starred alongside their father on the silver screen.

Smith has also been busying himself in politics in recent times, emerging as a staunch advocate for the Obama presidency – the President himself stated that, were he to be played in a film, he’d want Will Smith in the role. “He has the ears,” quipped Obama.

The Smiths have homes in Florida, Los Angeles, his home city of Philadelphia and Stockholm, Sweden, which he claims is the one place that he can truly relax. But his ­recent stint in Dubai shows that he still knows how to party, how to mix with the great and the good and, perhaps more importantly, get on the front pages of newspapers and magazines the world over. His film career has, without a doubt, slowed down significantly, but the man himself has done no such thing – a number of films are in the making and only a fool would dismiss Smith as a has-been.

khackett@thenational.ae

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Updated: January 9, 2014 04:00 AM

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