This piece was originally written for Epinions.com. An archive version of it can be found here.
For me, Will Smith is the most confounding black movie star to emerge in the 90’s. He wields tons of power but doesn’t seem concerned with developing too many of his own projects, especially of a decidedly black nature. Unlike Sam Jackson (producer of Kasi Lemmons stellar films, Eve’s Bayou and The Caveman’s Valentine) he doesn’t stray to far from what is expected from him.
So after the hoopla surrounding Ali has died down, we are left to contemplate what Big Will’s next move will be. Being a matinee junior Denzel Washington brings in the money and Will does have his Malcolm X. But unlike Washington he doesn’t have a Mo Better Blues, Courage Under Fire, or a Devil In A Blue Dress to remind all those who get tired of the “Big Will” persona that, yes indeed, this black man can also act. He has never done much character work, which is confounding because his character work is solid, if not stellar, more times than not.
His bit part in the obscure-but-shouldn’t-be ensemble film Where The Day Takes You is notable for its breadth and depth taking into consideration the truncated screen time. In a film with revelatory work by Sean Astin (foreshadowing his triumph in Rudy) and Dermot Mulroney it is understandable that Big Will was overlooked.
This brings me to Six Degrees Of Separation, Will’s greatest triumph. Forget Ali he was undermined by a sh*tty script. This is great work. Studied, complex, and filled with depth. This is not just great technique, an accent, mannerisms…Will gives Paul heart and soul and that is often what is missing from the stage interpretations of the character.
The plot is relatively simple. Flan and Ouisa Kitteridge (Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing) are a wealthy, posh Manhattan couple who, while entertaining an old friend (Sir Ian McKellan) from South Africa, are bombarded by a wounded Will Smith playing Paul, a young man claiming to be Sidney Poitier’s son. He dazzles them with his wit, sophistication, and promise of a part in the movie version of CATS (a hilarious running gag). The Kitteridges love him so much they give him a shirt (another funny gag) and set him up in their youngest daughter’s room. But when they discover he has brought home a boy, their fragile sensibilities are shattered. The rest of the movie is a dissection of their odd connection to Paul and trying to find out just who he is and how he got to be who he is.
The acting is perfect. It strikes a delicate balance between its stage roots and the more relaxed style of a film. There are scenes that belie the staginess that couldn’t have been lost in the film translation and they do feel kind of silly onscreen, but they are crucial moments. Paul’s big speech is deep and penetrating, but how else would a philosophical discussion play out…with the occasional “dudes” and “You know what I’m sayings?” No. The sophistication of the language, while seemingly overwritten, exists for a reason. Twofold. One, to skewer the pretensions of upper class America, with its empty conversations, and pompous self-absorption. And two, to depict that very world in order to accurately deconstruct it. Take the film for what it is, that is the only way to appreciate it.
Stockard Channing dominates the movie. Ouisa is a complex woman. She has an endless capacity for empathy and she feels for Paul in a way that is new to her. Channing realizes that she is responding to Paul because he is open to love in a way the people in her world never are, even her children. There is a wonderful helplessness to her scenes with her children (particularly the last phone conversation with her daughter). Personally, I believe Channing deserved the 1994 Oscar. But what do I know, I think Denzel should have got it for Malcolm X? Go figure.
Donald Sutherland has, what I believe, to be the hardest part in the film. Flanders is right on the line of selfish self-importance and arrogance, but Donald’s line readings are right on. The last scene with Ouisa, Paul, and Flan on the phone (the best in the film) is key to understanding Flanders Kitteridge. He doesn’t hate or even pity Paul, he resents the challenge to his life. Sutherland lets us know, from his line readings to his deterioration into a man who is fed up, that he is comfortable and doesn’t enjoy being the butt of Paul’s (perceived) joke. It is an immensely comical performance with a thread of real sadness. Ouisa makes the change, Flanders is incapable of it.
Compared to Ali this is clearly Will’s better performance, although both are fascinating studies in an actor’s commitment to technique (accent, mannerism, etc). Perhaps it is because it is a “normal” person, not a cultural icon. In a sense, Will was never gonna capture Ali. It is akin to someone playing Elvis…the legend and spectacle are larger than method acting could ever recreate. This is not to say his performance in Ali was bad, because it clearly wasn’t.
But Paul has layers that we, as common folk, can readily understand and identify with. He has layers that are part of who he is, not what his persona has dictated like Ali. Paul is the static character. He doesn’t change. He too is incapable, but for different reasons than Flan. He is the catalyst for the Kitteridges (and to some extent, the others he visits) to reexamine their lives. He wants to be a part of their world just as much as he wants to expose it for the shallow selfishness of it.
Smith is astute enough to know that Paul is just as selfish as the Kitteridges are and perhaps even more so. The last phone conversation shows this perfectly. He is unwilling to make a change unless Ouisa and Flan make one first. It can be construed that he doesn’t trust them, and that is part of it, but really it is that Paul doesn’t really think he’s done anything wrong (and in a legal sense, he hasn’t) and he really believes his own hype. He expects more of them than perhaps they are willing to expect of him. That conversation is great because we see that with all the knowledge given to him (by a flawless Anthony Michael Hall as Trent) doesn’t change who he is. If it had, then we would have hated the Kitteridges for not being better people for having the same knowledge.
Six Degrees of Separation is famous for its line about how everyone on the planet is connected by a trail of six people, but that is hardly the point of the movie. The movie calls into question just how connected that trail really is and/or can be. Ouisa is the key to this idea. She like everyone of her class in the movie, is outraged (and a little amused) by Paul’s daring, but as the elaborate scheme unfolds there is a sense of being connected to all these seemingly random people that makes Ouisa feel like a part of something. It is a feeling that she has never really had.
The line she repeats at the end, “I will not turn him into an anecdote. It was an experience,” is great because Ouisa is our “in” and its dangerous because on the surface Ouisa’s arc paints her as that paternalistic benefactor that was so prevalent in high society during Harlem Renaissance. She walks a fine line of being genuinely moved by the Paul experience and the experience really just being an anecdote. Her ending joy doesn’t really erase the fact that little in her life has changed but it clearly puts forth Ouisa’s desire to be more than a paternalistic benefactor.
The whole movie is this kind of exaggerated rendering of Paul’s exploits and he nearly is an anecdote, but after that final phone conversation, Ouisa is unwilling to keep talking about the whole ordeal. It truly affected her that she couldn’t help Paul, a man whose real name she didn’t know, a man who she ultimately felt close to. To reduce the experience to anecdote, is to diminish her feelings. To diminish her capacity to feel empathy and care for other people. That is what makes her final moment work.
So Will may never do character work again, and while that saddens me (I hate when black folks and people of color attain a certain status and “get lazy”), we have Six Degrees of Separation, a superb film about what draws people together and what has been keeping them apart. Yes, it is stagy, but it is also astute, heartfelt, and beautifully directed. The film’s set design and cinematography are breathtaking, simultaneously awe-inspiring and cold, allowing us to maybe envy the world of the Kitteridges and still feel like it might not be as great as it seems.