Ahead of him possibly getting third time lucky with a Best Actor win for King Richard at Oscars 2022, here’s how you can get to know Will Smith better, through the lens of his recently released memoir.
Will Smith, one of the most respected Hollywood actors, has never won an Oscar.
His role as a boxer in Michael Mann’s film Ali  got him his first nomination in the Best Actor category at the Academy Awards. He was nominated again for playing a homeless salesman in Gabriele Muccino’s film The Pursuit of Happyness . Smith lost out on both occasions.
This year, he has secured a nomination for his performance as a tennis coach in Reinaldo Marcus Green’s film King Richard. Will the actor be third time lucky?
Smith, who is now 53, is a strong contender for the 2022 Oscar. His onscreen portrayal of Richard Williams – the father of world-renowned American tennis icons Venus Williams and Serena Williams – has received tremendous acclaim. He has already won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama, the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role, the BAFTA Award for Best Leading Actor, and the Critics Choice Award for Best Actor for his work in King Richard.
Ahead of the Academy Awards ceremony, let us spend some time getting to know Smith, whose personal life forms the bedrock of his professional journey. His memoir titled Will, co-authored with self-help writer Mark Manson for Penguin Press, is a great place to begin. Unlike many other celebrity memoirs that you might have read, it is raw and painful. It is rarely self-congratulatory.
Smith confesses, “As a child, I would disappear into my imagination. I could daydream endlessly — there was nothing more entertaining to me than my fantasy worlds. The worlds that my mind created and inhabited were as real to me as ‘real life,’ sometimes even more so.” Fantasy became a coping mechanism because home was not a place of emotional safety. He was afraid of antagonizing his elders, especially his father, so he became a people pleaser.
While sharing his story, Smith also gives voice to the suppressed agony of several generations of boys all over the world who adopt an “indefatigably cheery, upbeat, and positive” personality in the hope that this would fix the broken relationships in their family.
He says, “I responded to the dissonance of my world by remaining purely constant: I was always smiling. Always fun and ready to laugh. Nothing wrong in my world. One day, I would be in charge, and everything was going to be perfect. We are going to have a big house on a huge property and everybody’s going to live together, and I’ll take care of everybody.”
As a result, his everyday life became a performance. He thought that being a good boy would make people like him. He would stay out of trouble, and somehow all conflict would cease. This story that he had built up in his mind crashed when he realised how powerless he was as a child. He wanted to be his mother’s saviour when his father hit her but he could not help.
It would be unfair to say that he is trying to whitewash the wrongdoings of his father. It must have taken a lot of courage to address the violence in his home in such a public manner.
When Smith wanted to take a gap year before going to college, his mother was against the idea. His father supported him. The man tried to broker peace between mother and son. As an uneducated Black man, he had faced discrimination and lost out on many opportunities. He wanted a better life for Smith but did not want to force the boy into something that he would hate. There is a difference between tough love and malice even if it is not apparent at times.
Smith’s father told him, “You got one year. Your mother said she can get all them schools to hold your acceptance till next September. We’re gonna help you and support you to do anything you think you need to do to succeed. But in one year, if it ain’t happenin’, you’re going to go to whichever one of them schools your mother choose. That work for you?”
Smith’s mother was not thrilled but she accepted the compromise. It was a better deal than all-out war with her adamant son. Smith says, “My experiences with my father are a mixed bag, to say the least. But that night, in the kitchen at 5943 Woodcrest Avenue, he displayed the most exquisite leadership I had ever seen. That was how a father was supposed to be.”
In this book, Smith also opens up about his imaginary childhood friend named Magicker. This creature was “a full-blown person” who served as an affirmative presence in Smith’s life. Magicker was a “white boy with red hair, fair skin, and freckles”. He had opinions about what games Smith should play, and what types of food he should eat. Magicker was so real for Smith that his mother used to set out a separate plate for Magicker at dinner time.
This early brush with creating a character stayed with Smith when he began to act. He also liked being in his father’s home movies since the man was most loving when standing behind a camera or a projector. Smith says, “It brought me closer to him… that deep craving for his love and approval undoubtedly played a role in my desire to perform on film later on in life.”
The desire to please continued with Smith into adulthood, especially in his romantic relationships. He admits to doing too much – coddling and overprotecting – when it was not needed. He was afraid to lose them so he always worked hard to be in their good books. Smith remarks, “To me, love was a performance, so if you weren’t clapping, I was failing.” It took him a while to realise that this was unhealthy not only for himself but also those women.
This book would give Smith’s fans a precious window into how his personal circumstances fed his professional success as a performer, and what he was drawing on while playing a father in King Richard. It can also be a tough one to read, especially for people who feel triggered by domestic violence and suicidal ideation. While the memoir does speak of healing, there is certainly more of the dark cloud here, and less of the silver lining.
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