King Richard – Will Smith Back on Track

Will Smith seems to really, really want an Oscar. And why not? He’s more than paid his dues as one of the most beloved movie stars of his generation, a consummate leading man who outshines even some of the duds he’s had the misfortune to take on. He could have had it easy, playing up his Fresh Prince Roots, sticking to comedy (or music, though that may have become an uphill battle). Instead, he shunned his amicable goofball onscreen persona in favor of dramatic roles, to better utilize his talents. But the track-record has been shaky.

The earliest efforts of his transition to dramas were fruitful, garnering Academy Awards attention, and even nominations for his work in Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness. People especially admired his transformation into Cassius Clay, but things seemed to dry up quickly, and though Smith was always getting the roles, and the numbers he wanted, the likelihood of his winning over awards voters began to dwindle.

He passed on the titular leading role of Django Unchained, a decision many have remarked was essentially equivalent to throwing a nomination away, and which certainly saw Smith wiggle out of what would have been one of a handful of career-defining performances. Then came Concussion, his heaviest push for recognition from the Academy, and a futile one, arriving on the eve of the #oscarsowhite controversy.

Then the worst of them all; Collateral Beauty, a clawing, soppy bit of awards-bait, so desperate to move you to tears that it moved no one to the marquee. Will played a facsimile depressive, but didn’t do much to suggest the agonizing grief of the character beyond bursting into crocodile tears and jaw-clenching despondency. It’s a film that through not understanding any of what it depicts leaves Smith out to dry, even as his character goes for long bike rides in the oh-so-sad, sad, rain.

Since then, Will has mostly stuck to genre fare, probably hoping to avoid any more bombs along the lines of After Earth as he does so. Suicide Squad, Bright, Gemini Man and Bad Boys For Life seem to have kept audiences in his corner, and there may be no time at which Will has been better primed to take home the gold.

His big return to prestige films comes in the form of King Richard, a biographical account of the trails Richard Williams (father of Venus and Serena Williams) faced in raising and training probably the two greatest tennis players in the history of the sport. Richard is a complicated man, obstinate and consumed by tunnel-vision in planning his daughters’ greatness, but since this is a sports-movie about a success story, he is of course also passionate, driven, loving, and most of all, right. Smith carries the weight of all the beatings life has dealt Mr. Williams in weary, heavy eyes, but also captures his generosity of spirit, and requisite dad-humour. It’s a performative role to match the performative man it is tailored after, but when the character is pushed by family to consider his faults (though never to relent), these quieter moments are some of Smith’s best work, including a tear-soaked father daughter talk that will doubtless become the actor’s Oscar-reel.

Academy Members are liable to eat this up, as it has many of the hallmarks of precisely what they love in performances: 1. A ‘disappearance’ into the character, preferably a real-life subject, by an otherwise famous celebrity (herein Smith’s replication of Williams’ tics, voice and gait). 2. A character with just enough complexity to understandably come into harsh conflict with his fellow characters, but who is nevertheless compelling (they do their best to let us know underhandedly that Williams was not a great father, but it is still Will Smith after all) 3. A man on a mission, most especially if it’s inspirational (if Venus and Serena don’t inspire you, very few things may). This is a more competitive year for the category of Best Actor in a Leading Role than last, and there are no guarantees, but Will Smith is poised perfectly for some long overdue love from the Oscars.