[9 December 2007]
As someone once said, change is inevitable, except from vending machines. In 1959, Harry Belafonte starred in “The World, the Flesh and the Devil,” playing a miner who emerges from a cave-in to find himself the last human on Earth—save for a comely blonde, played by the Swedish actress Inger Stevens. The question? Would Eisenhower America accept the outrageous suggestion that a “Day-O”-singing black civil-rights icon and a white woman would be left to perpetuate the human race?
That movie is virtually unknown today. It is now 2007, and Will Smith will be the last human on Earth in “I Am Legend,” the post-apocalyptic Warner Bros. thriller based on the celebrated 1953 novel by Richard Matheson (“The Twilight Zone,” “Night Gallery”). The question? Can Bush America continue to accept Will Smith as its leading box-office star, perpetuating a collaboration with the film industry that has resulted in a career total of $4.4 billion in worldwide box-office receipts?
Hollywood likes change. At least the kind you get from a vending machine.
But change—in the sense of transformation, metamorphosis, difference—isn’t something audiences particularly spark to. They like questions with reliable answers, and there’s no one more reliable than Smith. He is simply the top male American movie star, and a global phenomenon: Some of his films have done better overseas—“Bad Boys,” for instance. And while it’s safe to say race is always an issue in America, Smith—the biggest thing ever to come out of rap, lest people forget—isn’t identified exclusively, or particularly, as anything. He’s just huge. His popularity is based on an amiable persona that the actor has parlayed into various manifestations: confidence man (“Six Degrees of Separation”); young hipster (“The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”); older hipster (“Men in Black”), authoritarian hipster (“Bad Boys”), hip savior of the world (“Independence Day”), wise-cracking lawman (“Wild Wild West”), wise-cracking aquatic (“Shark Tale”), desperate parent (“The Pursuit of Happyness”). And he does it all via the same technique used by every major star in the history of Hollywood: by making it seem like he’s playing himself.
“Smith gives a performance of mind-boggling range,” critic Michael Sragow wrote of “Happyness.” Smith himself seems less impressed: “I’ve never viewed myself as particularly talented. I’ve viewed myself as ... slightly above average in talent,” he told “60 Minutes” in an interview that aired recently. “Where I excel is with a ridiculous, sickening work ethic. While the other guy’s sleeping, I’m working. While the other guy’s eating, I’m working.”
Michael Tadross, executive producer of “I Am Legend” backs that up. “One night during shooting it was cold out, freezing, and I told him `Will, please, go back to your trailer,’” Tadross said. “He told me, `No, no, no. This is what I do. And I get paid a lot of money to do it. If everybody else is out here, then I’m out here, too.’”
It got worse during what Tadross called the “evacuation scene.” “It was freezing, again,” Tadross said. “Three-thirty in the morning, productivity was at an all-time low. Will picks up the microphone, starts laughing and saying, `I’m going to Miami!!!’ and it got everybody up. We got the scenes done. Who else is like that?”
“I Am Legend,” directed by Francis Lawrence and scripted by Akiva Goldsman, is a particular challenge for the star: Smith has to dominate the movie in a way neither he, nor any star since Tom Hanks in “Cast Away,” has dominated a movie. He’s the last man in New York (where the streets were shut one busy Monday morning so that Smith and a dog could roam alone. Alone, that is, except for hideous slavering vampires, from whom he has to sequester himself at night.)
The Matheson novel has seen the screen twice before, in addition to being the oft-cited inspiration for George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” (1968). “The Last Man on Earth” (1964) was an Italian production starring Vincent Price, and was followed only a few years later by the considerably more upscale “The Omega Man” (1971) with Charlton Heston, another star who could virtually carry a movie on his chariot without the encumbrances of co-stars.
It took a 12-year effort to get Matheson’s story on screen again, with such directors as Ridley Scott, Guillermo del Toro and Michael Bay connected to the project at various points. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Douglas and Tom Cruise were mentioned as possible leads. That it should be Smith who has brought the film to realization says a great deal about his star power, and perceived marketability. Smith’s commercial charms no doubt convinced Warner Bros. to go forward with the costly production.
With the dimming of Tom Hanks (age), Tom Cruise (craziness) and Mel Gibson (both), the 39-year-old Philadelphia-born Smith has emerged as the iron man of the weekend box office, the guy able to consistently bring in $30 million in a movie’s first weekend of release and who can, and has, helped a number of those movies cross the $150 million mark domestically. These include his last three film releases—“Happyness,” “Hitch” and “Shark Tale.” The sci-fi feature “I, Robot” made “only” $144 million, but others have leapt a considerably higher bar (“Independence Day,” $306 million; “Men in Black,” $250 million). He’s also been hot in every genre, including the downbeat “Happyness,” which grossed an astronomical $305 million worldwide, according to the tracking Web site boxofficemojo.com. Smith is now No. 1, followed by Johnny Depp and Ben Stiller.
No one has been more careful and calculating than Smith in creating his own niche, if you can even call it that. As he has conceded in interviews, his career trajectory has been a meticulously plotted course aimed at the lowest common denominator of the American marketplace.
No one has accused Smith of repeating himself, but when you consider how many of his films have been end-of-the-world, special-effects extravaganzas (such as “Independence Day,” “Men in Black,” “I Am Legend”) or action movies (“Bad Boys,” “Wild Wild West”), you can’t imagine he’s planning to do “Othello” anytime soon.
His rare flops have each marked an understandable detour from formula—it would have been madness for him to turn down the chance to play the title character in “Ali,” for instance, or to have passed on a chance to work with Robert Redford (“The Legend of Bagger Vance”), even if biopics and golf films aren’t really anybody’s strong suit.
But “Happyness” couldn’t have been predicted—the story of a down-and-out single father running around New York with a medical scanner in his suitcase doesn’t sound like a good time. But the movie gave people Smith. And they turned out in droves.
You can’t quite see him as a villain. Not yet anyway, though with two best actor Oscar nominations on his resume (“Happyness” and “Ali”), the ordinary process of career and ego and adulation says he’ll eventually want the validation that comes with much-historied statuettes. He won’t be happy just making $25 million a picture, or being the highest-paid black actor—or, simply, actor—of all time. He’ll want the gold. When he wins, as he certainly will, the prediction here is that it will be accepted, graciously, and with an impromptu rendition of “Just the Two of Us.”
At first Warner Bros. reportedly passed on filming in New York because of costs and logistics; then “I Am Legend’s” production team got the city to approve closing the Grand Central viaduct, several blocks of Fifth Avenue and Washington Square Park (nights and weekends between September 2006 and April 2007). The studio then spent an estimated $5 million for a six-night shoot on the Brooklyn Bridge, an effort that required more than a dozen government-agency approvals, a crew of 250, and 1,000 extras.