I recently watched Sergio Leone’s iconic 1968 western ‘ Once upon a time in the West’ for the first time in a dog’s age and was particularly struck by the performance of Henry Fonda as Frank, the psychopathic killer. Fonda brings those steel blue eyes to bear on all that is good and wholesome and usually ends up blasting the living bejasus out of it, a half-smile playing round his lips the whole time. This was a classic case of Fonda playing against type – like Jimmy Stewart, he’d usually portrayed an ‘American Everyman’ in most of his movies and playing Frank was something new. Though apparently reluctant to begin with, he eventually embraced the role with gusto, turning in a memorable performance in a movie that has always been more highly regarded in Europe than in the USA.
Perhaps the American public just couldn’t take to the idea of the archetypal good guy suddenly transformed into a highly effective bad guy. People are like that; they don’t always adapt well to this kind of change, which might explain why people of my generation have always struggled with the idea of anyone but Sean Connery playing James Bond – it just doesn’t feel right (especially where Roger Moore is concerned).
Happily for those who like all their ducks lined up in a row, Hollywood is in a deeply conservative phase right now. Well, that’s one way of putting it. Other people might use more radical adjectives like ‘predictable’ ‘unadventurous’ or even ‘dull’. Playing against type is not something I can recall seeing in any movie of note since Michael Biehn took on the role of a deranged Navy SEAL in ‘The Abyss’ and even then Biehn was hardly a household name.
All of this has been music to the ears of such as Will Smith, who like James Stewart, Michael Caine and a few others has effectively made a highly lucrative career out of playing the same guy in most of his movies, especially those with a futuristic or ‘science fiction’ theme. He has become one of the most ‘bankable’ of Hollywood stars, a quite amazing achievement for a black actor in such a conservative era.
Smith got his template down early with his two breakthrough movies, ‘Independence Day’ and ‘Men in Black’, from 1996 and 1997 respectively. In both cases, Smith plays a wisecracking black guy with shedloads of integrity and courage, playing against a ‘significant other’; his girlfriend/wife (Vivica A. Fox) in ‘Independence Day’ and his partner (Tommy Lee Jones) in ‘Men in Black’. His relationships with his ‘sidekicks’ generally allow him to exhibit his impressive range of black street vernacular and his sense of humour – all liberally dosed with a modicum of good-natured profanity.
In effects-heavy movies like ‘Independence Day’ and ‘I, Robot’ (2004), Smith represents a re-assuringly contemporary human presence – nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the opening sequences of ‘I, Robot’, set some thirty-odd years in the future in a society where robots are commonplace, taking on many of the menial tasks that humans are loath to carry out. We see first Smith’s apartment in Chicago, reassuringly messy and totally unfuturistic when compared to (for example) Tom Cruise’s apartment in ‘Minority Report’. Smith gets out of bed and starts his morning work-out to the strains of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’ , a piece of pure mid-70’s funk. Once dressed, he then breaks out a brand new pair of ‘2004 vintage’ Converse trainers – ‘A thing of beauty’ he tells us. It may be 2035 outside, but inside Will Smith’s apartment, the date could be anything from 1975 to 2005.
Product placement in ‘I, Robot’
Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, science fiction movie directors were often at pains to make their human characters as futuristically dull as possible – William Sylvester and Keir Dullea were colourless drones in ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’, whilst in 1973’s ‘Westworld‘, the most memorable character was Yul Bryner’s gunslinging android. By contrast, Smith’s characters in ‘Men in Black’, in ‘Independence Day’, in ‘I Am Legend’ and in ‘I, ‘Robot’ all have that streetwise sass and über-cool black persona that is as fresh and contemporary as today’s newspapers. Well, that’s the way it looks from a white perspective; black folks might see Smith as a pure fool for all I know.
And the thing is that whilst there are probably limits to how much of this affable/tough black guy thing we can stand, Hollywood clearly believes that we can stand a good deal more yet. Smith’s horizons encompass future sequels to ‘Independence Day’ (2 of them), ‘Hancock’ , ‘Men in Black’ and ‘I, Robot’ plus a ‘I Am Legend’ prequel over the next 4 years. Predictable Hollywood conservatism, but I doubt if Will Smith will find much to complain about.