Fred Schepisi’s Six Degrees of Separation, the adaptation of John Guare’s play of the same name, is a film that puts me in a happy place. I have lost count of how many times I have watched the film, and yet it still makes even the gloomiest of days slightly brighter. To this day I still think it is one Will Smith’s best performances. Frankly, I wish he made more films like this.
Will Smith is an immensely talented actor who demands attention when on screen. However, like many actors who become successful box office draws, Smith has worked very hard to craft a particular brand for himself. One that, while fruitful, is not conducive to many films that would be deemed too edgy by the masses.
I have always looked at Smith’s career in comparison to Tom Cruise; an actor whose oozes Hollywood charisma, but often plays the hero. As captivating as both actors are, it is when they take risks, by showing their vulnerability, that they truly become transcendent on screen.
For me, Will Smith displayed this early in his cinematic career before a string of beloved blockbusters made him an international revered actor. As the con man Paul, Smith brought a magnetic mixture of charm, vulnerability and deceit to the role.
In the film, a wounded Paul unexpectedly arrives at the door of Louisa (Stockard Channing) and Flan (Donald Sutherland) Kittredge, wealthy art dealers who are in the middle of wooing a friend (Ian McKellen) into investing in their latest painting deal. Claiming to be a friend of their college-age children, and more importantly the son of Sidney Poitier, Paul is welcomed with open arms. However, when the Kittredge’s discover that not everything is as it seems, their encounter with Paul quickly becomes the talk of the town.
It is through Paul that Schepisi’s film is able to effectively navigate both the Kittredges’ shallow and elitist world, and the idealist world that struggling couple Elizabeth (Heather Graham) and Rick (Eric Thal), who Paul befriends and eventually cons, inhabit. Paul is the living embodiment of the double-sided Kandissky painting – which represents chaos and control on opposite sides – that the Kittredges fondly display in their home.
Paul’s presence also has a profound impact on Louisa that is fascinating to watch. While the Kittredge’s take pleasure in the social attention that their story brings, one that mirrors their own fawning over the young man when they thought he could get them closer to Sidney Poitier, Flan see Paul as simply as another thing to exploit. Louisa, on the other hand, not only truly begins to see Paul as a troubled soul he is, but also has her eyes opened to façade that she and Flan have built a life around.
Next year will mark the 25th anniversary of Schepisi’s Six Degrees of Separation, yet the film still feels as vibrant and fresh today as it did back in 1993. Regardless of its age, the film is a reminder that there are many layers to Will Smith and he is at his best when he is taking risk and playing against type.
Thursday, December 7, 6:15 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox
This film is part of TIFF Cinematheque’s Black Star series running from November 3, 2017 to December 22, 2017.