Despite being an A-List celebrity, Will Smith curiously lacks on-screen chemistry.
It just doesn't seem right. Will Smith is one of the most popular movie stars in the world, having enjoyed success as a dramatic actor, a comedian and most notably an action star. He is one of the highest paid actors in film, and his last two movies, "I Am Legend" and "Hancock" (which arrives on DVD this week), have earned over one billion dollars worldwide at the box office. He has won Grammys, been nominated for Oscars and saved the day in hit films like "Independence Day," "I, Robot," and "Men in Black." So, how come Will Smith never gets the girl?
As a matter of clarity, "getting the girl," particularly in actions films, can be defined as either a romantic or sexual connection between the hero and a female character as a means to propel the story, develop character or establish the heterosexuality of the protagonist. The classic example of "getting the girl" can be found in everything from the James Bond films, to the adventures of Indiana Jones and the exploits of Spider-Man. Romantic diversions and sexual pit stops on the high road of adventure are common elements in many action movies, and help to define the hero of the story. Sometimes it's nothing more than a kiss on the lips, other times it's a steamy roll in the sack, but getting the girl is second only to kicking ass and being able to outrun an explosion in defining the masculine virility of the action hero.
To some, the notion of getting the girl being an essential element in defining the action hero may seem outdated and sexist, but it is a tried and true formula that actually works. Think of how many action films you've seen where the action was interrupted by unnecessary romance or sex, which seems randomly thrown in just to remind the audience that the film's stars are desirable. And these rules don't always apply to the boys, because Thelma in "Thelma and Louise" got the girl -- granted the girl was a guy, but the same principals were involved. Even old geezers like Harrison Ford still get the girl. Hell, Anakin Skywalker got the girl, and he's Darth Vader. This is part of the reason why Will Smith not getting the girl is so troubling.
Smith started out as the somewhat clean-cut rapper Fresh Prince, who parlayed his incredible popularity into the hit television series "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." He dabbled in film a bit, but his big breakout was when he replaced former late-night talkshow host Arsenio Hall in 1995's "Bad Boys." Second-billed after co-star Martin Lawrence, Smith was cast as womanizing cop Mike Lowrey. But for all the talk of Lowrey's smooth-talking success with the ladies, he never actually got the girl in "Bad Boys." The film did, however, gross over $140 million worldwide, successfully establishing Smith as a movie star.
The success of "Bad Boys" led to Smith's casting in "Independence Day," his most financially successful film to date. Interestingly enough, "Independence Day" would prove to be one of the few action films where Smith actually gets the girl, in the form of his stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold girlfriend, Jasmine (Vivica A. Fox). Although technically speaking, Smith's Captain Steven Heller doesn't really get the girl, so much as he has her in the beginning of the film, and spends the rest of the movie trying to make his way back to her while battling an army of invading aliens.
Smith once again saved the world from alien invaders in "Men in Black," after replacing actor Chris O'Donnell. A mix of action, science fiction and comedy, "MIB" played to all of Smith's strengths, but it was very careful to steer clear of any sort of love interest with Linda Fiorentio's character, even though she was cast in a classic get-the-girl role. When Smith reunited with co-star Tommy Lee Jones for "Men in Black II," it looked like he was going to get the girl played by Rosario Dawson. Everything was established for the classic romantic hook-up, even the mutual attraction between Smith and Dawson's characters, which is something many of his other films don't have. But then "Men in Black II" failed to deliver.
Just so there is no misunderstanding, Will Smith has been known to get the girl in some of his action films. But what's interesting about movies like "Bad Boys II" and "Enemy of the State" is that there is very little chemistry between Smith and his love interests. Part of the magic of getting the girl is that improbable romantic spark that ignites in the face of grave danger. Even when the romance angle is completely ridiculous and implausible, chemistry between the hero and the girl can go a long way. Think of Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway in "Three Days of the Condor," a classic of improbable romance, salvaged by the chemistry of the stars.
Smith's seeming inability to generate any real sexual chemistry with his female co-stars may go a long in explaining why he doesn't get the girl. But there is another possible reason that may explain Smith's lack of getting the girl. Despite his status as one of the leading box office draws in the world, Will Smith has rarely been the first choice for any of the roles he's played. By and large, Smith has come into rolls like "Men in Black," "Enemy of the State," "I Am Legend" and "Hancock" after a variety of white actors either left the projects or passed altogether. Even "Bad Boys" was originally meant for Jon Lovitz and Dana Carvey. The recasting of lead roles with Smith automatically changed whatever romantic or sexual overtones a film might have had, bringing along the unwanted, and potentially controversial subject of interracial sexuality. This explains why in films like "I, Robot," "Men in Black" and "Hancock," what seems like a potential love interest (or at the very least sexual distraction) never pans out.
The role of racial politics surrounding Will Smith's inability to get the girl, even when there is a girl to get got is worth exploring. In the films where Smith does have some sort of romantic/sexual relationship with a woman -- be it an action film or a comedy -- she is always played by a black or Hispanic actress (i.e. Regina King in "Enemy of State," Eva Mendez in "Hitch"). But Smith's characters have never had a relationship with the white women he has been cast opposite of. This signals a definite step backwards from the days of films like "Shaft" and "Slaughter," where black action heroes like Richard Roundtree and Jim Brown got white girls all the time.
Hollywood began portraying black men as something other than non-sexual eunuchs in the late 1960s, when Jim Brown got black actress Diahann Carroll in "The Split" and Latino actress Raquel Welch in "100 Rifles." This trend continued throughout the 1970s, with black actors in action films getting women of various ethnicities. But by the 1980s, the asexual black man like those portrayed by Sidney Poitier in films like "Lilies of the Field" was back. With the exception of getting it on with a hooker in "48 Hours," Eddie Murphy never got the girl in any of his action comedies, creating an archetype of a black action hero that is quick with a joke, often at the expense of the predominantly white supporting cast, who for a variety of reasons never gets the girl. This is best exemplified by "Beverly Hills Cop," a film featuring one of the most emasculated heroes in movie history.
Now that Murphy has moved on to making lamebrain family comedies where he plays the husband/father, Will Smith seems to have inherited his crown as the somewhat emasculated hero. This was never more blatant than his most recent hits, "Hancock" and "I Am Legend". In "Hancock," it is established, rather improbably, that Smith and co-star Charlize Theron were once romantically entangled, but then just as improbably comes up with a convoluted explanation as to why they can't be together. This rather contrived and inane reason establishes that if the two characters try to get together, they will die, making the basic message in "Hancock" that if Smith's invulnerable superhero gets with the white girl, it will kill him.
In "I Am Legend," Smith plays Robert Neville, a man alone in New York City after most of the world is turned into poorly rendered CGI albino monsters. Neville's loneliness is so consuming that he takes to putting the moves on a mannequin. A mannequin! But when an uninfected woman shows up in the form of Anna (Alice Braga), the requisite and gratuitous love scene never follows. Sure, there was a deadly threat outside, but that didn't stop Charlton Heston from getting it on with Rosalind Cash under the same circumstances in another adaptation of "I Am Legend," 1973's "The Omega Man."
There is a bold statement to be derived from the fact that the last man on Earth, after three years with nothing but a dog and some mannequins to keep him company, doesn't take the time, even in the face of impending doom, to make some sweet love. There is also a bold statement to be made that in seven of Smith's nine action films he doesn't get the girl. And that statement, whether anyone wants to admit it or not, is that Will Smith has been robbed of the carnal reward that has said to so many other action heroes before him, "Job well done."