For Will Smith, likability led to bankability. So what happens now?

will smith future

Will Smith in “King Richard.”

Hollywood has a funny memory.

An actor’s appeal is transitory. You know the old joke: “Who is John Smith?” “Get me John Smith!” “Get me a John Smith type.” “Who is John Smith?” Fame is as fleeting as the bubbles in a glass of Golden Globes champagne.

But an actor’s transgressions? Those aren’t as readily forgotten — or forgiven.

The Will Smith/Chris Rock incident already has been covered ad nauseum. It has been dissected in slow motion, examined by conspiracists, analyzed for what it supposedly says about race, gender, sexism and machismo and finally adjudicated by the Academy, which followed the slap in the face with a slap on the wrist, banning Smith from a decade’s worth of Oscar events.

But what will it mean to his career? That is still unclear. However, two of the busy star’s previously announced projects — a “Bad Boys” sequel and the thriller “Fast and Loose” — have recently been put on hiatus. Two other films in development, “The Council” and “Bright 2,” could follow, while the prestige project “Emancipation” — already finished, and once slated to debut this year — may see its release delayed.

The full extent of the fallout is unwritten. But if Hollywood tradition is any guide, it won’t be pretty.

As long as there has been a movie business, there have been movie stars behaving outrageously. That is why, after a string of silent-screen scandals — try Googling Wallace Reid and Fatty Arbuckle — studios started inserting morals into contracts. An enormous and enormously hypocritical system quickly took root, with publicists, stars and gossip columnists conspiring to manufacture fan-friendly images while carefully keeping the “real dirt” out of print.

The more the truth diverged from the image, the harder the studios worked. They knew audiences wouldn’t accept Spencer Tracy as an amiable father figure if they knew he was a black-out drunk, or Judy Garland as the girl-next-door if they learned she was addicted to pills. So they constructed fictions, many more elaborate than the movies themselves. Pregnant (but unwed) Loretta Young was sent off to have her baby in secret, then allowed to reappear with her new, “adopted” child. Closeted Rock Hudson was pushed into an arranged marriage with his agent’s secretary.

Sometimes, though, the truth couldn’t be covered up. And that led to some interesting lessons — and ones that Smith may soon have to learn.

Will Smith accepts his Oscar for “King Richard.”

Because the thing about Hollywood scandals is that bad press can be good press — if what it reveals reinforces your movie star image. Play a roughneck on screen and turn out to be an after-hours brawler? That’s fine. Play a sweet young ingenue but then break up a couple of marriages? Better give some apologetic, tear-stained interviews, fast. If whatever tabloid mess you step in is consistent with your big-screen image, it may not matter. Otherwise — good luck.

Errol Flynn, for example, played dashing, devil-may-care heroes and cultivated a reputation as a rake, with an obvious attraction to barely legal beauties. So when he was charged with the statutory rape of two 17-year-olds in 1942, it surprised few — and when he was acquitted, he immediately went back to work. A court case like that would have ruined the career of an icon of integrity like Henry Fonda. But Mr. “In-Like-Flynn” himself? It only burnished his lusty legend.

Robert Mitchum excelled at playing sleepy-eyed, don’t-give-a-damn rebels — perhaps because he was one. So when he got hauled in during a bust on a “pot party” in 1948, it didn’t shock too many people — although it did result in him getting a six-week sentence on a prison farm. A smirking Mitchum ambled off, did his time, and returned to Hollywood a bigger star than ever. Because now fans knew he wasn’t faking that hipster cool. He was the real deal.

Both stars proved you can survive a scandal — if the scandal fits.

That’s the trick, though. Over the years, Mel Gibson has been caught lobbing sexist insults at female police officers, railing against Jews, insulting gays and even telling an ex-lover he hoped she was gang-raped by Blacks (and he didn’t use the word “Blacks,” either). So why is this man still working? Well, possibly because ever since “Mad Max,” Gibson has specialized in playing damaged men, wounded obsessives who are dangerously close to the edge. So he’s that way in real life, too? If you were a fan — and you weren’t from one of the many groups he maligned — you probably read those stories and just shrugged.

Michael Richards, on the other hand, was known only for playing Kramer on “Seinfeld” — an occasionally annoying but essentially harmless, even endearing eccentric. Most fans didn’t really know (or care) who the real Richards was, or what his own sense of humor entailed. So when he appeared at a comedy club in 2006 and answered hecklers with a racist tirade — including the N-word and jokes about lynching — that was it. This wasn’t Cosmo Kramer, and it had nothing to do with the person fans thought they knew. Richards apologized, but the contradiction was catastrophic. He announced his retirement from standup shortly afterward.

Gibson’s behavior occurred over years. Richards’ happened once, over a few minutes. But one seemed plausibly in character and the other completely opposite, and that is why you still see Gibson at the Oscars, and you rarely see Richards anywhere. Fans can put up with a lot, but they won’t put up with being made fools of. And when someone acts that differently from what we have come to love — when the real person diverges that widely from who we have tricked ourselves into thinking they are — we feel deceived.

The disgust that greeted the recent stories about Chris Noth sexually assaulting women didn’t just come from the charges themselves, horrific as they were. It was that they involved an actor who had famously played the dreamy “Mr. Big,” a man who exuded calm, seductive sophistication. Imagining him now as a violent predator? That felt like a special, personal kind of betrayal, and Noth became a pariah, his agent dropping him and his friends turning away.

Of course, Will Smith’s outburst doesn’t compare to Noth’s alleged crimes. But the aftermath may not be that different.

Smith has been one of Hollywood’s biggest, and smartest, celebrities for years. He began, like most stars, with a simple, one-word persona: Likability. He was funny, he was charming and — even more important for mainstream white audiences — he was unthreatening. His humor was sitcom-ready. His rap music was upbeat. He made nice, non-controversial action pictures.

But he was ambitious, too, so as he aged, he began to refine that persona. To “Likability” he added another signature characteristic: “Responsibility.” A decade or so ago, his blockbuster berth secure, Smith even began hunting for an Oscar. And he did that by deliberately choosing movies — “The Pursuit of Happyness,” “Concussion,” “King Richard” — in which he played decent, dependable father figures.

And then he went and slapped Chris Rock.

For such a calculated performer, it was hugely, disastrously off-script. Samuel L. Jackson could have safely slapped an Oscar host or cursed him out on live TV. That’s an attitude he has spent decades developing. But Will Smith? This was the absolute antithesis of likability and responsibility. And it engendered the worst fan reaction any celebrity can get: An open-mouthed “Wow, I really don’t know this guy at all.”

In the world of movie stardom — a business based on strangers instantaneously identifying with you — that’s a huge thing to lose. And Smith may find out it can take a lot longer than 10 years to get it back.


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