For His Birthday Variety Lists Will Smith’s 13 Best Film Performances


(Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)

by Clayton Davis | Variety

If Tom Hanks is America’s Dad, then Will Smith is the cool big brother.

Smith has been a favorite of audiences and awards voters during his impressive three-decade career. He’s explored multiple genres, such as drama (“The Pursuit of Happyness”), comedy (“Hitch”), action (“Bad Boys”), science-fiction (“Independence Day”), horror (“I Am Legend”) and animation (“Spies in Disguise”).  To celebrate Smith’s birthday, Variety is ranking the 13 best performances of his film career so far.

With three career Academy Award nominations to his credit, which also include Michael Mann’s “Ali” (2001), as famed boxer Muhammad Ali, and Gabriele Muccino’s “The Pursuit of Happyness” (2006), as single father Chris Gardner the Philadelphia-born actor and producer was a respected figure in the Hollywood biz.

As one of the producers of “King Richard,” he made history as the second Black man to be recognized in both categories in the same year, following Denzel Washington for “Fences” in 2017.

While this list focuses solely on Smith’s film performances, we can’t mention his finest acting moments without mentioning his iconic television role as the titular “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Smith nabbed his first Emmy nomination in 2021 in outstanding comedy series as one of the producers for Netflix’s “Cobra Kai.”

Despite being a movie star for three decades, Smith’s legacy may confined to his actions at the Oscars where he slapped Chris Rock on the evening of his Academy Award win for best actor. Whether he’ll be able to fully bounce back still remains to be determined, but his contributions to Hollywood will always be undeniable.

Honorable mentions:Wild Wild West” (1999), “Hancock” (2008) and “Spies in Disguise” (2019)

13  I am Legend (2007)

Role: Dr. Robert Neville

Distributed by: Warner Bros.
Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Written by: Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman (based on “I Am Legend” by Richard Matheson and “The Omega Man” by John William Corrington and Joyce H. Corrington)

The scene that proves it: “Let me save you.”

The post-apocalyptic thriller hinges on the shoulders of Smith’s commanding performance. As a scientist who finds himself as the last man in a world ravaged by “zombies,” Smith’s portrayal of isolation and desperation is a standout in a genre often resigned to its effects and jump scares. He conveys a man on the brink of despair and effortlessly transitioning between moments of intense action and heart-wrenching drama. $585 million later, a sequel is in the works with Smith reprising his role and Michael B. Jordan set to star.

12 Hitch (2005)

Role: Alex “Hitch” Hitchens

Distributed by: Sony Pictures
Directed by: Andy Tennant
Written by: Kevin Bisch

The scene that proves it: “Don’t ever do that again.”

I can recall seeing “Hitch” with some friends during college, and they reveled in Will Smith’s athletic prowess. This time felt like the transitional period for Smith as an acclaimed actor, who can be a box office juggernaut and still elevate pretty standard material. With Kevin James and Eva Mendes by his side, he brings an effortless approach to his role as a love doctor.

11 Enemy of the State (1998)

Role: Robert Clayton Dean

Distributed by: Buena Vista Pictures
Directed by: Tony Scott
Written by: David Marconi

The scene that proves it: “I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

The late Tony Scott is one of the masters of the 90s thrillers, and his high-octane thriller boasts a stellar ensemble cast with Smith at the helm. In the gripping and action-packed flick, Smith plays an attorney who unwittingly becomes embroiled in a dangerous government conspiracy.

Calling on all of Smith’s natural charisma, his chemistry with his co-stars, particularly Gene Hackman and Regina King, his versatility is nothing short of electrifying.

10 Bad Boys (1995)

Role: Mike Lowery

Distributed by: Sony Pictures
Directed by: Michael Bay
Written by: Michael Barrie, Jim Mulholland, Doug Richardson, George Gallo

The scene that proves it: “Don’t ever say I wasn’t there for you.” (running chase through Miami)

As “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” was gearing up for its final season, and the world still hadn’t learned about his box office draw, Will Smith partnered with Martin Lawrence for the action classic “Bad Boys” from Michael Bay. In Smith’s new memoir, he speaks about the famous scene of running through Miami, the film’s highlight, and how Bay felt he made him “a movie star” with that run, which he trained for with a track coach. Bay was right.

9 Independence Day (1996)

Role: Steven Hiller

Distributed by: 20th Century Fox (now 20th Century Studios)
Directed by: Roland Emmerich
Written by: Dean Devlin, Roland Emmerich

The scene that proves it: “Now that’s what I call a close encounter.”

One part of a dynamite cast that includes Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum and Vivica A. Fox, Will Smith was king of the movies after the success of the alien-invasion film. Funny one-liners, intoxicating allure and a good enough sense to not come back for the sequel, is everything that makes Smith so great.

8 Six Degrees of Separation (1993)

Role: Paul

Distributed by: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Directed by: Fred Schepisi
Written by: John Guare (based on “Six Degrees of Separation” by John Guare)

The scene that proves it: “I was wondering if I could fuck you.”

Will Smith’s work in the adaptation of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning play is often overlooked and underseen in his filmography. As Paul, a skillful con artist claiming to be the son of actor Sidney Poitier, Smith held his own against Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing in her sole Oscar-nominated performance.

7 Aladdin (2019)

Role: Genie

Distributed by: Walt Disney Pictures
Directed by: Guy Ritchie
Written by: John August, Guy Ritchie (based on “Disney’s Aladdin” by Ron Clements, John Musker, Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio and “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp” from “One Thousand and One Nights”)

The scene that proves it: “Prince Ali”

On paper, this live-action remake of the children’s animated classic, with Will Smith taking on the role that Robin Williams voiced (and should have been nominated or won an Oscar for), should have been a disaster. Don’t underestimate the charm of Smith, along with a diverse and beautiful cast that includes Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott and Nasim Pedrad. Smith was able to own the role, show off his vocal chops, and help make the ninth-highest-grossing movie of 2019.

6 Men in Black (1997)

Role: James Darrell Edwards III / Agent J

Distributed by: Sony Pictures
Directed by: Barry Sonnenfeld
Written by: Ed Solomon (based on “The Men in Black” by Lowell Cunningham)

The scene that proves it: “He’s just really excited and he has no clue why we’re here.”

The box office smash was heightened by the sensational chemistry between Smith and Academy Award winner Tommy Lee Jones (“The Fugitive”). With an Oscar-worthy comedic performance from Vincent D’Onofrio as a bug in a human suit, Smith brought his charm, comedic sensibilities and wit to the film.

5 Concussion (2015)

Role: Dr. Bennett Omalu

Distributed by: Sony Pictures
Directed by: Peter Landesman
Written by: Peter Landesman (based on “Game Brain” by Jeanne Marie Laskas)

The scene that proves it: “God did not intend for us to play football.”

Will Smith’s portrayal of Nigerian physician Dr. Bennet Omalu was risky, considering the film’s subject matter. Going head-to-head with the NFL can have dire consequences on your career (ask Colin Kaepernick), and despite the film not being received as warmly by critics, his performance was still praised. Despite a Golden Globe nomination, he didn’t receive an Oscar nod, one of the snubs that sparked the #OscarsSoWhite social justice campaign.

4 The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

Role: Chris Gardner

Distributed by: Sony Pictures
Directed by: Gabriele Muccino
Written by: Steven Conrad

The scene that proves it: “Sleeping in the bathroom.”

Smith’s portrayal of a single father and homeless salesman was ahead of its time in many ways. Two years before the financial recession, a role and film like this probably would have struck a greater chord with audiences, critics and voters. Despite that, he nabbed his second Oscar nomination for best actor, introducing his real-life son Jaden Smith to cinema-goers everywhere. He ultimately lost the prize to Forest Whitaker for “The Last King of Scotland” (interestingly, Smith is the only former Black nominee to lose all his nominations to a Black winner).

3 King Richard (2021)

Role: Richard Williams

Distributed by: Warner Bros.
Directed by: Reinaldo Marcus Green
Written by: Zach Baylin

The scene that proves it: “The most dangerous creature on this whole earth is a woman who knows how to think.”

Smith’s Oscar-winning role is one he can be proud of (aside from the evening of his win). His incredible ability to tap into the complexities and emotions of real-life figures has always been his strong suit. He’s unafraid to portray Richard Williams as a flawed man, not necessarily trying to redeem his past misgivings but showing that human behavior is not just black and white. Questionable actions can have the best intentions. His performance is heightened by the works of his glorious co-stars, particularly Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney and Jon Bernthal, with stunning direction by Reinaldo Marcus Green and crisp editing by Pamela Martin.

2 Emancipation (2022)

Role: Peter

Distributed by: Apple Original Films
Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Written by: William N. Collage

The scene that proves it: “Reuniting with his family.”

After slapping Chris Rock at the 94th Oscars, the actor resigned from AMPAS and was banned from attending the ceremony or other Academy-sponsored events for 10 years. I believe his actions contributed to the film’s mixed reception and made him an easy target for media outlets to overly criticize. His take on “Whipped Peter” in Antoine Fuqua’s slavery epic is a soulful inhabitation of the man who traverses the rigorous terrain is reminiscent of Leonardo DiCaprio’s “The Revenant” (2015), as he braves the elements. Paired with two dynamic turns from Ben Foster and Charmaine Bingwa, the turn stands as one of his finest and could have a second-life in the years to come.

1 Ali (2001)

Role: Cassius Clay Jr / Cassius X / Muhammad Ali

Distributed by: Sony Pictures
Directed by: Michael Mann
Written by: Michael Mann, Eric Roth, Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson

The scene that proves it: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Rumble young man, rumble.”

Visionary director Michael Mann’s take on 10 years of the life of the famed boxer Muhammad Ali, gave Will Smith the role that would let everyone know he was one of the most talented actors of his generation. While not drawing the massive box office numbers that usually mark a Smith-headlining film, it was well-received by critics and brought him his first Oscar nomination. He ultimately lost to Denzel Washington, whose historic win for “Training Day” came alongside Halle Berry’s victory for “Monster’s Ball.” While the race might have been between Russell Crowe (“A Beautiful Mind”) and Washington, looking back, he arguably might have been a formidable spoiler in that race (alongside Tom Wilkinson for “In the Bedroom”). Nonetheless, his navigation of a complex man, with no impersonation in sight, is his greatest gift (for the moment).