Six Degrees of Separation, USA, 1993
Dir: Fred Schepisi
Cast: Will Smith, Stockard Channing, Donald Sutherland
Chaos and Control. Chaos and Control.
There are times in your life when you will sit down to watch a quality drama or even a comedy, or at least expect to, because of different factors like the cast involved, the director, or the studio representing the film. Stanley Kubrick had an immense talent to make films that fall under different categories, never pigeon-holing himself in any one particular genre. You might sit down and watch Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick's classic comedy, and expect the filmmaker to be a witty intellectual with a good sense of humor. But you will be shocked when you sit down and see A Clockwork Orange, which Kubrick directed a few years later, a movie that was Rated X for its graphic violence and multiple rape scenes. You would never expect a filmmaker to make two, such contrasting works of art.
This all brings me back to the original point that sometimes you think you are in for one thing, but end up experiencing something altogether different. Sometimes you sit down to watch a movie that you don't think will scare you and you end up seeing something that absolutely terrifies you. This is the feeling I got when watching the brilliantly creepy performance in Six Degrees of Separation by actor and rapper known at the time as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Of course, I'm referring to Will Smith, currently the world’s biggest movie star. An acclaimed performer (twice nominated for an Academy Award), and one of the most profitable (over $2.5 billion in lifetime grosses), Smith has grown into a global persona since the film's release. This movie, however, finds Smith in an unusual role. He play's Paul, who at first glance comes off as intelligent, kind, witty, and passionate about literature and philosophy. He stumbles into the lives of Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing, wealthy art dealers living in the swanky NY area of the Upper East Side. He also claims to be acclaimed actor Sidney Poitier's son. As the film moves along, we learn that A. He is not related to Sidney Poitier. B. Paul is actually a gay hustler. C. He has conned many, many other married couples into letting him into their homes.
What makes Six Degrees of Separation so appealing is its star -- Will Smith. Watching the film nearly 20 years after its release, it is a different experience watching former TV actor, turned best selling rapper, turned international movie star in such an intimate and complicated role. Watching Smith playing this character is like watching him do Shakespeare. He turns in a magnificent performance.
Another bright spot in the cast is Anthony Michael Hall, who plays an MIT student who teaches Will Smith to be a proper gentleman. Sample line: “It’s not boddle-o-beer. It’s bottle of beer.” In addition to Hall, the impressive supporting cast includes Ian McKellan, Heather Graham and J.J. Abrams (creator of cult TV shows Alias and Lost).
Six Degrees of Separation, originally a stage play by John Guare, is based on a true story of David Hampton, who in the 1980s conned a group of wealthy Manhattanites out of thousands of dollars. Although Will Smith’s character, Paul, is different. He fooled people into believing his story that he was Sidney Poitier’s son, and that he went to a boarding school in Switzerland and has enjoyed a wealthy upbringing. But in reality, his character was dirt poor, probably abandoned by his parents, and found himself living on the streets, trying to hustle people in order to survive. But his character is so unique, because he is not your typical hustler. He’s not just a good talker, he possesses real intelligence and ability to adapt and change, seemingly into whatever the people he’s conning want him to be.
Sutherland and Channing’s characters, privileged parents of three, are kind but naïve, whose children despise them for their naivety and inability to connect with them. The parents long for a child who is caring and compassionate, and they find that in Paul and fall under his spell, even after they’ve realized that they’ve been deceived so heavily. The real life Paul, David Hampton, was ultimately caught and arrested in the 1980s, and served jail time in several different states. He eventually died of AIDS in 2003.
The title of the film refers to the idea that only six people on earth connect any one person. This theory, which has since entered the consciousness of popular culture was a fascinating idea two decades ago and was inspiration for a wildly successful play, as well as a brilliant film that I highly recommend you to see.