The notion of seasoned people in their 40s and 50s undergoing identity crises and indulging in impulsive, unconventional behavior began with Sam Peckinpah‘s The Wild Bunch (’69), the main protagonists of which were all long-of-tooth. In the cultural blink of an eyelash, wildness was suddenly an older-person thing. The spiritual-sexual side of this syndrome was explored by Tom Wolfe in the early ’70s, aka “the Me Decade.” A minor signifier was Middle Age Crazy (’80), a totally disappeared dramedy with Bruce Dern and Ann-Margret.
But then teens have always been wild, and 20somethings have always lived lives of Fellini Satyricon. Hell, the only people living modest, carefully regimented lives these days are expectant parents (like Jett and Cait) — otherwise it’s hoo-hah time from 12 through 75.
Now comes a qualifier by way of Will Smith and Denzel Washington. Middle-age crazy is composed of two phases — the “funky 40s” and the “fuck-it 50s.”
Will Smith to GQ‘s Wesley Lowery: “Throughout the years, I would always call Denzel. He’s a real sage. I was probably 48 or something like that and I called Denzel. He said, ‘Listen. You’ve got to think of it as the funky 40s. Everybody’s 40s are funky. But just wait till you hit the fuck-it 50s.’
“And that’s exactly what happened,” Smith recalls. “[Soon after my life] just became the fuck-it 50s, and I gave myself the freedom to do whatever I wanted to do.”
Many of those things are detailed in “Will” (11.9.21), Smith’s semi-“autobiography” that was co-authored by Mark Manson (author of “Everything is Fucked: A Book About Hope” and “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life”).
Smith: “I totally opened myself up to what, I think, was a fresh sampling of the fruits of the human experience.”
Lowery: “And so Smith set out on a journey to find himself, and find happiness. He rented a house in Utah and sat in solitude for 14 days. He traveled to Peru for more than a dozen rituals [involving the sipping of a plant-based psychedelic called ayahuasca], even though he’d never even smoked weed and barely drank. (‘This was my first tiny taste of freedom,’ Smith writes of his first experience. ‘In my fifty plus years on this planet, this is the unparalleled greatest feeling I’ve ever had.’) He opened a stand-up show for Dave Chappelle. He began traveling without security for the first time, showing up in foreign countries and working his way through the airport crowds unaccompanied.
The fact that Smith defines “exotic high” as flying commercial and working his way through airport crowds without a pair of security goons…this in itself tells you he’s an odd duck. What’s next…hitting a Rite-Aid at 11 pm all by his lonesome and buying some paper towels and maybe an ice cream cone?
The GQ piece is basically an award season conversation-starter about Smith’s performance in King Richard (Warner Bros., 11.19), in which he portrays thorny tennis taskmaster Richard Williams, the father and coach of Venus and Serena Williams.
Smith will almost certainly win a Best Actor Oscar for this performance…no lie or exaggeration. King Richard itself will definitely be Best Picture-nominated and will most likely win. Unless the Academy loses its mind and follows the lead of Sid Gan…don’t say it! Don’t go there!
Smith’s next big attempt is playing a runaway slave in Antoine Fuqua‘s Emancipation, which will be out in ’22. Will Smith as a runaway slave sounds like a stretch, but he might pull it off.
The fact that Smith has grown a Malcolm X-like chin beard…I wouldn’t say this “speaks volumes,” but it does imply that he’s living through some kind of vivid new phase.