Will Smith tries to stay in front of the Scientology curve

Los Angeles Times/July 3, 2008

In the action comedy "Hancock" (which arrived in theaters Tuesday night), Will Smith plays a new kind of superhero: a man of steel whose weakness is bourbon. He's mean to kids, is known to sleep on the street and causes ridiculous amounts of collateral damage, including one highly metaphorical train wreck, whenever he tries to save the day.

But there are certain impossible to ignore real-life parallels to having Smith play a hero like Hancock - someone indestructible yet flawed, a guy who can make the impossible look easy but is just one step ahead of a public relations crisis.

In the midst of a career hot streak - a staggering 11 of the actor-producer's films have grossed more than $100 million at the box office - the Philly-born 39-year-old has surpassed his buddy Tom Cruise to become the biggest movie star in the world. Equally sure-footed with drama, comedy and action, Smith has won over international audiences as no black actor before him has, and his marquee presence seems to provide a quality guarantee to film fans and movie financiers.

In an age of dwindling star power, studios know they can rely on Smith to "open" a movie, and audiences depend on him to be entertaining in that old "Fresh Prince" with a gun and a grin kind of way. Exhibit A: moviegoers' pre-release anticipation for Smith's new blockbuster is at fever pitch despite some withering early reviews. According to box-office tracking figures, "Hancock" could haul in as much as $110 million in its opening five days.

All that fanfare has ratcheted up the scrutiny given Smith's personal life, putting whatever public misstep he might make - and in particular, his perceived ties to the Church of Scientology - into stark relief.

Like Barack Obama, who has become a lightning rod for innuendo over the course of his rapid political ascent, Smith's spirituality, domestic union with wife Jada Pinkett Smith and even his sexual orientation have been raked for muck. So much so that it has lead some industry observers to wonder: Can Will Smith withstand the unique pressures and vagaries of being No. 1? Moreover, is a Will Smith backlash inevitable?

Let Hollywood history provide a cautionary tale. Before he was jumping on sofas, dissing Brooke Shields and verbally sparring with Matt Lauer, Smith's BFF Cruise seemed just as invulnerable to failure as the "Hancock" star is now. But his increasingly erratic behavior led to a well-publicized fracture with Paramount (then home to Cruise's production company) and what has been widely regarded in industry circles as diminished star power.

With this in mind, let's take a look back at some of Smith's recent comments and actions that have given his critics pause:

Earlier this year, Smith and Pinkett Smith garnered critical props for one of their latest philanthropic efforts: the New Village Academy. The couple poured nearly $1 million of their money into building a new private school in Calabasas that would provide financial assistance for about 80% of its enrollees and laptop computers and organic meals for every student, with the aim of grooming a "citizen of the world."

What came out in the wash last month, however, is that some of its teachers are members of the Church of Scientology and the school will use pedagogical methods called "study technology" developed by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

Smith and Pinkett Smith maintain in interviews that they are not Scientologists and school administrators deny that New Village has any religious affiliations. But to a critical mass of snark-minded wags in the blogosphere, the news came as incontrovertible evidence that one of Hollywood's most prominent A-list couples had finally publicly aligned themselves with the controversial religion that claims Cruise as its most famous - and enthusiastic - follower.

"Will Smith's School Not Scientologist, Despite Everyone Saying So," trumpeted the headline on the hecklerspray.com website. And a headline for the media gossip site Jossip reads "Will Smith's New School Sounds a Lot Like a Scientology Training Camp." (To say nothing of mainstream news outlets such as the Dallas Morning News' religion blog feeding the controversy with the posting: "Is Will Smith School a Front for Scientology?")

At a time when the Church of Scientology is facing the worst public image crisis in its 56-year history - under attack by embittered former church members, facing down Internet onslaught from a cabal of faceless online agitprop provocateurs who call themselves Anonymous and embarrassed by the leak of a video of Cruise convulsively extolling Scientology's virtues - Smith has allied himself with the religion in several different ways. The moves have led some celeb watchers including Ben Widdicombe, then of the New York Daily News, to conclude the star is actively recruiting for the church.

To wit: When production on "Hancock" finished around Christmastime last year, Smith reportedly passed out "wrap presents" to the film's crew members: vouchers good for a personality test at a local Scientology center.

And in a story in Men's Vogue in December, Smith favorably compared Hubbard's teachings to tenets of other major religions - a realization he credited Cruise for bringing to his attention.

"I've studied Buddhism and Hinduism and I've studied Scientology through Tom," Smith said. "And nobody's saying anything different! . . . in all the experiences I've had with Tom and Scientology, like, 98% of the principles are identical to the principals in the Bible . . . The Bible talks about your spirit being immortal, that you were created for existence beyond your physical body. Well, that's no different from Scientology! I don't think that because the word someone uses for spirit is thetan that the definition becomes any different."

Heading into the July 4 holiday - commonly referred to (at least by Sony marketers) as "Willie Weekend" in light of Smith's blockbuster track record in that release slot ("Independence Day" and "Men in Black" opened on past July 4s) - no one reasonably expects "Hancock" to face much of a challenge from any other movie. No one, that is, except Smith's 8-year-old daughter, Willow.

In a strange twist of Hollywood kismet, "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl," a family film in which she stars, hit theaters the same day as the elder Smith's new action comedy. Cue internecine family infighting - a war of words that has been waged in the media between father and daughter.

"He thinks he is going to beat me," Willow said of going head to head with her father's movie in a recent interview. "But I think not. I think I am going to beat him."

The predicament led to a vigorous debate in the comments section of Nikki Finke's DeadlineHollywoodDaily blog posting, "Why Hollywood Is Such a Homewrecker . . ."

"Why doesn't anyone question Will or Jada or call them out on whoring their kids out for the camera or red carpet?" one commenter asks. "Just another proof point on how HWood puts business before family," remarked another.

To make his position on the matter clear, Smith used an appearance on "The Late Show With David Letterman" last week to banish any hope his daughter might have had about opening weekend primacy.

"Daddy loves you sweetie," he recounted telling his daughter on the show, "but Daddy gots to stomp you at the box-office."

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