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The climax of Will Smith’s radical-vulnerability era

Will Smith accepts the award for best actor. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
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The slap was shocking, but the tears felt like the end of a journey.

For anyone who hasn’t turned on a television (or a computer, or a phone) since Sunday night, a quick recap: Chris Rock was onstage at the Oscars, preparing to present the best-documentary award. He joked that he was looking forward to seeing Jada Pinkett Smith — Will Smith’s wife, who openly suffers from alopecia — in “G.I. Jane 2,” seeming to reference Pinkett Smith’s bald head. Will Smith climbed onstage, steadily walked toward Rock and slapped him across the face. He returned to his seat and twice screamed, “Keep my wife’s name out your f---ing mouth!”

Later in the ceremony, he won the best-actor Oscar he’s chased for two decades.

It was an unthinkable hour for one of the world’s biggest celebrities. The man who Eminem once joked “don’t gotta cuss in his raps to sell records” smacked a comedian during the biggest night of the year for his industry and sobbed on the Dolby Theatre stage as he accepted his own accolade for “King Richard.”

If you haven’t paid attention to Smith recently, you’d be forgiven for finding his tears shocking. This, after all, is a celebrity who built his brand on being a smooth, unflappable character who rarely loses his cool. That image is what lent so much gravitas to the famous “hug” scene in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” in which his character finally breaks down crying.

But that’s not who he is anymore. So who is he?

“A byproduct of ’90s celebrity culture, he is attempting something few men of his generation of stars have done: reinventing himself publicly, to align with the contemporary expectations of celebrity. We once held celebrities at a distance and in high regard. That doesn’t work anymore,” BuzzFeed News’s Elamin Abdelmahmoud argued in November, pointing out that Smith’s peers — Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and George Clooney among them — sparsely give fans a glimpse into their personal lives.

But Smith, 53, seems to have embraced this chance to err toward sharing in recent years, publicly touting his every thought and feeling with an audience that once loved him precisely because he did the opposite. He now embodies a singular type of public figure: an old-school movie star who embraces radical honesty and seems to be on a quest to exorcise his demons in public.

Actor Will Smith slapped presenter Chris Rock at the 94th Academy Awards on March 27. The awards show has a history of unpredictable moments. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

Oscars 2022 recap: A celeb-packed night interrupted by a slap heard ’round the world

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the shift began, but there’s no question it’s been a conscious decision.

As Smith tells it, he hit a “midlife crisis point” in 2012, a year he refers to as “the year of the mutiny.”

It “was really the year that my family rejected the direction of my leadership,” Smith told Haute Living, explaining that while his family was successful, it wasn’t happy. He wanted to change and grow as a person, a husband and a father — not merely as an entertainer.

So he made it his mission to enrich himself emotionally, mentally and spiritually. He took part in more than a dozen ayahuasca rituals in Peru. He reflected for weeks in solitude. He spent years working with Michaela Boehm, an intimacy coach. He began reading books by self-described “spiritual teacher” David Deida, including “The Way of the Superior Man.”

Meanwhile, he doggedly embraced social media, where he began posting everything from professional anecdotes to his attempt to lose weight. That intimate look into his life picked up speed in 2018 with the launch of “Red Table Talk,” a talk show on Facebook Watch in which Pinkett Smith, along with her mother, Adrienne Banfield-Norris, and daughter, Willow, have intimate conversations about their family, often inviting guests (such as Smith himself) onto the show.

In the most well-known (and widely memed) episode, Pinkett Smith and Smith discussed their relationship, which many have deemed as monogamish. “We broke up within our marriage and got back together again,” Smith said, “and had to rebuild with new rules and something way, completely different.”

Among those praising the talk show was The Washington Post’s Bethonie Butler. “There’s an authenticity woven throughout the episodes that makes ‘Red Table Talk’ stand out amid a surplus of celebrity-hosted talk shows,” she wrote, while noting that it takes place in a controlled environment. Others, such as Slate’s Rachelle Hampton, argued that the show is something of a PR vehicle that allows the couple to “present the feeling of a confessional while confessing very little.”

Either way, the vulnerability of the show resonated for millions — and became a vital step in Will Smith’s reinvention.

This unabashed earnestness found its way into his projects. While he still tackles blockbuster fare, they now fail more often than they succeed, critically and commercially. (See “Gemini Man,” “Focus,” “Bright,” “Suicide Squad.”) Perhaps as a result, he’s begun investing more time in his passion projects.

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, he got “Emancipation,” his first movie about slavery, greenlit. (He famously turned down the role of Django in Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” because he didn’t want to make a film about vengeance.) And in 2019, a mock trailer by Morgan Cooper reimagining “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” sitcom as a serious drama caught Smith’s eye. Now, it’s an actual show on Peacock titled “Bel-Air,” touting Smith as an executive producer.

And, of course, there’s “King Richard.” Smith connected deeply with the story of Richard Williams, father and coach to Venus and Serena. Calling the story “just uniquely timed in my life,” he told Entertainment Weekly that it reminded him “a lot of my father. It was that same generation — men that used to fix everything with their hands. I understood what it was like to live at the edge of survival and to try to sustain a dream.”

Richard Williams trains his two daughters, Venus and Serena, on tennis courts in Compton, Calif., with determined commitment to their skills and future. (Video: Warner Bros. Pictures)

Also uniquely timed: Smith’s release of his memoir, “Will,” which came out Nov. 9 — 10 days before “King Richard” debuted.

“I’ve spent my whole career hiding my true self from the world,” Smith told Mark Manson, who helped write the book. The memoir proved to be yet another example of the openness that fits a larger and more recent desire from the actor: his self-proclaimed calling to protect those around him — and not just his own family.

In a GQ profile of Smith last year, his “I, Robot” co-star Bridget Moynahan shared that he was the first person to reach out and check on her in 2007 after the tabloids began running wild with the story of her breakup with Tom Brady just before she discovered she was pregnant with his child.

“That’s what my life is for,” Smith said, adding, “That’s when I want to be there. If everything is great, call somebody else. Call me when you need help. I love it. I love being the 2 a.m. emergency phone call.”

During 2020′s ″The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion” on HBO Max, he sat down to hash things out with Janet Hubert, who originally played Aunt Viv on the show but left after Season 3. For decades, she publicly blamed Smith, who she referred to as “an egomaniac,” for her departure.

“I was never fired,” she told Smith during their sit-down, in which she explained that she retreated from her co-workers because she was a new mother in an abusive marriage. Her demeanor on the set changed and her role was cut down along with her pay, so she decided to leave. “I wasn’t unprofessional on the set,” Hubert said. “I just stopped talking to everybody, because I didn’t know who to trust, because I had been banished. And they said it was you who banished me. Because you were Will.”

“I was 21 years old,” Smith said. “Everything was a threat to me.”

But that’s the old Smith, he made clear: Now “the person I want to be is someone who protects you, not someone who unleashes dogs on you.”

It was an A-list ovation for Will Smith at Vanity Fair’s Oscars after-party

That vocation to protect may have an origin story. For all his openness, one passage from his memoir may shed an uncomfortable amount of light on what happened Sunday night. Smith writes about his father’s alcoholism and violent tendencies, focusing on a particularly awful experience that, he wrote, “defined who I am”: “When I was nine years old, I watched my father punch my mother in the side of the head so hard that she collapsed. I saw her spit blood.”

When his father was suffering from cancer years later, he wrote that he was pushing him in his wheelchair from the bedroom to the bathroom, a path that crossed the top of a staircase. He entertained the thought of throwing him down the stairs, of killing him.

“Within everything that I have done since then — the awards and accolades, the spotlights and attention, the characters and the laughs — there has been a subtle string of apologies to my mother for my inaction that day. For failing her in the moment. For failing to stand up to my father. For being a coward,” he wrote. “What you have come to understand as ‘Will Smith,’ the alien-annihilating MC, the bigger-than-life movie star, is largely a construction — a carefully crafted and honed character — designed to protect myself. To hide myself from the world. To hide the coward.”

In his speech, he repeatedly suggested that he’s needed to “protect” those he loved: “Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family,” he said. “I’m being called on in my life to love people and to protect people and to be a river to my people.”

But, as the academy opens a “formal review” of his actions, Smith may learn that the person he most needs to protect is himself.