clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Graphic grid featuring six different images of Will Smith in different movies Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon

Filed under:

Will Smith’s best performances that probably should have won Oscars

The guy has never won ... although that may change on Sunday night

If you buy something from a Polygon link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Will Smith has been nominated for three Best Actor Oscars in his illustrious career, the latest being for his performance as ultimate tennis dad Richard Williams in King Richard (which also earned him his first Best Picture nomination as a producer). Smith is the rare bona fide movie star, a crowd-pleaser who has delighted audiences in a variety of roles for decades. It is frankly bizarre that he has never won an Oscar — King Richard follows Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness as his acting nominations, and we’ll see Sunday night if that translates to his first win.

What better opportunity to travel throughout his illustrious career and highlight some of our favorite performances? From his early roles to latest triumphs, here’s our rundown of some of his best work.

Paul, Six Degrees of Separation

Will Smith as Paul in Six Degrees of Separation. Image: MGM Home Entertainment

This is one of the earliest possible glances at the sheer charisma that made Smith into the movie star he is today. He plays a charming young con man who tricks a wealthy Manhattan couple (Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland) by claiming to be a friend of their children and, daringly, the son of Sidney Poitier. Adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-nominated play that was itself inspired by a real story, the movie earned Channing an Academy Award nomination. If you ask me, Smith deserved one here, too, bringing the movie to life in every single scene. —Pete Volk

Six Degrees of Separation is available to watch on HBO Max.

Will, Papa’s Got A Brand New Excuse

Will Smith in Papa’s Got A Brand New Excuse.
The Fresh Prince of Bel Air season 4, episode 24
Image: Warner Home Video

Yes, this is not a movie, but some performances transcend categories (and he could have easily won an Emmy). Smith’s entire run on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air deserves mention — his natural charm does a lot to keep that show as fun as it is — but this episode is one of the most highly regarded in the series, for good reason. When Will sees his estranged father at the restaurant he works in, a reunion seems to be in the cards. As Will gets more and more hopeful to have his father back in his life, his aunt and uncle are wary, seeing the warning signs. With touching performances from Smith and James Avery that leave no dry eyes in sight, this is an all-timer sitcom episode, no matter the era or show. —PV

The Fresh Prince of Bel Air is available to watch on HBO Max.

Mike Lowrey, the Bad Boys franchise

Martin Lawrence and Will Smith in Bad Boys Photo: Columbia Pictures

Smith first launched onto the action star stage with Michael Bay’s 1995 classic Bad Boys, playing the super cool Miami detective Mike Lowrey in the buddy cop franchise, delivering just the perfect amount of swagger and confidence to play as the comedy straight man against Martin Lawrence’s more animated Marcus Burnett. The pair’s chemistry and Bay’s explosive direction helped propel Smith’s career forward. Bay shared a funny story about this on his Instagram in January, when Smith sent a signed copy of his new memoir to Bay. Long story short: Bay wanted Smith to run shirtless in a scene in Bad Boys, telling him it would help make him a superstar. Smith wasn’t sure, Bay ended up convincing him, and as Smith’s career and his signed message to Bay in the memoir reveal: The director was right.

Some of the comedy in the original Bad Boys hasn’t aged so well, but Smith’s performance is excellent, and it’s a good opportunity to shout out the latest installment in the franchise, Bad Boys for Life. In an older, more mature version of the franchise where the two stars are quite literally too old for this, Smith and Lawrence both deliver excellent performances as older, (sometimes) wiser versions of Mike and Marcus in the most heartfelt entry of the series. —PV

Bad Boys and Bad Boys 2 are available to watch on Peacock. Bad Boys for Life is available to purchase digitally for $12.99 on Google Play and Vudu.

Capt. Steven Hiller, Independence Day

It’s not all that often you can pin down the birth of a massive movie star to a single minute of footage, but you can with Will Smith. It occurs in Independence Day, Roland Emmerich’s 1996 alien invasion spectacular. Smith was already very famous, of course, and had already had big movie roles. But it was in a thin action hero role in this self-consciously cheesy ensemble disaster movie that he proved his ability to light up the screen, to literally drive audiences wild through sheer force of personality.

Smith plays a slick, hot-shot fighter pilot who is the first to down an alien ship. Landing next to it by parachute, he screams “That’s right! Who’s the man!” straining against his harness. Then he marches up to the wreck, opens its hatch, and makes humanity’s first contact with extraterrestrial life. He punches it in the face. “Welcome to Earth.” Audiences in theaters lost it at the line, cheering wildly. (I know, I was there.)

It’s a classic action one-liner in the Bond or Arnie mold, and Smith nails the timing. But the reason it works so well is the wind-up: the uncontrolled rage, jubilation and fear in his initial outburst; the cocksure bravado of the approach; the cool and collected beat when he clocks the alien. Smith earns the cool by first showing the storm of emotion inside him and the iron spine of self-worth holding him up. “You are not as charming as you think you are, sir,” Will Smith’s girlfriend says to him earlier in the film. “Yes I am,” he replies, with his trademark confidence. Of course he is. —Oli Welsh

Independence Day is available to watch for free with ads on Tubi.

Jay, Men In Black

Agents K (Jones) and J (Smith) prepare to erase a subject’s memory. Image: Sony Pictures

“I make this look good,” Jay proclaims after donning his black MiB threads for the first time. Honestly, Smith earned the right to the same brag after teaming with Barry Sonnenfeld on this goofball sci-fi thriller spun out of the pages of Malibu Comics. Smith could have easily gone full Bruce Willis after his cigar-munching, wisecracking turn in Independence Day, but Men in Black is a left turn into a genre hybrid that’s still entirely minted with his star power. A high-status cop bumped down to fumbling low-status goober within the Men in Black org, Smith finds the one last rookie role that would suit him alongside veteran Tommy Lee Jones.

Jay demands it all from the actor, from an opening foot chase (that looks exhausting as hell) to the weirdo routine of interrogating dog-disguised aliens. The role’s best moments blend the physical and comedic, and Smith is very much up for the task. He would have sailed through a grounded buddy cop movie like Lethal Weapon, but only in Sonnenfeld’s weird world could you have a grown man having a complete meltdown over a standardized test before gunning down a little girl in a shooting range and it just absolutely, 100% works. The squeaky chair! The broken pencil! The delivery of “she’s an 8-year-old white girl, middle of the ghetto, bunch of monsters, this time of night with quantum physics books — she’s about to start some shit, Zed.” If the Academy could nominate Johnny Depp for his wacky Jack Sparrow performance, there should have been room for Smith at his most comically transcendent. —Matt Patches

Men in Black is available to rent for $2.99 on Vudu and Amazon.

Robert Clayton Dean, Enemy of the State

Will Smith as Robert Clayton Dean in Enemy of the State. Image: 20th Century Studios

Smith made one of the smartest moves in Hollywood in the 1990s, using summer action movies to transform his reputation from the lovable star of TV comedy into the Oscar-friendly lead in prestige dramas. The shift was gradual, Smith pushing his dramatic chops with a new blockbuster year after year. In Independence Day, he’s a pure campy action star. Then comes the role of Agent Jay in Men In Black, the clear star of the film, with enough schmaltzy pathos to smear a toasted everything bagel from the nearest bodega. But it’s Enemy of the State that plots Smith further into the drama end of the action movie spectrum.

Director Tony Scott (mostly) takes Smith seriously, and so we get a performance in which Smith is magnetic enough to hold our attention, but fresh enough that he genuinely feels in danger as a lawyer hunted by members of the NSA. His pitch is an octave higher than later roles, and his line reading more frantic and uncontrolled. The late Tony Scott had a knack for spotting talent, casting Tom Cruise in Top Gun, directing Tarantino’s script for True Romance, and repeatedly working with Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington throughout their careers. His endorsement of Smith, in hindsight, may have well been the most obvious vote of confidence that the charming and occasional awkward Will Smith of the ’90s would become the ultra famous, unflappable Will Smith we know today. —Chris Plante

Enemy of the State is available to watch for free with ads on Tubi.

Muhammad Ali, Ali

Will Smith as Muhammad Ali in Ali. Image: Columbia Pictures

After Enemy of the State, Smith made two movies not worth mentioning here before scoring big with the Michael Mann-directed biopic Ali, earning his very first Oscar nomination for Best Actor. As Muhammad Ali, the legendary athlete and activist, Smith branched out from the action movies and comedies he had made his name on, solidifying his reputation as a dramatic actor to be taken seriously. (Especially for those who mistakenly dismiss comedic acting as requiring less skill.) While the movie wasn’t a big hit at the box office, few could deny the power of Smith’s performance, bringing one of the most influential figures of the 20th century to movie screens with style and grace befitting The Greatest. —PV

Ali is available to watch on Netflix and Hulu.

Hitch, Hitch

Will Smith as Hitch in Hitch. Image: Columbia Pictures

Let’s be clear here — we aren’t retroactively nominating Hitch for Best Picture, or even Best Rom-Com That Feels Rooted To A Specific Time And Place. It’s a flawed film, programmatic and a bit smug, and full of the kinds of highly artificial rom-com misunderstandings and shenanigans that put non-fans of the genre’s cheesier aspects on edge. But Will Smith’s performance in the film as the title character, a romance coach who’s avoided romance himself, is startlingly warm and convincing. Director Andy Tennant unquestionably weaponizes Smith’s charm to make the story’s ridiculous contrivances more plausible and more emotionally resonant. As Hitch falls for a gossip columnist (Eva Mendes), gets in big trouble over someone else’s lies about his profession, and reconsiders his life, Smith channels the kind of abashed humility that turned Hugh Grant into a rom-com superstar, and laces it with his own charismatic swagger. He’s exactly what this kind of film needs — a hero who has it all, is still ready to learn something about himself, and can pull off humor and romantic appeal at the same time. —Tasha Robinson

Hitch is available to watch on Hulu and Peacock.

Dr. Robert Neville, I Am Legend

Will Smith as Dr. Robert Neville in I Am Legend. Image: Warner Home Video

Coming off the momentum of his Oscar-nominated performance in 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness, Smith’s turn in the post-apocalyptic action thriller I Am Legend is arguably his best in the sci-fi genre. I know, I know; a bold claim considering his iconic roles in such films as Independence Day and Men in Black, but nonetheless one that I confidently stand by. In his performance as Robert Neville, a brilliant virologist desperately searching for a cure to a virus that has destroyed human civilization, we see Smith at his most pensive and melancholic.

There are no quippy one-liners to be found here, no action-hero catchphrases to soften the blow of his character’s personal journey of loss, thwarted hope, and subsequent self-sacrifice. Smith is in full-on dramatic actor mode here, portraying the many sympathetic dimensions and peculiarities of a man desperately trying to hold on to his humanity in a world where humanity has all but seemingly been snuffed out. —Toussaint Egan

I Am Legend is available to watch for free with ads on Tubi.

John Hancock, Hancock

will smith as hancock Photo: Sony Pictures Releasing

Will Smith has leaned so heavily on cocky roles, charming roles, and incredibly-cocky-yet-somehow-still-charming roles that his initially sullen, belligerent performance in the oddball superhero movie Hancock felt like a real revelation. What starts out feeling like an anomaly in Smith’s resume — a genuinely dull and graceless thug who just happens to have incredible super powers — gradually reveals itself as a portrait of trauma, confusion, and shame.

Hancock, a superhero well known for his failures and nonstop accidental property destruction, gets a chance at image rehabilitation via Jason Bateman, still Hollywood’s leading contender for “irrepressibly perky yet visibly strained guy stuck dealing with troublemaking yahoos” roles. The two men end up in a comic/dramatic relationship that equals Smith’s chemistry with Tommy Lee Jones in the MiB movies, and Smith gets to run through a complex dynamic as a rapidly changing character — and then the film shifts and becomes something else entirely. Almost certainly no one else could have made this role work, but Smith’s blend of pained pathos, earnestness, and subdued anger absolutely anchor an incredibly weird and enjoyably unpredictable story. —TR

Hancock is available to watch on Peacock, or for free with ads on Tubi.

Henry Brogan/Junior, Gemini Man

Will Smith as a de-aged Henry Brogan (aka Junior) in Gemini Man. Image: Paramount Pictures

Ang Lee’s 2019 thriller may primarily be a technical experiment, pushing high frame rate digital imagery and de-aging tech to its current limit, but it’s also a fantastic dual-role display for Smith’s on-screen talents. In Gemini Man, Smith plays Henry Brogan, an assassin in his 50s who is frankly too old for this shit, and also Junior, a much younger clone of himself who is very much not too old for this shit. The two roles allow Smith to show off both the charisma and confidence that made him a star of action and comedy in his youth, but also the maturity and increased emotional gravitas that has come as he has aged into more dramatic leading roles. —PV

Gemini Man is available to rent for $2.99 on Vudu, Google Play, and other VOD platforms.

Richard Williams, King Richard

Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

This biographical sports drama sees Smith as Richard Williams, coach and father to tennis superstars Venus and Serena, as he steers the young girls toward their professional debuts in the early ’90s. Single-minded and eccentric, Richard battles to overcome the many hurdles in their way: their lack of resources, the snobbery and racism of a blinkered tennis establishment, the dangers of the streets of Compton where they live, and his own fears and domineering impulses. Spoilers: His vision is realized, and they become two of the greatest tennis players of all time.

King Richard is an old-school star vehicle. Nothing is permitted to eclipse him; neither the relatively young director nor any of the other cast members can challenge Smith for clout, and the studio has worked hard to support him with a display of classic, unshowy craftsmanship. The true-life story is inspirational, and the role depends on Smith’s enormous personal charisma while also requiring him to transform his speech and bearing into those of another famous figure. In his latest Oscar-nominated performance, Smith’s immense movie-star presence can’t be ignored. —OW

King Richard is available to watch on HBO Max.

What to Watch

The 50 best movies of 2023

What to Watch

The 6 best Korean dramas to stream on Netflix this winter

What to Watch

The best movies new to streaming in December 2023

View all stories in What to Watch