"Six Degrees of Separation"

Will Smith's first starring role is still his best.

Published September 8, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

"Six Degrees of Separation"
Directed by Fred Schepisi
Starring Stockard Channing, Will Smith, Donald Sutherland
MGM DVD; widescreen and full frame
Extras: "Collectible booklet," original theatrical trailer

Will Smith got no respect as a movie star when he made "Six Degrees of Separation" on the streets of Manhattan in 1993. It was years before "Independence Day" and "Men in Black," and when he tried to explain to a disgruntled bystander that he was monopolizing a phone booth because he was making a movie, the bystander replied, "If Denzel Washington ain't here, you ain't making no movie."

That's the juiciest anecdote you'll get from the "collectible booklet" on this DVD. Although this flimsy two-page spread does clue viewers into the factual basis of Smith's con man character, it has -- like many another MGM DVD collectible booklet -- far less information than, say, an average playbill.

But the disc's visual quality more than makes up for that. This DVD properly showcases the deceptively open-faced freshness of Smith's performance and the exuberant and moving qualities of director Fred Schepisi's entire movie. The way Schepisi interprets John Guare's famous play, it's about "class" as in "class act." The tango this film plays out on that theme is an elating change from tracts on snobbery and inertia in "the class system."

Smith's antihero is a young black hustler named Paul who aches to acquire Upper East Side hauteur. His Manhattanite marks struggle to maintain it, living "hand to mouth on a higher plateau." Chief among them are a private art dealer and his wife, Flan and Ouisa Kittredge (Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing). Near the end, Paul says they're his favorites because when he pulled his scam -- posing as Sidney Poitier's son, down from Harvard to meet his father, who's about to cast a film version of "Cats" -- Ouisa and Flan spent the whole night bonding with him.

Of course nothing in Guare's screenplay is that uncomplicated: The Kittredges had recognized that Paul was dazzling their invited guest (Ian McKellen), a South African tycoon. Still, when Paul maintains that what he wants from them is "everlasting friendship," you believe him -- and so does Ouisa. The movie celebrates feelings struck by real artists and scam artists, and counterpoints them with a Gotham lifestyle that's tasteful, witty, colorful and jaded.

Channing's brilliant performance strikes to the core of things -- watching her makes you hope she'll have more to do this year on "The West Wing." She blends practiced jokery and nascent poetry, while Schepisi's opening up of the action, and his alternately grand and intimate camera, enrich Guare's shrewd yet emotional dialogue. A kick to watch, this film is social comedy at its zenith: Its makers don't just have the characters' numbers but what's left of their souls.

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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