Oscars: 'Concussion' Confirms Will Smith as a Serious Best Actor Threat

The former 'Fresh Prince' is poised to land a third best actor Oscar nom — which, like his prior two, would come for playing a real person.
Will Smith in 'Concussion'  Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Will Smith is poised to return to the Oscars as a nominee for the first time in nearly a decade — and, in a year without a clear frontrunner, he could even take home the prize.

That much was confirmed on Tuesday night at the TCL Chinese Theatre, where Smith's latest star-vehicle, Peter Landesman's Concussion, had its world premiere. The drama chronicles the uphill efforts of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian-born/Pittsburgh-based medical examiner who came to the conclusion that ex-NFL players were dying because of head traumas they suffered during their playing days. It was received very warmly by an industry crowd — many of whom said the accusations that the film had caved to the NFL (by reportedly showing the film to league officials and then making some cuts) were overblown, as the league still takes a major beating from the film.

Both the reception of the film and the perception of Smith's performance got a boost from the participation, during a post-screening Q&A, of Omalu himself, which offered attendees a chance to compare the actor with the real life inspiration. Smith, who previously garnered best actor Oscar noms for playing real people in 2001's Ali and 2006's The Pursuit of Happyness — two films that registered no noms outside of the acting categories, which is likely to be the case with Concussion, too — came off well.

In the film, he adopts — and unwaveringly maintains — Omalu's Nigerian accent; trades in his own trademark twinkle for Omalu's; and, like Omalu, calls out an American institution despite the likelihood that doing so will rankle a lot of its millions of supporters. Perhaps most crucially, for Oscar purposes, he has the vocal support of the man he plays, who couldn't have given a more ringing endorsement than the one he offered during the Q&A.

When big-name movie stars portray underdog, real-life crusaders in movies that are at least respectably good (if not unflawed), the Academy tends to respond. Consider these examples from the last 20 years: Russell Crowe in 1999's The Insider (nominated); Julia Roberts in 2000's Erin Brokovich (won); Don Cheadle in 2004's Hotel Rwanda (nominated); and Sean Penn in 2008's Milk (won). It's hard to imagine Smith not joining that club for this performance.

Hollywood, like the rest of the country, really likes Will Smith. He received a standing ovation when he was honored for Concussion at last week's Hollywood Film Awards before almost anyone in the room had seen it. In other words, the community would love a good excuse to celebrate him — not unlike The Revenant's Leonardo DiCaprio and Black Mass' Johnny Depp, who are also Oscar-less and likely to be nominated opposite Smith. But Smith may end up having something with his film that the other two may not, and that only one other serious contender in the category, The Martian's Matt Damon, will share: a blockbuster.

Big plaudits and big box-office are a tough combination to beat — just ask another A-list star who did strong work playing a real person in a hit drama tangentially about football, Sandra Bullock, who won her Oscar for 2009's The Blind Side.

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