If there’s such a thing as a stardom gene, mop-headed novice actor Jaden Smith must have a ton of it lurking in his DNA.
This week, the eight-year-old son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith makes his film debut — opposite his father, no less — in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” a blue-ribbon tearjerker about single parenthood, poverty and the rewards of Jeffersonian self-determination.
The elder Smith plays Chris Gardner, a real-life Bay Area salesman who struggles to make ends meet while grinding his way through a six-month unpaid internship at a top brokerage firm. The younger Smith plays his son, who dutifully follows Gardner through a jagged fjord of homeless shelters, blood banks and soup kitchens en route to the American dream.
As Jaden Smith joins his parents in the ranks of the acting elite, one thinks of other multi-generational Hollywood families, and a fun sort of parlor-game debate ensues: Which is the greatest Hollywood thespian clan of them all?
One naturally starts with the Barrymores — the “Fabulous Barrymores,” as they were known in the day. Born to career stage professionals, siblings Lionel, Ethel and John all successfully weathered the transition from stage to screen, and from silent films to talkies — although John, the premier stage performer of his day and a notoriously heavy drinker, proved a bit less durable than his elder siblings (both Lionel and Ethel won Oscars after the age of 50; John never did).
When John’s granddaughter, Drew, started to make a name for herself in the early ‘90s — this after a well-publicized booze-and-drugs tailspin in her teens — the Barrymores became arguably Hollywood’s first wire-to-wire acting dynasty. Still, only Drew’s most partisan fans would place her in the upper pantheon of Hollywood actors. Her success, I think, is derived more from her bubbly disposition — and the shrewd manipulation of her own bad-girl-gone-good mythology — than native talent.
On occasion, showbiz kids will actually have longer, more meaningful careers than their movie star parents. Jeff Bridges cut his acting teeth doing guest spots on dad Lloyd Bridges’ “Sea Hunt” TV show in the 1950s before moving on to critical acclaim in the ‘70s (“The Last Picture Show”) and it-hunk leading man stardom in the 80s (“Against All Odds,” “Jagged Edge”).
Now in his late 50s, Bridges continues to plum the hidden conflicts of the American dreamer in such challenging, idiosyncratic films as “The Door in the Floor,” and it’s hard to imagine him ever top-lining a campy TV show such as “Sea Hunt.” Or “CSI: Toledo,” for that matter.
Undoubtedly, the Douglases (father Kirk and son Michael) will get some votes; the pair even starred together alongside grandson Cameron Douglas in the little-seen schmaltzathon “It Runs in the Family” three years ago.
The Wayans (Keenan Ivory, Damon, Marlon, Shawn, et al) have certainly been prolific, as have the Baldwins (Alec, Adam, Stephen and Billy) and Sheen/Estevezes (Martin, Emilio, Charlie), but none have rock-hard legacies.
The greatest, most enduring Hollywood family ever? My lot goes to the Hustons. Patriarch Walter (1884-1950) graduated from the stage to become one of Hollywood’s most respected character actors (he won an Oscar for “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”). Son John (1906-1987) was a thunderous screen presence in his own right (“Chinatown”) and a bona fide legend as a director (“The Maltese Falcon”). And then we have John’s kids: Angelica won an Oscar for “Prizzy’s Honor” (marking the Hustons as the first three-generation Oscar family) while late-bloomer Danny has wowed critics in a variety of roles, from cuckolded blue-bloods (“Birth”) to mystical killers (“The Proposition”).
Who knows? Someday, the Smiths could be mentioned in the same breath as the Barrymores and Hustons, but for now, let’s call Jaden’s casting what it is: a harmless bit of nepotism that takes nothing away from the movie, and makes for nice human interest.
In fact, one wonders why movie star nepotism isn’t more prevalent. As red-carpet pundits are found of pointing out, Hollywood celebrities are our royalty, and don’t we — as loyal subjects — love seeing royal bloodlines carried on? So it’s mildly surprising that — say — none of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward’s three children ever became big stars.
But that’s the curious thing about Hollywood: Famous names are frequently carried on. But fame itself? Not so often.