I decided to skip The Golden Globes this year and, instead, I finally got around to watching Six Degrees of Separation.
It’s unfortunate that the main thing people remember about this movie (at least people in my generation) is that Will Smith “plays gay” and the controversy surrounding his discomfort about kissing another man on screen. While I understand that a performer’s personal preferences shouldn’t be an issue when portraying a character, Smith gives an otherwise great performance here. But the real star of the movie is the writing itself. This is dense stuff, full of Big Ideas.
Smith plays Paul, a gay hustler and con artist who visits the swanky apartment of Ouisa (an amazing Stockard Channing) and Flan (Donald Sutherland) after being mugged outside their apartment building on the Upper East Side. He claims he’s the son of Sidney Poitier and a friend of the children of Ouisa and Flan, a well-to-do art dealer.
You can tell right away that the movie was originally produced as a play. The first third of the movie takes place in the apartment as they entertain a rich philanthropist played by Ian MacKellan. Paul spins a fantastical tale of growing up as the rejected son of Poitier, eliciting Ouisa and Flan’s sympathy from the very beginning. Paul claims to have lost his senior thesis on The Catcher and the Rye during the mugging. It’s when he’s describing his thesis that his intellect takes hold of his hosts and convinces him that he really is a special person who they want desperately to help. They insist he stay the night.
The morning after, Ouisa discovers Paul having sex with a guy in the room of her daughter. Flan casts Paul and the hustler out and he and Ouisa hurry to a friend’s wedding where they first start to tell their tale to friends.
We follow them as they visit different friends and professional acquaintances around town; continuing their story further at every event. We soon learn that Paul has swindled some other friends of theirs and the police are brought in. The further the investigation goes, the deeper we go down the rabbit hole. To spoil any of the revelations would be to betray the best part of the film: discovering the depth of Paul’s deceptions and the lengths Ouisa and Flan will go to get to the truth.
In addition to the excellent lead actors, there’s also a lot of fun cameos and bit parts for famous actors in their early years like Heather Graham and Anthony Rapp. Anthony Michael Hall is almost unrecognizable as Paul’s gay Henry Higgins (that makes more sense when you see the movie). Bruce Davison and Mary Beth Hurt play the lead couple’s best friends who were also swindled by Paul. Kelly Bishop (from Gilmore Girls) makes a brief appearance as well as famous painter Chuck Close. J.J. Abrams even makes an appearance as one of the many self-centered and selfish children of the Upper East Side (see clip below).
This movie has so many themes going simultaneously, it’s hard to keep track of them. It’s about class and the assumptions we make about people who are different than us. It asks us to consider the many similarities between a con artist and an art dealer like Flan. It’s about family and what we expect from our parents and children. It’s about truth and how much you can bend it before it becomes an outright lie.
But the best part of the film is that the one person who seemed like a villain at the beginning, Paul, turns out to be the most sympathetic character in the end.