By Marc S. Sanders
John Guare adapted his celebrated Broadway play Six Degrees Of Separation into a screenplay directed by Fred Schepisi. Having never seen a stage production of the show, I can still see how well it would work in live theater. It’s a talking piece with colorful dialogue and fast paced monologues revealing the true nature of people whether they are telling the truth, exaggerating, or simply being lied to. Can a piece of writing succeed at showing the phoniness of people while at the same time displaying the authentic nature of a con man and a liar?
In a very early career performance, Will Smith plays a young man named Paul. One night, he stumbles upon the Park Avenue apartment of Ouisa and Flan Kitteridge (Stockard Channing, Donald Sutherland), wealthy art dealers ready to make a multi-million-dollar deal with a South African guest, named Geoffrey (Ian McKellan). Paul is a handsome black man in a navy blazer and college tie, with a knife wound in his side. He has just been mugged while on his way to pay the Kitteridges a surprise visit. They welcome him inside, clean his injury and loan him a freshly clean pink dress shirt from their son’s closet.
Talking and interaction take effect. Paul describes how he intimately knows the couple’s children away at college. He segues into an insightful literary evaluation of Holden Caulfied from Catcher In The Rye, and he eventually makes his way into the kitchen where he impresses the high society people with his exquisite dinner preparation and his immense background of being the son of celebrated actor Sidney Poitier.
By the end of the evening, Geoffrey is ready to sign the deal and the Kitteridges are over the moon with the dumbfound luck of meeting this young man, who is now going to arrange for them to be extras in the film adaptation of the musical Cats, soon to be directed by Sidney, himself. It’s all too good to be true. The next morning, after insisting that Paul stay over for the night, surprises abound and perhaps Ouisa and Flan don’t know everything they should have known about Paul.
The couple meets up for lunch with Larkin and Kitty, another high society couple (Bruce Dern, Mary Beth Hurt) who can’t wait to share an unbelievable story with them. Only their anecdote is eerily similar to the experience they had with Paul. Could these people have been duped? The only option is to go to the police, and yet was there really a crime ever committed? Fifty dollars was leant to Paul to get back to school, and he made off with the pink shirt, but that’s it. All of their prized artwork and collectibles remained. No one was physically harmed. Nothing was stolen. Still, the four people are insistent on uncovering the mystery of this man.
Ouisa, Flan, Larkin and Kitty eventually catch up with their children to see how they had come to meet Paul. The kids have no idea what their parents are talking about and are downright resentful of mom and dad. Ouisa and Flan’s son (Jeff Abrams, as in eventual director JJ Abrams) is especially hurt they gave Paul his pink dress shirt. The horror! Their daughter describes them as ignorant and uncaring simply because of their wealth.
While I can’t describe the structure of the play, Schpisi’s film does a back and forth of Ouisa and Flan gleefully telling their tall tale to anyone who will listen. While guests at a wedding reception, the crowd of listeners seem to grow around the pair, eventually to the point that the bride and groom are even listening. Their story spreads at a funeral and dinner parties and on and on.
Later, a young couple (Heather Graham, Erik Thal) enter the frame to share their encounter with Paul after meeting him in Central Park. Their tale is not as similar as the others, but there is enough to determine that they met the same “Paul” in their experience.
Paul’s existence seems to grow and grow, but not necessarily because of Paul. Rather, it is because of how widespread his various intrusions become. While making efforts to pursue the mystery, Ouisa and Flan get interviewed for the paper. Even more people within New York City (revered for having eight million stories) reveal their own encounters. More people, especially their peers, become even more fascinated by the outrageous anecdote, and it becomes the centerpiece of dinner conversations and social gatherings. People can’t get enough of the night Ouisa and Flan met Paul and what happened afterwards.
Guare’s script is focused not so much on dimension and character change, as it is in demonstrating what can happen when one story blossoms into a multitude of others. The title follows the idea that every person on the planet can somehow be connected within six different people of one another. What I took from the film is how inauthentic the ones who were duped actually are. Flan wants nothing ever more to do with Paul, repeatedly declaring a fear that he may come back and “slash their throats.” Yet, he can’t resist sharing the story and what happened after that and then after that. Ouisa follows along, until perhaps the end of the picture.
Stockard Channing plays the most dynamic of all the characters thanks to moments offered in the script where Ouisa begins to contemplate how fascinating it is how many people have come in contact with Paul and thus lending credence to the film’s title. A memorable monologue towards the end earned her Oscar nomination for the film.
Will Smith is the con man at the center of the script. It’s an extraordinary performance and it’s an insightful character as well. Paul is a con man. That is the one sure thing that viewers assuredly walk away with from the movie. It may be the only genuine fact in the film. The people he seduces are eventually revealed to be fake for the sake of laying impressions upon their peers or for exacting aggravation, as the spoiled college age children seem to do. Nothing that Ouisa, Flan, Larkin, Kitty or any of their high society friends and children come off with genuine affection and care for one another. Their tales are told simply to impress and uphold relevance. Only as the credits roll, does Ouisa perhaps have a revelation of how she behaves with her friends, and her children, particularly when in company with her husband, Flan.
Film Critic Roger Ebert didn’t care for this film as he asked what are we supposed to gain from this picture; that everyone in the world is a phony? Maybe so. The irony for me however, is that Paul is nothing but a con. He never deviates from that pattern during the course of the picture all the way to his final scene when he’s alone on the street speaking with Ouisa on a pay phone. He still insists on being Paul Poitier, son of Sidney. Therefore, let’s at least admire Paul’s consistent behavior of lying, while turning our backs as we realize how artificial the well to do folks really are. Irony is thought provoking, and I think John Guare’s script at least succeeds in that respect.