What the Hell Happened to Cuba Gooding Jr.?
Academy Award winner, Cuba Gooding, Jr. used to be cast in movies to give them an air of prestige. His presence was a signal to the audience that the movie they were seeing was meant to be taken seriously, even if it was a Michael Bay movie. But then, Gooding’s image changed. After a string of critical drubbing and commercial disasters, Gooding went from Hollywood darling to direct-to-video pariah.
What the hell happened?
I love it when a celebrity’s humble beginnings have been preserved for posterity. In the case of Cuba Gooding Jr., he started off as a break dancer. In 1984, his dance troupe performed alongside Lionel Richie at the closing ceremonies of the Summer Olympics in LA.
That couldn’t be more 1984 if it was written by George Orwell. Side note: I learned via VH-1′s Pop Up Videos that Richie was a terrible dancer. His videos frequently featured him from the waist up. Even his hit song Dancing On the Ceiling features very little dancing from Richie. He relied heavily on back-up dancers and future Oscar winners to supply the ”karamu” for his “fiesta”.
In the late 80′s, Gooding paid his dues with guest spots on TV shows like Amen and MacGyver. His role on MacGyver was a recurring guest spot. He played Billy Colton on three episodes from 1988-1990.
In 1988, Gooding make his big screen debut in Coming to America opposite Eddie Murphy. As pictured above, he was a customer in the barbershop scene. The following year, he appeared in the musical, Sing. His role was similarly small.
Gooding’s big break came in 1991 when he landed the lead role in John Singleton’s directorial debut, Boyz N the Hood.
Gooding played Tre, a high school student in a bad neighborhood. Tre was at a point in his life where he could go either way. He could go on to college but he was in danger of getting dragged down by his violent surroundings.
Boyz was one of the first films to depict life in South Central LA. It tapped into the growing rap culture in a way no previous film had. Over time, its cultural impact has lessened thanks to the imitators Boyz spawned. But in 1991, Boyz N the Hood was a pop culture revelation.
Boyz N the Hood was screened at Cannes. It opened to rave reviews and was a smash at the box office. Singleton became the youngest director ever to be nominated for an Academy Award.
In short, it was a triumph. And Gooding was at the center of it with his leading man debut. Much like the character he played on-screen, Gooding’s career could have gone a number of ways. Anything was possible, but nothing was guaranteed.
The next year, Gooding followed up Boyz N the Hood with Gladiator. No, not the Russell Crowe/Ridley Scott hit from 2000. This Gladiator was a boxing movie which co-starred Brian Dennehy, Robert Loggia and James Marshall from TV’s Twin Peaks.
At the time, Gladiator was viewed as a test to see if either Gooding or Marshall had the star power to open a movie. But the movie was panned and bombed at the box office. It seemed both actors had failed the test.
Later that year, both Gooding and Marshall appeared in Rob Reiner’s military courtroom drama, A Few Good Men.
A Few Good Men starred Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson and Demi Moore. The all-star cast included supporting roles by Kevin Pollak and Kevin Bacon. Point being, the movie was crowded with actors. Of the two, Marshall had the larger role as one of the defendants being tried by Cruise.
Men got great reviews and was nominated for several awards. It was also a commercial success. But Gooding’s role was too small to be of any great significance.
In 1993, Gooding starred opposite Emilio Estevez, Jeremy Piven, Dennis Leary and Stephen Dorff in the thriller, Judgment Night.
Leary played a drug dealer who pursues the other characters through town after they witness a murder. I don’t remember much about the movie except that at some point, Gooding’s character goes wild-eyed crazy. Also, it’s really silly which is a polite way of saying “stupid”.
At the time, Estevez was looking to break away from his Brat Pack image. And the rest of the cast were up-and-comers. Gooding, Piven, Dorf and Leary were all seen as tremendously promising actors. But Judgment Night failed them all. Reviews were bad and the movie bombed.
In 1994, Gooding appeared opposite Paul Hogan and Beverly D’Angelo in the Western comedy, Lightning Jack.
Hogan wrote and starred as an Australian bank robber in the US. Gooding played a mute whom Hogan takes hostage. Eventually, Hogan and Gooding’s characters team up. It was a long way from Boyz N the Hood, but also a sign of things to come for Gooding.
Like most of Hogan’s attempts to recapture the success of Crocodile Dundee, Lightning Jack got terrible reviews. While it did well in Hogan’s native Australia, it was not a hit in the US.
Gooding started off 1993 as part of an all-star ensemble in Wolfgang Petersen’s disaster movie, Outbreak.
Outbreak starred Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo and Morgan Freeman. In addition to Gooding, Patrick Dempsey, Donald Sutherland and Kevin Spacey had supporting roles. Like A Few Good Men, it was a crowded cast. The monkey’s face appeared on the poster, but Gooding didn’t.
Outbreak opened to mixed reviews, but it was a hit at the box office. Gooding’s role was too small for it to matter very much.
Later that month, Gooding also appeared in Losing Isaiah opposite Jessica Lange and Halle Berry.
Isaiah was a melodrama about a white family that adopts a baby who is abandoned by her black, crack-addict mother. Halle Berry plays the crack addict, so you know she’s going to go to rehab and clean up real nice. Like, “most beautiful woman in the world nice”.
Naturally it ends with a courtroom drama in which hot button issues of the day are dramatized. Samuel L. Jackson plays Berry’s lawyer who I assume swears a lot because he is played by Samuel L. Jackson. And also that he is awesome for the same reason.
Gooding’s role was so small that I could find no reference to his character in any of the plot summaries I read. Which is probably a good thing since Losing Isaiah got bad reviews and flopped at the box office.
Later that year, Gooding also appeared in the HBO movie, The Tuskegee Airmen which starred Lawrence Fishburn. I mention this because he would eventually return to the same material on the big screen.
Gooding’s promising career had stalled out since his debut in Boyz in the Hood five years earlier. I’m sure many had written him off along with that Twin Peaks guy. But all that changed in 1996 with Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire.
Tom Cruise played a sports agent with a crisis of conscience. Gooding played his only client, a promising athlete with a chip on his shoulder and a naked desire to see “the money”.
Given Cruise’s track record at the time, it’s no surprise the movie was a hit. But it surpassed any reasonable expectations. It became a cultural juggernaut. The catchphrases from Jerry Maguire were everywhere. If you’re like me, you still cringe a little when you hear “You complete me” or “Show me the money”.
Jerry Maguire got positive reviews and was a huge hit at the box office. It launched Rene Zellweger’s career, established Crowe as an A-list director and won Gooding an Academy Award.
When Gooding won Best Supporting Actor for Jerry Maguire, he gave one of the most memorable acceptance speeches in the Awards’ history. His enthusiasm was contagious. Audiences and Hollywood were smitten.
Watching that speech all these years later, I had a couple of thoughts.
1. Really? They cut him off after 60 seconds?
2. Mira Sorvino – So hot! Seriously, what the hell happened?
The next year, Gooding appeared in another Oscar-winning dramedy, James L. Brooks’s As Good As It Gets.
Jack Nicholson starred as an obsessive compulsive novelist who falls in love with a waitress played by Helen Hunt. Greg Kinnear played Nicholson’s neighbor, a gay artist whom Nicholson’s character verbally abuses. Gooding had a small role as Kinnear’s agent who turns the tables on his former A Few Good Men co-star.
Like Jerry Maguire, As Good As It Gets got positive reviews, was a hit at the box office, and won a lot of awards. But this time, the Oscars went to Nicholson and Hunt. Gooding’s role was practically a cameo appearance.
In 1998, Gooding co-starred opposite Robin Williams in the New Age drama, What Dreams May Come.
Williams played a man who died and actually passes on to the afterlife. Gooding played his spiritual advisor on the other side. Williams’ journeys take him through Heaven and Hell without being especially interesting.
What Dreams May Come got mixed reviews and disappointed at the box office.
In 1999, Gooding starred opposite Anthony Hopkins in Jon Turteltaub’s thriller, Instinct.
Instinct was marketed like a follow-up to Silence of the Lambs with Hopkins playing an anthropologist who has been living with gorillas. Gooding played the psychiatrist tasked with figuring out why Hopkins killed some rangers in Africa.
But Instinct was no Silence of the Lambs. It got terrible reviews and bombed at the box office.
Later that year, Gooding co-starred with Skeet Ulrich in the action/comedy Chill Factor.
Gooding plays an ice cream delivery man who is tasked with saving the world. The kid from Scream shows up. Hilarity fails to ensue. Reviews were scathing and the movie flopped at the box office.
That same year, Gooding used some of his Oscar clout to produce and star in the film, A Murder of Crows with his friend and business partner Derek Broes. That film marked the start of Gooding’s direct-to-video career.
Gooding bounced back in 2000 opposite Robert DeNiro in the military drama, Men of Honor.
Gooding played a Navy diver who is trained by a racist Master Chief played by DeNiro. Because this is a movie, Gooding and DeNiro eventually find common ground. Also, Charlize Theron shows up.
Despite mixed reviews, Men of Honor was a hit.
In 2001, Gooding had a small role in another military-themed drama. This time, it was Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor.
Pearl Harbor was a blatant attempt to recreate the success of Titanic. It featured a doomed romance set against a historical backdrop. But with all the explosions and patriotic jingoism one expects from auteur, Michael Bay.
The movie was supposed to cement Ben Affleck’s status as an A-list star while making stars out of Kate Beckinsale and Josh Hartnett. Instead, it contributed to Affleck’s career implosion and buried Hartnett in over-exposure.
Gooding was one of many cameos in the film. He played Dorie Miller, a ship cook who became the first African-American to be awarded the Navy Cross. All I remember is that he went absolutely ape shit with a big gun.
Pearl Harbor got bad reviews. It disappointed at the domestic box office, but turned a profit overseas.
Later that year, Gooding appeared as part of the star-studded ensemble in the comedy, Rat Race.
Rat Race aspired to be an update on It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. But it turned out to be closer to Cannonball Run. The plot had mostly C-list celebrities racing to win a cash prize.
Gooding was joined by fellow African-American Oscar-winner Whoopi Goldberg. Rat Race was the first film to feature two African-American Oscar winners. It also featured a crazy squirrel and a busload of Lucille Ball impersonators.
Reviews were mixed and the movie was a modest hit at the box office.
In 2002, Gooding starred in the Disney comedy, Snow Dogs.
Gooding played a Florida dentist who inherits a team of snow dogs. In short, it couldn’t be farther from Oscar territory. Actually it could as we will see soon. But at the time, it was surprising to see Gooding slumming it in a high concept Disney dog movie.
Reviews were negative, but Snow Dogs was a modest success. People love dogs.
In 2003, Gooding hit what had to be rock bottom with the supposed comedy, Boat Trip.
Gooding and SNL fat guy Horatio Sanz play a couple of buddies who discover to their horror that they have booked a vacation on a gay cruise. It’s a reprehensible premise which was poorly executed. Critics savaged Boat Trip and the movie bombed at the box office.
Audiences officially began asking, “What the hell happened?”
After Boat Trip, there is nowhere to go but up. So starring opposite Beyoncé Knowles in The Fighting Temptations was definitely a step up. The film got mixed reviews and disappointed at the box office – especially given Knowles’ popularity. But at least it wasn’t Boat Trip.
Gooding ended the year with the drama, Radio, in which he played a mentally challenged young man who befriends a football coach played by Ed Harris.
When A-list actors take on roles like this, there are two ways it can go. One, they can be heaped with praise and often awards for their brave performance. Two, everyone cringes. Radio was one of those movies where everyone cringed.
Radio got mostly negative reviews and disappointed at the box office. If it was intended to get Gooding back in Oscar’s good graces, it failed. But Gooding was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actor for all three of his films in 2003.
After Radio, Gooding plunged into the abyss of direct-to-video releases. In 2004, he did voice work on Disney’s Home on the Range. That film’s failure caused Disney to shutter their feature animation division for years. Gooding came to specialize in gritty dramas like Dirty, Shadowboxer and End Game.
In 2007, Gooding had something of a comeback on the big screen. He started the year with a supporting role in Eddie Murphy’s comedy, Norbit.
Norbit played a skinny nerd and his outrageously fat and disgusting fiance. The movie was reviled by critics and many believe it cost Murphy his Oscar for Dreamgirls. In spite of that, Norbit was a hit at the box office.
Later that year, Gooding starred in Daddy Day Camp, the sequel to Murphy’s family comedy, Daddy Day Care.
Daddy Day Care was a surprise hit for Murphy in 2003. But when Murphy (who is not known for refusing to make sequels) refused to make a sequel, Oscar-winner Gooding (who is not known for refusing to make anything) stepped in.
Daddy Day Camp was even more critically reviled than the original (which was not well-liked by critics). Unlike the first film, the sequel failed at the box office.
Daddy Day Camp and Norbit won Gooding his second Golden Raspberry Nomination.
Gooding ended 2007 with a small role in Ridley Scott’s crime drama, American Gangster. American Gangster starred Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. The reviews were mostly positive and the movie was a hit. But once again, Gooding’s role was very small.
After that, Gooding made a stream of direct-to-video movies that would make Val Kilmer choke. The two even starred together in 2009′s Hardwired. Gooding made two direct-to-video films with Christian Slater; Lies & Illusions in 2009 and Sacrifice in 2011.
In 2012, Gooding returned to the big screen for George Lucas’ take on the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, Red Tails. Gooding had already appeared in the HBO version of the story years earlier. But this time he was the star and it was a theatrical release.
Reviews for Red Tails were mostly negative. After spending years in production, Red Tails was a disappointment at the box office.
In 2013, Gooding will appear on the big screen again with a cameo in Robert Rodriguez exploitation satire, Machete Kills. The movie is loaded with stunt casting like Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen, Lindsay Lohan and Lady Gaga. Appearing in Machete Kills is more or less an admission that your movie career is over.
So, what the hell happened?
Let’s face it, roles like Rod Tidwell in Jerry Maguire don’t come along very often. Gooding was exceptionally lucky to get cast in movies like Boyz N the Hood and Jerry Maguire to begin with. Even an Oscar winner can’t expect to keep scoring those kind of parts.
When those kinds of roles didn’t materialize, Gooding went for “the money” (sorry, couldn’t resist) in the most low brow comedies imaginable. Which was a bit of a strange career decision because he was not known as a comedic actor.
Gooding cashed a few fat paychecks at the expense of his Oscar prestige. Eventually, he settled for the regular paycheck of steady work in direct-to-video releases.
Kim Basinger Thora Birch Matthew Broderick Nicolas Cage Chevy Chase Kevin Costner Geena Davis Bridget Fonda Brendan Fraser Mel Gibson Cuba Gooding Jr. Heather Graham Melanie Griffith Steve Guttenberg Daryl Hannah Helen Hunt Michael Keaton Nicole Kidman Val Kilmer Jude Law Jennifer Jason Leigh Penelope Ann Miller Demi Moore Rick Moranis Eddie Murphy Mike Myers Michelle Pfeiffer Molly Ringwald Meg Ryan Winona Ryder Arnold Schwarzenegger Steven Seagal Elisabeth Shue Alicia Silverstone Christian Slater Mira Sorvino Wesley Snipes Sharon Stone Mena Suvari Uma Thurman John Travolta Kathleen Turner Robin Williams Debra Winger Sean Young Renee Zellweger
Posted on January 26, 2013, in Movies, What the Hell Happened? and tagged a few good men, as good as it gets, boyz n the hood, cuba gooding jr, eddie murphy, entertainment, jack nicholson, jerry maguire, movies, Oscar, pearl harbor, rat race, tom cruise. Bookmark the permalink. 38 Comments.