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 directed by Michael Bay. 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 breakdancer. 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”.
Gooding made his acting debut in 1986 on a TV show called Better Days. He followed that with a couple of episodes of Hill Street Blues in which he played a kid in a gang.
Gooding continued paying his dues with bit parts in shows like The Bronx Zoo and Amen. In 1988, he made his movie debut playing a kid who gets a haircut from Eddie Murphy in Coming to America.
The TV roles continued with a CBS Schoolbreak Special and an episode of the sitcom 227 in which Gooding played an undercover cop.
In 1989, Gooding appeared on an episode of the TV series MacGyver. In his first appearance, he played a character named Ray Collins. But later that year he played a different character named Billy Colton. Gooding would return to the show to play Billy Colton two more times in 1990 and 1991.
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 had plans to go 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.
Twenty years later, Gooding admitted that he was still learning his craft:
You gotta remember this was early in my career. It wasn’t about reading scripts for me. It was about picking up your sides for an audition the next day. This is embarrassing to really cop to, because I’m looking back on it now, [but] I didn’t know what stage direction was. I didn’t know what ‘EXT,’ ‘INT’ — I didn’t know that meant ‘exterior,’ ‘interior.’ I just knew my lines. I knew Tre’s lines. I knew his father Furious is mad at him, and I knew that emotion. That’s how I came to this story.
That inexperience gave Gooding and the rest of the cast a sense of liberation:
None of us knew what we were involved with. We just knew that we had nothing to lose to put our whole body, heart and soul in these roles, and that’s exactly what we were looking to do
Boyz N the Hood was screened at Cannes. It opened to rave reviews and was a smash at the box office. It opened in third place behind Terminator 2 and a reissue of Disney’s 101 Dalmations, but Boyz held on to a top 10 spot for six weeks and eventually grossed over $50 million dollars on a budget of around $6 million. Singleton became the youngest director ever to be nominated for an Academy Award.
Boyz 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.
Marshall and Gooding played boxers who become friends. They are manipulated into fighting each other by a promoter played by Dennehy.
Gladiator was Marshall’s only shot at being a leading man. When the movie flopped, that was it for him. Fortunately for Gooding, he already had Boyz N the Hood on his resume. So he was able to walk away from Gladiator unscathed.
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. Gooding’s role is minor. He has less screentime than his Gladiator costar. But A Few Good Men was a critical and commercial success. Gooding’s participation could only help his career.
Posted on January 26, 2013, in Movies, What the Hell Happened?, WTHH Actor and tagged A Few Good Men, As Good as It Gets, boyz n the hood, cuba gooding jr, jerry maguire, Oscar, pearl harbor, rat race. Bookmark the permalink. 138 Comments.