When we first started this column, we asked, “How did Wesley Snipes end up in direct-to-video hell?” In our second installment we pondered, “Where did Shannon Elizabeth go?” This week, Rotten Tomatoes turns its gaze upon the once-promising, now perplexing career of a certain boat-tripping, dog-sledding Oscar winner in hopes of pinpointing just where things went wrong. So what the hell happened to Cuba Gooding Jr.?
Perhaps it is as simple as the Oscar curse. Before his fervent acceptance speech at the 1996 Academy Awards, Cuba Gooding Jr. was an A-lister on the rise; after that, it all seemed to go downhill. Cuba Gooding Jr.’s career choices, to put it mildly, became erratic. Could behind-the-scenes management kerfuffles also have been to blame? Should Gooding not have chosen, as Tropic Thunder‘s Kirk Lazarus might say, to “go full retard” in Radio? And who will answer for the abomination that was Boat Trip? (And Snow Dogs? And Chill Factor? The list goes on…)
Read on to begin our investigation into the rise and fall (and rise and fall) of Cuba Gooding Jr.
First up: The Early Years
The Early Years
Like most young actors, Cuba Gooding Jr. spent time paying his dues, nabbing bit parts on television shows and films like 227 and MacGyver and Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America. (Remember the kid getting a haircut in the barbershop? That was him.) His first speaking role came in 1989’s Footloose/Dirty Dancing clone Sing, playing an inner city drama student who gets knocked out cold right before the big show; the part found him supporting bigger names — stars like Lorraine Bracco, Cover Me‘s Peter Dobson, and the pilot chick from Armageddon. (The schlocky 1989 urban crime film Hitz, in which he appears briefly, wouldn’t be released until Gooding’s star had risen, three years later.)
It was a slow start for the future Oscar-winner, but not too shabby for a kid whose first gig was break-dancing behind Lionel Richie at the 1984 Olympics. And stardom was just on the horizon, as Cuba signed up for a trip to the hood…
Next: Cuba In the Hood
Cuba In the Hood
Only five years into his acting career, Cuba Gooding Jr. got his big break. Boyz in the Hood was a benchmark of contemporary American filmmaking, winning Oscar nods for Best Screenplay and for first-time director John Singleton. Examining the underrepresented experience of the young black male, Boyz N the Hood turned an unflinching eye on issues ranging from teen sexuality to gang violence to the lack of male role models in the lives of America’s urban youth; Roger Ebert called Singleton’s drama “an American film of enormous importance,” and it remains his best-reviewed film to date.
Critics in particular hailed Gooding’s breakout central performance as Tre, a South Central-raised teenager torn between neighborhood loyalties and the promise of college. More importantly, Boyz N the Hood showed Hollywood that Cuba Gooding Jr. had the potential to flesh out characters of dramatic substance. The days of one-line roles and guest spots would soon be behind him.
Next: Playing with the Big Boys
Playing with the Big Boys
In the spring of 1992 Gooding co-starred in Gladiator, a poorly-received boxing drama that exited theaters after only a few weeks. Months later, he bounced back with a turn in a military courtroom drama based on an off-Broadway play by a writer named Aaron Sorkin…
A Few Good Men went on to nab four Academy Award nominations in 1993, bestowing Gooding once more with Oscar cred-by-association. Although the part of Cpl. Carl Hammaker was relatively small, the role put Gooding in the company of one of the best ensemble casts ever put to screen, which included award-winning actors Jack Nicholson, Kiefer Sutherland, Demi Moore, and his future Jerry Maguire co-star, Tom Cruise.
The following year Gooding starred in another Hollywood ensemble — Judgment Night — this time sharing the screen with fellow early-’90s hot commodities Emilio Estevez, Denis Leary, Jeremy Piven, and Stephen Dorff. Unfortunately, the film made less of an impact than its rap-rock soundtrack, and was out-grossed twice over on opening weekend by The Beverly Hillbillies. Gooding made additional missteps in 1993 with the HBO sci-fi actioner Daybreak and a sidekick role in the flat Western comedy Lightning Jack, in which he played the mute second fiddle to Paul Hogan’s Aussie bank robber. The up-and-comer appeared to be in need of good career advice; action thrillers and comedies weren’t working. Would he get it in time?
Next: A Brief Return to Drama
A Brief Return to Drama
Following the back-to-back disappointments of Judgment Night and Lightning Jack, Cuba Gooding Jr. returned to his strength: dramatic roles. Director Wolfgang Petersen, who’d met Gooding in an elevator at the premiere of Boyz N the Hood, cast him in the sci-fi thriller Outbreak; the film opened at the height of Ebola-mania and became a modest success.
The very next week, he turned in a supporting role in the drama Losing Isaiah, although critics were underwhelmed. Luckily for Gooding’s career Tomatometer, his next project, HBO’s The Tuskegee Airmen, proved successful; the moving story of the famed all-black fighter squadron won one Emmy and parlayed its initial cable TV debut into a limited theatrical release. At 83 percent, it was also his first fresh film since A Few Good Men.
Next: The Oscar Win
The Oscar Win
The year 1996 changed everything for Cuba Gooding Jr., for it was the year of Jerry Maguire. A decade into acting, he took one of the defining roles of his career: pro football player Rod Tidwell, the aging, disgruntled client of sports agent Jerry Maguire (Tom Cruise). The role reunited Gooding with his A Few Good Men co-star and boosted both actors’ careers with one simple line: “Show me the money.” Cruise, previously nominated for 1990’s Born on the Fourth of July, notched another Best Actor nod from the Academy, but Gooding won the statuette for Best Supporting Actor; his acceptance speech is the stuff of Oscar legends. (It also curiously pre-dated Cruise’s couch-jumping antics nine years later, strangely ebullient and distancing to fans.)
But what prospects awaited the new Oscar winner? Would his agents steer him towards bigger studio vehicles, or could Gooding hold out for the meatier stuff, as befitting a serious thespian?
Next: Cuba Tries to Become an Everyman — as in, Every Genre
Cuba Tries to Become an Everyman — as in, Every Genre
You have to give him credit; after winning his Oscar, Cuba Gooding Jr. did not let up. In fact, he starred in no less than ten films in the next five years. However, the results were extremely unpredictable, and with one exception, all rotten.
In 1997 Gooding popped up in another Oscar-worthy film, As Good As It Gets. At 85 percent on the Tomatometer, it would be his last Fresh movie for the next ten years. What followed was a mishmash of roles in an art film (What Dreams May Come), dramas (Instinct, Men of Honor), a big budget action spectacle (Pearl Harbor), a buddy film (Chill Factor), and an ensemble comedy (Rat Race), not to mention Gooding’s first and only zero percent film (A Murder of Crows, which he also produced) and the direct-to-video In The Shadows. Gooding’s days of critical acclaim were behind him.
Next: The Oscar Winner Hits Bottom
The Oscar Winner Hits Bottom
There have been a handful of low points in Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s career, but the back-to-back release of Snow Dogs and Boat Trip was the lowest. Until Snow Dogs, you could still say Gooding was still riding his wave of Oscar cred, experimenting and stretching himself as an actor in a dizzying array of projects. The remainder of his credibility began to fade away with Snow Dogs, a hammy Disney vehicle that launched Cuba Gooding, Jr. into Eddie Murphy territory — a once respected star doing pratfalls in a mediocre studio comedy. While Snow Dogs was a modest success for Disney, earning $115 million worldwide, it was not the antidote that Gooding’s career needed.
The following year, perhaps buoyed by the commercial success of Snow Dogs, Gooding starred in yet another big budget comedy: Boat Trip. As a straight man pretending to be homosexual to get close to his dream girl on a gay cruise, Gooding was reaching for comic stardom; what he got instead was public derision. “When I got to Boat Trip, I thought it was time to do something that was going to make me a $20 million player,” he later explained to the New York Times. The film was a critical and commercial flop, earning less at the box office than it had cost. It was a textbook example of the Oscar curse in effect. And it would not stop there.
Gooding continued his downward slide with another forgettable failure, the romantic comedy The Fighting Temptations, but what really sunk him was a role as a mentally-challenged young man in 2003’s Radio. Critics chastised the film for its hypocritical and overly saccharine treatment of its protagonist, a childlike simpleton cheerily played by Gooding; to his credit, the actor seemed to give the role his all. But unlike the handicapped character that nabbed Dustin Hoffman an Oscar for Rain Man (and earned Charlize Theron one for Monster at that year’s Oscars), the role of Radio failed to renew Cuba Gooding Jr. as an Oscar contender. After a minor voice-over stint in Disney’s tepid animated tale Home on the Range, Gooding began looking outside of the mainstream.
Next: Cuba Goes Indie
Cuba Goes Indie
Cuba Gooding Jr. had been spit out by the mainstream. He’d clashed with agents over prospective roles so often that he’d been with no less than six of Hollywood’s top talent agencies over the years, and reportedly went a year without representation at all. By 2005 Cuba Gooding, Jr. seemed to be making his own risky decisions, and they all led to the world of independent film.
In an interview with UGO, Gooding expounded on his new direction. “[Independent film is] where the roles were. I wasn’t going to make another Boat Trip. I wanted to make more statement movies and it was all in independent films.” 2005’s Dirty seemed a return to socially relevant filmmaking; it didn’t hurt that Gooding’s character, a morally bankrupt police officer, recalled the Training Day role that earned Denzel Washington a Best Actor nod in 2001.
Gooding appeared next in another independent film, Shadowboxer. With an unusual premise — an assassin (Gooding) and his stepmother-turned-lover, also an assassin (Helen Mirren) sign up for one last hit before she succumbs to terminal cancer — Shadowboxer was perhaps Gooding’s most daring project to date. But like Dirty, Shadowboxer opened in a handful of theaters and was panned by critics. End Game, a derivative In the Line of Fire rip-off, went straight to video. Perhaps it was time to return to the studio system.
Next: Enter Norbit
After an exile into independent film that didn’t exactly pay off, Cuba Gooding Jr. went once again for the money: he took a role in Norbit. Playing foil to Eddie Murphy’s Razzie Award-winning antics, Gooding found himself in a hit film, though critics tore the lowbrow comedy to pieces. He briefly returned to the indie scene with What Love Is, and despite poor reviews most critics agreed Gooding’s was the only performance worth watching. But later that year he returned to the world of mediocre studio comedy with a starring role in the sequel Daddy Day Camp, taking over a role originated by his Norbit co-star Murphy. The film scored a one-percent Tomatometer rating, disappointed at the box office, and earned Gooding the second Razzie nomination of his career. (His first, naturally, was for Boat Trip).
Gooding was beginning to find a groove of sorts in his career; instead of taking on exclusively serious thespian roles, or back-to-back less critically-appealing mainstream projects, he was balancing both impulses. The newfound temperance paid off later in 2007, when his fourth film of the year — Ridley Scott’s American Gangster — opened to great critical and commercial success. It would go on to gross $265 million worldwide and garner multiple Oscars and Golden Globes nominations.
Next: What’s In Store for Cuba Gooding Jr.?
What’s In Store for Cuba Gooding Jr.?
Gooding has packed his 2008 slate full with an assortment of independently-financed films. Two have been already released: The direct-to-video action thriller Hero Wanted, opposite Ray Liotta, and the limited release Harold, a Napoleon Dynamite-esque comedy about a teenager (Spencer Breslin) with early on-set male pattern baldness.
Next for the onetime Oscar winner is an action-comedy called Lies & Illusions, from creature feature and Sci Fi Original Movie veteran director Tibor Takacs (helmer of such films as Mega Snake, Mansquito, and Ice Spiders). Gooding will continue to dwell in the land of indies and direct-to-video releases throughout 2009 with Linewatch, from Walking Tall director Kevin Bray; The Way of War, which has no set release date; and the tentatively-named The Untitled Gehenna Project, in which Gooding co-stars with Ray Winstone, Ron Perlman, and Henry Rollins in a tale of soldiers descending into hell. Perhaps it’s time to fear that Cuba Gooding Jr. might follow the footsteps of his What The Hell Happened To predecessor, Wesley Snipes (although a recent report announced that Gooding will return to television for the first time in years, playing Baltimore neurosurgeon Ben Carsons in TNT’s made-for-TV film Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story).
That said, having weathered two decades of career ups and downs, we believe Cuba Gooding Jr. has it in him to arise once more. A proven dramatic dynamo, he’s no stranger to the Academy; even his critical missteps (Radio, Men of Honor, Shadowboxer) were admirably bold choices that too few of his peers might dare to make. But having choices and making the right ones are what distinguish the good actors from the good actors-stuck-in-Tomatometer-hell. Can Cuba get career counseling soon enough to turn it all around?
To explore your favorite fallen star’s path toward Tomatometer glory (or infamy), check out our Celebrity pages here. Visit Wesley Snipes and Shannon Elizabeth in our previous installments of What The Hell Happened To…