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Post-Oscar roller coaster

In 1997, Cuba Gooding Jr., not yet 30, had almost everything show business could offer. Critics loved him. Peers had voted him an Oscar for his performance as flamboyant wide receiver Rod Tidwell in Jerry Maguire. And the respect that came with his earlier portrayal of conflicted teenager Tre Styles in Boyz N the Hood had not worn thin.

That Gooding's career has since become a train wreck is hardly news. Over the past decade he has fired agents with regularity, gone without representation for nearly a year and starred in a string of dubious projects that have generally been trashed by reviewers. His reputation had sunk so low that at one point a satirical Web site ran a fake news item headlined "Academy Demands Cuba Gooding Jr. Return His Oscar."

"The studios don't see me now," said Gooding, speaking by telephone from the Los Angeles set of his latest film, What Love Is, an independently financed romantic comedy in which he co-stars with Anne Heche and Sean Astin.

"As a commercial entity, I know my stock is low," said Gooding, now 38. Recalling his heyday, he said, "I was where Don Cheadle is now, where Terrence Howard is now. I was those guys three or four years ago."

Gooding acknowledged that for a long time he was driven by a number of factors: trying to "compete with Will Smith"; forging a career as an entertainer rather than an actor; and "being a black actor crossing over to a white audience."

Of late, though, Gooding's return to the world of low-budget filmmaking is starting to look a bit more like honest reinvention and less like simple desperation. In Dirty, opening in limited release Friday, Gooding plays a viciously corrupt Los Angeles police officer and gives a performance that Variety has called "just the tonic for an actor who has drifted into too many goody-goody roles since Jerry Maguire." Later this spring, Gooding will be seen in Shadowboxer, as a stoic assassin whose partner, played by Helen Mirren, is also his lover.

Lee Daniels, who directed Shadowboxer and produced the Academy Award-winning Monster's Ball (which helped kick up Halle Berry's career a notch) said he thought that Gooding's downfall might have had its origins in his notorious Oscar acceptance speech, a wild 30 seconds in which he bounced giddily around the stage shouting out thanks to what seemed like nearly everyone in Hollywood before being cut off by the orchestra.

"It was a Stepin Fetchit performance," Daniels said. "A lot of black people were put off. What happened from that point was he lost respect from the Boyz N the Hood crowd. And as a businessman, he went out for the money. As an actor of color, you have to be careful, and he chose to go for the money instead of the art."

After appearing in the critical and box-office hit As Good as It Gets, Gooding quickly seemed to adopt Rod Tidwell's "Show me the money!" mantra. He starred in frantic farces (Rat Race, Snow Dogs), bloated fantasies (What Dreams May Come), limp action films (Chill Factor) and high-minded but maudlin feel-good enterprises (Radio, Men of Honor). A few of these pictures performed well at the box office (Snow Dogs had gross revenues of more than $80-million), but they were generally eviscerated by the critics.

The nadir came in 2002 with Boat Trip, in which Gooding played a straight man who mistakenly winds up on a gays-only cruise

Recalling those projects, Gooding said: "I thought people wanted me to make them laugh. But I was wrong on so many levels. I try to take all my energy and bravado and take it into comedy, and that's when I'm terrible. And it was also for the money. When I got to Boat Trip, I thought it was time to do something that was going to make me a $20-million player."