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 the flamboyant wide receiver Rod Tidwell in Jerry Maguire. And the respect that came with his earlier portrayal of the 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 been trashed by reviewers. His reputation sunk so low at one point that 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," added the actor, now 38. Recalling his heyday, Gooding said, "I was where Don Cheadle is now, where Terrence Howard is now. I was those guys three or four years ago."
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, 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." Gooding will also be seen in Shadowboxer, as a stoic assassin whose partner, played by Helen Mirren, is also his lover. The Baltimore opening for both films has not yet been set.
Lee Daniels, who directed Shadowboxer and produced the Academy Award-winning Monster's Ball (which helped kick Halle Berry's career up a notch) said he believed 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."
Peter Harry Brown, author of The Real Oscar, said that Gooding's eclipse was also a function of the dreaded Oscar curse, which has afflicted a number of Academy Award winners.
"You win the Oscar, make one more good film, then make a barrage of films that are mediocre," Brown explained. "He got all these offers, and he accepted them because he was the hottest guy in town."
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 as his own. 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 grossed more than $80 million), but were 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."
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."
He contended that his problems with agents - he has bounced among Paradigm, William Morris, International Creative Management, Endeavor, United Talent and, several times, Creative Artists, where he is now represented again - stem from being lied to about specific projects.
"It's hard to make decisions where you feel you're not getting enough out of the relationship and you have to move on," he said. "That's how I felt after the Oscar, where I felt I wasn't getting what was coming to me. I had to make decisions for what I felt was due to Cuba Gooding. If I felt lied to, or whatever, I made changes."
Howard Bragman, a longtime publicist who has worked with Cameron Diaz, Whoopi Goldberg and others but who does not represent Gooding, said he felt the actor might finally be pointed in the right direction.
"If a hitter has been in a slump, he should not be trying to hit home runs," he said. "They should go for doubles and singles. You've got to build your credibility, go back to the fundamentals."
Daniels said he felt that renewed success was "just a role away." "He's laying the seed now, doing these independent films," the director said. "I just pray that if either of these films hits, he doesn't go down the path of 'Show me the money,' because that can be very destructive."
Lewis Beale writes for the New York Times News.