Cuba Gooding, Jr.'s win for Best Supporting Actor in 1996 is one of the more memorable Oscar moments of the last twenty years. While most winners attempt stoicism, Gooding gave himself over completely to the joy of the moment, reacting with a refreshingly unbridled enthusiasm. There's supposedly something undignified about openly desiring an Oscar, which is why nominees always say that they're honored to be nominated, rather than that they want desperately to win (though given the intensity of some Oscar campaigns, the "want" part doesn't really need to be said). This was the reaction of someone who wanted it and wasn't afraid to let everyone see that. It was an honest reaction but it was also, like Roberto Benigni walking over the seats the following year, a bit clownish and seems even more so when viewed through the lens of his post-Oscar career. Although he didn't have a ton of film credits before Jerry Maguire, he showed an incredible amount of promise as an actor. After Jerry Maguire, with a series of middling to terrible movies taking up space on his CV, he became kind of hard to take seriously as an actor. The Oscar curse had reared its ugly head.
Gooding got his start with a small role in the Eddie Murphy hit Coming to America and a supporting role in the musical drama Sing, then got his major break in John Singleton's Boyz in the Hood. As a young man coming of age in South Central Los Angeles, struggling to stay on the right path while gang violence tears his neighborhood apart, Gooding delivers an electrifying and beautifully nuanced performance. Though the film managed to secure two nominations for Singleton (for Director and Original Screenplay), neither Gooding nor his equally wonderful co-star Laurence Fishburne received notice in the form of acting nominations, though they would both have been very deserving nominees, if not winners. Gooding followed Boyz up with a leading role in Gladiator, a critically reviled boxing movie, and a supporting role as one of the Marines in A Few Good Men. Several small supporting roles followed, including the "best friend" role in the action movie Judgment Night, a mute who becomes a gunslinger in the Paul Hogan Western Lightning Jack, a member of the crew sent to investigate a virus in the hit Outbreak, and a role as Halle Berry's love interest in the drama Losing Isaiah.
After that, the watershed role in Jerry Maguire, where Gooding played the flashy football star Rod Tidwell. Although the performance is perhaps best remembered now for its catch phrase, it's reductive to consider it solely in those terms. Although Gooding might not have been my particular choice as Supporting Actor that year (I'd have given it to William H. Macy for Fargo), there's really no shame in this particular win. Tidwell is a character who helps bring comedy to Jerry Maguire, but the performance isn't as broad as his most famous scenes in it would suggest. Tidwell is entitled, demanding, and brash - but there's also a degree to which that's merely his persona as a star, while the real man is calm and grounded, focused on his family and providing them with stability. It's a solid performance and was followed up immediately by another solid performance in a small role in As Good As It Gets. After that, though, things start to go off the rails.
Gooding took a supporting role in the Robin Williams vehicle What Dreams May Come, a box office dud with mixed critical response, and then starred opposite Anthony Hopkins in Instinct, which was also poorly received by both critics and audiences. The mixed-race buddy actioner Chill Factor came next and then promptly faded away into obscurity (admittedly, when I was perusing Gooding's filmmography and came across this title, I assumed that this was the movie with the dogs but, no, that was 2002's Snow Dogs, which was a hit but of course had a head start on building an audience by having a bunch of adorable dogs front and center). The military drama Men of Honor followed, but like a lot of latter day Robert De Niro films, received tepid response. Gooding had a small role in Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor which was a box office hit but received a critical pounding, and Rat Race, the remake of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World that was a modest hit but, again, not well received critically.
The next few years of Gooding's career look like someone throwing everything against the wall to see what would stick. He starred in comedies like the ill-conceived, vaguely homophobic Boat Trip and had a role in Eddie Murphy's Norbit, a film notorious for the rumor that it cost Murphy the Supporting Actor Oscar for Dreamgirls, then took over a would-be Murphy franchise with the family comedy Daddy Day Camp. He starred in would be Oscar bait like Radio (best remembered by me for the amazing line, "We ain't teachin' Radio; Radio's teachin' us"), where he played a developmentally disabled man, the historical drama Red Tails, and several obscure films like the cop drama Dirty, Lee Daniels' Shadowboxer, the romantic comedy What Love Is, Harold which is, and I'm not even joking, a film about a 13-year-old with male pattern baldness who develops a friendship with his school's janitor, and the direct-to-DVD thriller Hero Wanted. There were a few bright spots, including the musical The Fighting Temptations, a small role in American Gangster, and a role in this year's hit Lee Daniels' The Butler.
Is this the career of an Oscar winner? I submit that it shouldn't be but, admittedly, what's happened to Gooding's career may not have been entirely his own fault. Hollywood isn't exactly kind to anyone who isn't a white male and there's no doubt that a lack of opportunity has played a role in Gooding's inability to capitalize on his Oscar win. At the same time, by his own admission, Gooding turned down roles that could have helped him build his career, including a role in Steven Spielberg's Amistad, because he was determined to become a "star" and thought that winning an Oscar alone entitled him to that status. Is this a case of the Oscar curse? Yes, to a degree and as a result of his hubris, but the curse is working in equal measure with the narrow way Hollywood views actors of color.