2009 | Issue Three | Nonfiction
dir. Brian Levant
CUBA GOODING JR. has been an actor. He acted as an inner-city teenager struggling toward manhood in a movie called Boyz n the Hood. He acted as a football player in Jerry Maguire, entertained a large, diverse audience, and was rewarded with money and fame. Now it’s 2001. Cuba Gooding Jr. is 33, surrounded by huskies, working under the direction of a volleyball enthusiast named Brian Levant, and very cold. He has never been so cold. Each afternoon he watches the dailies and sees himself bundled up like a lunatic. He vows to take off his beanie and heavy-duty gloves for the next scene. When he does, his fingers go numb.
In Snow Dogs, Alaska is played by Alberta, Canada. Alberta is usually churchlike and lovely, but now it’s speckled with cameras and caterers and DPs and trailers and generators and dogs and dog trainers. Cuba Gooding Jr. implies that the dogs get more attention than the people. They are pets, and have to be taught to race—this requires focus, effort, and a non-negligible portion of $33 million. They bark all day long.
Cuba Gooding Jr. has made mistakes. He loves silent-era comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, so he decided to take a role as a mute in Lightning Jack, a western caper written and directed by Crocodile Dundee. “At the time, I thought it was going to be the best movie in the world,” he says, looking away.
He took the role in Snow Dogs because it was an “opportunity to do a family film, and at the same time… [deal] with issues about self-worth, adoption and race.” In it, he plays a successful dentist living in Miami, who finds out, by way of an inheritance subpoena, that he is adopted. His biological mother was a loner who moved to a nonexistent town in Alaska to race sled dogs. His father is mean, older, and white. He and Cuba Gooding Jr. share stubbornness and love bleu cheese.
Cuba Gooding Jr. busies himself learning to race his inherited dogs, falls in love, and has several ambiguously comedic near-death encounters. (Most of the time, the comedy is signified by bulging eyes and a calypso soundtrack. Without one or both, the bleakness of the scenes would be unmarketable to children.) His father shows no tenderness and talks constantly of Cuba Gooding Jr.’s dogs, which he wants to buy. Later, he gets lost in a snowstorm, and Cuba Gooding Jr. saves him on the unfair and unearned presumption that if your father is lost in a blizzard, you save him even if he is unfriendly and abandoned you as a child.
The script is bad work by a pile-on of writers who are distracted wondering about how they got where they are. There is a scene in which Cuba Gooding Jr.’s father, played by James Coburn, offers Cuba Gooding Jr. a sip of his flask, calling it soup. Cuba Gooding Jr. sips and spits it out. “You said this was soup!” he protests. James Coburn tells him, “It has soup in it.” Both actors are too tired to ask the writers what this is supposed to mean. Cuba Gooding Jr. slips on the ice in almost every scene, even in the documentary featurettes. He wants to make people laugh.
He thinks about his house and his family. He thinks about Sara, his wife, whom he has known since 1986, and wonders if she sleeps in the middle of the bed when he’s away. He dreams a lot in hotels. One night, after filming the scene where he flies back into Canada-Alaska from Miami, he dreams he is on a plane flown by huskies. The flight is choppy. At cruising altitude, the door to the pilot’s cabin swings open, which Cuba Gooding Jr. can see because he flies First Class. There is a dog in the chair, and a dog trainer trying to show the dog how to use the controls. The dog doesn’t seem to have any interest in flying, but winks, continuously. Later, when shooting the film’s dream sequence, he tells director Brian Levant about his own dream. “So what do you think it means?” Levant says, with a sarcastic emphasis on means that makes Cuba Gooding Jr. feel lonely.
There is a scene where he howls at the moon with Joanna Bacalso, a Filipino actress and model who plays Barb, the local bartender. Cuba Gooding Jr. has never howled at the moon before, and has never even seen a moon hanging so low, bright, and round, like a button or a dinner plate. He tries to think about whether or not he and Sara have ever done anything as romantic as howl at the moon. Maybe not. But they have raised three children. One of the three loves jumping on trampolines and one of the three is named Spencer. He can’t remember whether Spencer is the one who loves jumping on trampolines.
In the bonus features for Snow Dogs, Nichelle Nichols (best known as the kindly black woman in Star Trek) jokes about how she told one of the producers she’d kill him if he didn’t hire her for the role of Cuba Gooding Jr.’s adoptive mom. She is giving throughout, streaked with bluish and metallic pink eye shadow, never without cookies. His adoptive dad only appears once, at the beginning of the film, in a scene where a young Cuba Gooding Jr.-not-Cuba Gooding Jr. is assisting him with some dentistry (he is also a dentist), which ends with young Cuba Gooding Jr.-not-Cuba Gooding Jr. vomiting into a trash can.
Cuba Gooding Jr.’s real father left when Cuba Gooding Jr. was six. Cuba Gooding Sr. was famous for singing in the Main Ingredient, whose biggest hit was “Everybody Plays the Fool.” The first line of Cuba Gooding Sr.’s website biography is, “Everybody plays the fool sometime, but not Cuba Gooding.”
Cuba Gooding Jr. grew up in hotels. He became born-again at age 13. He doesn’t dwell on these things. When Snow Dogs is finished, he thinks about whether or not it dealt with serious issues. It didn’t. This is not his fault; he just works, and work is a blessing. “They say don’t work with children or animals, and there’s a reason for that,” he jokes a few years later. He works with both. He has to eat.
He did get to go to Canada—that was something. He brings home two sweaters and a glass bowl blown by a local artisan for Sara. He brings home custom snowboards for Spencer and Mason, who are constantly trying to figure out new ways to hurt themselves while playing sports. (He has asked Sara to get the boys’ measurements; he has to remember to ask her how she did it; you don’t just measure young boys.) For his daughter, Piper, he brings only a snow globe and a simple, unique necklace, but spends hours with her looking at pictures he took on the set because he remembers that Piper, between sips of juice at dinner one evening, said she wanted to be a veterinarian.
“That movie changed my sinuses for three years,” Cuba Gooding Jr. tells Entertainment Weekly. “If I see a dog again, I might kick him in the balls to make a cat happy.” The next time he sees a dog, though, he doesn’t kick it in the balls. He knows that dogs get cold too. 💣
MIKE POWELL lives in Tucson, Arizona.
Copyright Mike Powell
Photo by George Allen