In defense of Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J. Simpson
The jury, in the above entitled action, finds the defendant, Cuba Michael Gooding Jr., not guilty of the crime of being miscast in The People v. O.J. Simpson.
Since its premiere last week, the remarkable miniseries about the 1994-95 O.J. Simpson trial has been greeted with ecstatic reviews both among TV critics and from audiences on social media. Yet Gooding’s performance seems to be the one thread of the show’s Dickensian latticework that has viewers expressing a mixed to negative opinion.
In the comments section on my recap of the premiere, criticism of Gooding falls into two categories. 1) The actor’s lack of physical resemblance to Simpson. “It is jarring to see him trying to be O.J.,” wrote one commenter. “His size for starters is laughable compared to O.J. and he just doesn’t even remotely look like him in the face either, or in his demeanor.” 2) Gooding’s lack of inherent villainy. Another commenter wrote, “Simpson’s size and menacing appearance are important to convey in this story, and Gooding cannot pull that off.”
Complaints about Gooding’s physical likeness to Simpson are born out of our acute recognition of the latter. Not as many people have pointed out that the late Robert Kardashian, on his most handsome day ever, would never have been confused for Friends actor David Schwimmer. But looks aren’t everything. In fact, audiences, not to mention the Oscars, have illustrated over the years that physical resemblance is not the key to clinching accolades.
For example, many have focused on the discrepancy in height. Gooding is 3 inches shorter than Simpson, that’s true. But Philip Seymour Hoffman was 7 inches taller than Truman Capote — and he won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance as the gnome-like writer in Capote. Michael Fassbender is nominated in that category right now for Steve Jobs, and even Fassbender himself has said, “Obviously, I don’t look anything like Steve Jobs.”
Audiences who are opining that Gooding is not sufficiently menacing to play Simpson have either forgotten (or were never aware) about how extravagantly likable and generous O.J. was considered to be in the decades before the murders. James Cameron has famously stated that he vetoed Simpson’s casting in The Terminator because the football star seemed too harmless. “Everybody loved him, and ironically that was part of the problem,” Cameron told EW in 2014. “He was this likable, goofy, kind of innocent guy.”
Of course, Cameron could just as well be talking about the actor playing Simpson. Gooding won an Oscar in 1997 for Jerry Maguire, erupting onstage with one of the most satisfyingly earnest acceptance speeches, but followed it up with two decades of minor goofball comedies, such as Rat Race, Snow Dogs, and Boat Trip, movies that exploit the same likableness in Gooding (if with lesser success) as the Naked Gun franchise brought out in Simpson.
Also, Gooding’s access to believable intensity, bordering on mania, is obvious in the first two episodes. His psychological unraveling is so convincing as he threatens suicide that you might wonder how Simpson somehow stopped himself from doing it. Which is exactly the question that the show wants to provoke.
There’s also an argument that O.J. would have been better played by an unknown or little-known actor. My personal choice for the role would have been the extraordinary theater actor John Douglas Thompson, who only has a few TV credits to his name but whose titanic talent and resemblance to Simpson can be gleaned from this video or this one. That said, I understand that it was crucial that Simpson be played by someone that everyone watching would recognize. That’s because O.J. had a charm that could change the temperature of a room once he walked into it. An unknown actor simply wouldn’t bring that fundamental aura of fame to the role.
Great biopics exercise a part of our brains that allow the full identity of a real person to be meshed with an actor in order to create a third persona. It’s a strange but credible mental adjustment that we make in order to experience history.
This is the area where The People v. O.J. Simpson — and especially Gooding’s performance — takes a risk and pulls it off. We are watching an effective facsimile of O.J. as he was in 1994. Gooding, 48, is about the age that Simpson was then. I’d imagine that negative responses to Gooding will be lesser in number after audiences have have spent another hour acclimating to him in the second episode.
Although the series finale won’t air until April (and no one has seen it yet), I suspect that the show will end with Gooding as Simpson and a nod toward the unhappy life that awaited him after his acquittal, including his loss in the subsequent civil trial and his ultimate conviction for robbery in 2008. If this show persuades me to pity the man who walks out of a courtroom scot-free for two murders that a bounty of evidence suggests he committed, it will be in large part due to the actor playing him — who, just like his character, is beating the odds.