Costner, Kevin (1955—)
Costner, Kevin (1955—)
Kevin Costner has as many fans as detractors; he is a steadfast box-office attraction but must strive for artistic respectability with each new film. Seen as the sexy embodiment of a healthy, positive image of American masculinity at the peak of his career in the early 1990s, Costner's public persona has suffered since then from his failure to live up to the standards set by his predecessors, the male stars of Hollywood's glamorous past. Because of his role as the dreamer who, guided by a mysterious voice, builds a baseball field in
the middle of his cornfield in Field of Dreams (1989), Costner was compared, above all, to the Jimmy Stewart of Frank Capra's films. This and other allusions to Gary Cooper, prompted by Costner's similar handsome looks, possibly traced a path for him in the audience's and the critics' imagination very unlike the one Costner actually would follow. This divergence may explain why he is not unanimously greeted as one of the greatest Hollywood stars of the 1990s.
Three main aspects contribute to shaping Costner's uneven career. First, his rather unwise choice of roles, alternating between less popular high quality products like JFK (1991) or A Perfect World (1993)—in which he plays demanding roles—with impossible block-busters like The Bodyguard (1992). Second, his irregular work as director, which includes a hit like Dances with Wolves (1990) and a flop like The Postman (1997). And third, the loss of his reputation as the long-married perfect husband in favor of a less popular reputation as a womanizer developed shortly after reaching stardom, which clearly affected his star image. The man destined to represent America's most cherished virtues on the screen has turned out to be a star with little sense of his own limitations as an actor, director, or public figure and with, arguably, an excessive sense of his own value as an artist.
Costner became a rising star with Silverado (1985) and The Untouchables (1987). Stardom definitively came thanks to two baseball films, Bull Durham (1988) and Field of Dreams. Games are indeed a leit-motif in Costner's career, which includes two more sports-related films, Tin Cup (1996) and For the Love of the Game (1999). The success of his excellent performance in Field of Dreams prompted Costner to fulfill a long-cherished ambition: directing a film, the low-budget Western epic Dances with Wolves based on the novel by Michael Blake. Despite the misgivings of many who thought (even wished) that Costner's film would be an utter failure, this long film well deserves the awards (Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay) and the popular esteem it reaped, for it is a courageous attempt to instill new life into the dying western genre. Unlike typical westerns, Costner's film deals with the confrontation between the white man and the native American from a distinctly antiracist perspective, allowing the language of the native tribes to be heard as was never heard before in cinema. Nonetheless, the film still fails to shift the focus away from the white man—Costner himself plays the main role—and onto the native American.
The paradox is that instead of consolidating Costner's career, the Oscar seems rather to have disrupted it. His role in his friend Kevin Reynold's Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves (1991) earned him little sympathy, while his decision to play the pathetic killer in Clint Eastwood's A Perfect World —possibly his best performance to date—was ill-timed, following hot on the heels of his very popular but insubstantial role as Whitney Houston's bodyguard. The Bodyguard has, though, the redeeming merit of depicting an interracial romantic relationship under a positive light, which might explain its popularity.
But the two films that have clearly become a sign of Costner's rising megalomania and self-indulgence—at least for his detractors—are Waterworld (1995) and The Postman. The former, which he co-directed with Kevin Reynolds, was in its time the most expensive film ever made but it failed to generate enough box-office receipts to recoup the impressive investment. Those who ridiculed Costner's wish to film Dances with Wolves but were silenced by the Oscars the film won seemingly came back with a vengeance to prey on Waterworld. The film broke records eliciting the highest number of negative comment even before actual shooting began. Although it did not become the success Costner expected, Waterworld nonetheless attracted a much larger audience than the critics foretold. Yet, far from learning a lesson from this expensive experiment, Costner plunged next into depths he had not known for years. The Postman, Costner's second film as director, simply flopped, despite the good reputation of the novel by David Brin from which it was adapted.
Costner's case is, arguably, paradigmatic of the advantages and the disadvantages that the current system of Hollywood film production offers to today's stars. In the past, Costner's good looks and acting talent would have guaranteed for him a stable place in the sun of any of the main studios. He would have had to sacrifice personal choice to stardom, with all the loss of artistic freedom that this entails. But, in his case, the freedom of choice enjoyed by today's stars seems to be working against him. Other male stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Mel Gibson, clearly (and paradoxically) enjoy a steady popularity despite their occasional mistakes. Costner does not. The key to the different treatment Costner meets might well have to do with his reluctance to distance himself from his own star image—in short, to his inability to laugh at his mistakes. The integrity that he exuded in Field of Dreams or The Untouchables has been subtly transformed into self-centeredness and this is a fault on which his detractors thrive. Fortunately for him, his achievement in Dances with Wolves shows that this perceived shortcoming could be forgiven in an artist.
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Costner, Kevin, et al. Dances with Wolves: The Illustrated Screenplay and Story Behind the Film. New York, Newmarket Press, 1991.
Davis, S. O. "Kevin Costner: Myth or Man?" Ladies' Home Journal. April 1991, 138-139.
Klein, E. "Costner in Control." Vanity Fair. January 1992, 72-77.
Vollers, M. "Costner's Last Stand." Squire. June 1996, 100-107.