He was Elliot Ness. Crash Davis. Ray Kinsella. Lieutenant Dunbar. Even Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves.
And then he faded away.
What happened to Kevin Costner? For a few years in the mid- to late-1980s, Costner was everywhere. Sure, the critics never quite cottoned to him; they always insinuated that he was an airhead, a blank. “Costner has feathers in his hair and feathers in his head,” The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael quipped in her review of Dances with Wolves. “Costner suggests Dan Quayle with a sword,” added Mike Clark of USA Today, panning Robin Hood. “Kevin Costner can be very uninteresting,” concluded David Thomson in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film.
But Costner was more than just an actor. He was a movie star—the movie star. Nearly every bankable script was sent his way. Magazine writers compared him to Gary Cooper. Costner wasn’t a chameleon, of course. If you need a reminder, watch Prince of Thieves; he was the only actor in 12th-century Nottingham speaking Californian. But there was something rare and genuine about his presence. Gentle. Decent. All-American, with just enough sex appeal to maintain the magnetism. He always seemed like himself on screen, and that was the point. He was the Everyman of his era—an aspiration.
It’s been a couple of decades now since anyone really cared about Kevin Costner the Movie Star. In the 1990s, his pace began to slacken, and eventually the hits evaporated. Between 2006 and 2013 only five Costner movies appeared in theaters. None were blockbusters. None featured him as leading man.
But in 2012 Costner resurfaced on the History Channel in Hatfieds & McCoys. He won a Golden Globe and an Emmy for his performance. The following year he appeared in Man of Steel as Jonathan Kent, Clark’s adoptive, earthling father. And then came 2014. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit in January. 3 Days to Kill in February. Draft Day in April. And McFarland in November.
That’s four movies in one year—the most of Costner’s career. Only one of them, Shadow Recruit, isn’t a starring role. And even that might spawn a Costner-centric spinoff.
Are we in the midst of a Kevin Costner comeback? It’s clear that Costner is trying to recapture some of the old magic. But as I watched him in Shadow Recruit, I couldn’t help but wonder: is that kind of magic even possible in this day and age? Or is it a thing of the past?
To answer that question, it’s worth considering how Costner lost his way in the first place. In 1988, producer Mace Neufeld approached Costner about The Hunt for Red October. The two had worked together on No Way Out, and Neufeld wanted Costner to play Jack Ryan. But Costner was fixated on another film. “I couldn’t do it because I had already postponed Dances With Wolves for one year,” Costner explained recently. “And then they offered me really a lot of money, more than I had ever seen, to do Hunt for Red October, and I said, ‘You know, ‘No’ doesn’t mean ‘More,’ it’s just ‘No.’ And it was like, ‘Oh, that silly little Indian movie.’”
Dances with Wolves, Costner’s directorial debut, wasn’t a silly little Indian movie. It earned $424 million worldwide and wound up winning seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Adapted Screenplay. But even so, the film marked a tricky turning point in Costner’s career. “What has emerged,” David Thomson once wrote, “is the most blatant example in screen history of an actor following his own fantasies—at enormous cost sometimes, without any offsetting humor, but doggedly, like some lone scout mapping the far northwest.” Before Dances, Costner was a movie star. After Dances, he was an auteur.
The rap on Costner in the 1990s and early 2000s is that he leveraged his stardom and indulged his vanity to make one bloated, mediocre epic after another. But in retrospect, the films themselves, with the notable exception of Costner’s mawkish science-fiction picture The Postman, aren’t nearly as abysmal as everyone seems to remember. Waterworld isn’t a success, but at least it’s an interesting, ravishing failure. And the tough, graceful Open Range is one of the finest westerns in ages. Although we tend to mock actors who want to direct, Costner has proven that, as Thomson puts it, “he is not like others—he has resolved not to be.” There was integrity in Costner’s fantasies, even if they were a bit too much.
The problem wasn’t that the movies were terrible, it was that Costner himself wasn’t at his best as a modern-day David Lean. He deemphasized his greatest gift—his easy flair for conveying both modesty and glamor on camera—in pursuit of something showier and ultimately less profitable. The Postman cost $80 million to make; it earned $18 million at the box office. Hollywood never really forgave Costner. He’s wanted to make a pair of war films for years—A Little War of Our Own and Learning Italian—but he’s never managed to raise enough money.
And so we have the current Costner comeback—the casting about for a new kind of middle-aged leading role. In 3 Days to Kill he will be a dying Secret Service agent trying to carry out one last assignment and reconnect with his estranged daughter. In Draft Day he will be the general manager of the NFL's Cleveland Browns struggling to sign a top draft pick. And in McFarland he will be an underdog California track coach.
I hope something will stick, but I worry it’s too late. Not just because Costner is older now. George Clooney is also in his 50s, and he’s also an opinionated liberal with directorial ambitions—all the things Costner was once punished for being. But Clooney’s attitude—his screen persona—is the opposite of Costner’s. It fits our era. Costner’s might not.
Costner was an earnest man for an earnest time: the patriotic, self-serious interregnum between Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. When that period ended and a more ironic age began—when U2 shifted gears from Joshua Tree to Achtung Baby—Costner’s earnestness did not dissipate. It ballooned. “A man like Costner would be killed by humor,” Thomson once wrote. “The gravity stands high and bright, like an eagle on a peak.” Clooney acts, Clooney directs, Clooney opines—but he winks at us while he’s at it. He’s in on the joke. We think we are, too. Costner never was.
He can still be great. He is great in Shadow Recruit: a world-wearier version of the good, thoughtful, competent men he always played at his peak. And he still understands his talent. “It’s a kind of thing you learn how to do without doing lisps and accents and limps,” Costner said recently. “You can’t get away with all the tricks you get to play as a character actor. Sometimes as a leading man what makes you almost boring is that you’ve got to stand there and take people through the movie. You don’t get to do what all the people who play the bad guy or the eccentric get to do. It’s hard sometimes, because you go, ‘Am I doing enough here?’ It’s not an easy thing, which is why there aren’t a lot of guys who can fill those shoes. People think it’s easy to be Spencer Tracy. Oh, really?”
But in the end, it’s not Costner who has changed. It’s us. We’re too distracted to notice an actor who doesn’t beg for our attention; too fragmented to agree on an idol who promises to appeal to all of us (and not just to 18- to 29-year-old boys).
It’s too bad. We could use a male star who doesn’t seem so forced—and who hasn’t been forced upon us. Unlike Ryan Reynolds, Sam Worthington, Taylor Kitsch, or any number of other recent contenders, Costner had a core—”modest, friendly, accommodating, sincere, and a little doubtful” as Roger Ebert once put it—that could withstand Hollywood’s blockbuster apparatus. He would have been a perfect Jack Ryan.
I’m not giving up yet, though. There’s a reason Costner was at his best in sports movies: Field of Dreams, Bull Durham, Tin Cup, For Love of the Game. On screen, he projects a kind of purposeful calm—an athlete’s zen, an in-the-zoneness. In November, he returns to the playing fields in Disney’s McFarland. The screenplay is by Bill Broyles, the writer responsible for Jarhead, Cast Away, and Apollo 13. It seems like a good fit. Here’s hoping Costner can find his stride again in the homestretch.