Where do you put Kevin Costner when you start discussing some of the most prolific and some of the best actors of his generation? It's difficult to truly gauge the power of Costner as an actor. He has been in some of the best films of the 80s and 90s, although the late 90s and beyond have been as poor as any prestigious actor this side of Robert DeNiro. There may be a clear dividing line in Costner's career, as it drifted out into the ocean in a certain overblown sci-fi epic. But let's get back to Costner for a second. As an actor, Kevin Costner is not terribly interesting, he never has been. He delivers lines flat, emotionless at times, he reads bland. He isn't necessarily the matinee idol either, although his sex appeal had its time. So where does Costner fit? Or does he fit anywhere? He might be the most interesting and enigmatic former superstar around.
Kevin Costner, son of a ditch digger, was always a little off center in his youth, even building his own canoe and traveling the Lewis and Clark route at 18. He wrote poetry and bounced from job to job, always wanting to act but apprehensive about taking the plunge until one day he met Richard Burton on an airplane. Burton convinced him to pursue acting completely, so he quit whatever job he had at the time and went to Hollywood, even starring in one soft-core sex film. Costner's big break was, oddly enough, a part that never made it into the movie. It was The Big Chill, one of the biggest hits of 1983 about a group of college friends who reunite after a friend commits suicide. Costner was the friend, but his part was completely cut out of the film. Nevertheless, director Lawrence Kasdan kept Costner in mind when he directed his western, Silverado, in 1985. Costner starred as Jake, and from here his career began to bloom.
Despite his flat delivery and Midwestern looks, Costner's career took off. In 1987 he was cast as Elliott Ness in Brian DePalma's smash hit The Untouchables. That same year he was the lead in the taut political thriller No Way Out. Costner was on the rise. The following year, Costner showed the world that he was the perfect fir for a baseball uniform in Bull Durham, playing the salty minor league star Crash Davis. Over the next six years, Costner had arguably the biggest run of any actor, starring in huge hits like Field of Dreams, Robin Hood, JFK, and The Bodyguard. Some were nominated for Oscars, others were huge hits art the box office. The height of his career came in 1990 when he managed to direct a Western epic all the way to the top of the mountain on Oscar night.
Dances With Wolves is a marvelous picture, despite the general understanding that the Best Picture statue belonged to Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas in 1990. Regardless, Costner's direction and his starring role as John Dunbar, a Civil War deserter who comes to understand and love the Sioux Indians, was the peak of his career. It is the sort of epic Oscar feeds off of, and the challenge of a Western epic in 1990 was overcome by Costner's solid direction He continued to make hits for a few years until Waterworld all but derailed his shooting star. The bloated epic was the highest-budgeted film of the time, rumors of directorial dissent, and numerous production issues doomed the picture before it was released. And upon its release, the film was widely panned. Costner especially.
His rogue Mad-Max-on-water character was rude, cold, remorseless, and altogether uninteresting. And it didn't help the extravagance of the picture that could have been better served had it been toned down and more attention been paid to the story. A few years later, Costner went back to the post-apocalyptic well, directing and starring in The Postman. If Waterworld was a colossal failure, The Postman took those shortcomings to a new level. The mid nineties were where Costner's career began to wobble, and over the next decade he would float into obscurity with meandering epics like Wyatt Earp and half-baked thrillers like 3000 Miles to Graceland and Dragonfly. His talent would surface at times in uneven but improved pictures like Open Range and Mr. Brooks. But still, the damage of the mid nineties seemed to offset Costner as a box-office draw.
There is still room for Costner to come back strong in a late-career renaissance, but in what I do not know. Perhaps his leading man status will never be what it once was, but directing a smaller picture could be a move in the right direction. He has never been the typical leading man, and his flat delivery became somewhat of a signature in his career. It has been a long time since Costner was relevant, but you can see in pictures like Open Range, a solid Western, and Mr. Brooks, a stiff departure from the norm for Costner, that potential is still there.