When Costner Was King: An Actor’s Rise and Fall (and Rise?)

October 5, 2012 | 15 books mentioned 8 5 min read

I’ve never really believed in God, but for a brief time in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Kevin Costner came pretty close. Last weekend, Costner won an Emmy for his lead role in the History Channel miniseries, Hatfield & McCoys, his first major prize since the 1991 Academy Awards where he took home Best Director and Best Picture for Dances with Wolves. At the time, he seemed poised for many, many more.

coverTwenty-five years ago this summer, those titans of testosterone, Brian De Palma and David Mamet, teamed up to deliver a film adaptation the Camelot-era television series, The Untouchables. With marquee names like Sean Connery and Robert DeNiro in supporting roles, the lead role of famous lawman Eliot Ness was given to a then relatively unknown Costner. Barely into his 30s at the time, this film would kick off one of the most impressive runs in the history of American cinema. Just two months after The Untouchables, the Cold War thriller No Way Out debuted to both box office and wide critical success. On the popular online review database Rotten Tomatoes, No Way Out maintains an amazing 97 percent approval rate. To put that in perspective, that’s better than The Graduate (88 percent) and just shy of The Godfather, Part II (98 percent). Famously cut from The Big Chill in 1983, and more visible in a commercial that same year for Apple’s failed “Lisa” computer, by Labor Day 1987, Kevin Costner was a household name.

covercoverI had just turned seven when Costner broke big. In 1952, when my father was the same age, Gene Kelly was singing in the rain while Gary Cooper watched the clock in High Noon. Films like The Untouchables, No Way Out, and Bull Durham (released June 1988) were all a bit mature for my innocent eyes. But with 1989’s Field of Dreams, my Costner man crush truly began. I honestly don’t remember seeing it in the theater. It must have been VHS. Either way, I remember the feeling. That film, pie-in-the-sky as it may be, still gets me. For many years I told myself that I would eventually make the trip to Iowa and visit the real “Field of Dreams.” It was the closest thing I’ve ever had to Mecca. In September of 2002, just after my 22nd birthday, I led an impromptu road trip to Iowa with a couple of my female coworkers. None of us knew each other very well, but it was just the kind of spontaneous thing that makes being 22 so great. We ate cheap food, slept in questionable motels, and attempted to solve the mysteries of the universe through conversation and hipster music. I’m not certain if it was part of their original plan, but after the first couple of days, the girls talked me out of visiting “the field.” We opted for the urban pleasures (shopping) of Chicago. I might still be bitter about the whole experience had I not fallen in love with and subsequently married one of them. I tease her about it to this day. It’s still there. I could go. But for some reason that I can’t fully explain, I don’t need to anymore.

In October 1975, Bruce Springsteen famously appeared concurrently on the covers of Time and Newsweek. After two consecutive commercial failures and his career on the line, Born to Run made “Bruce Springsteen” possible. In much the same way, though with a bit more success behind him, Kevin Costner appeared on the June 26, 1989 cover of Time. Looking into the distance, his eyes on the proverbial prize, Costner’s face somehow lives up to the magazine’s hyperbolic headline, “The new American hero — smart, sexy, and on a roll.” Big words. Big expectations. Little more than a year later, Rolling Stone would declare him, “An American Classic.”

coverAt the 62nd Academy Awards on March 26, 1990, Field of Dreams went 0 for 3, losing Best Score (The Little Mermaid), Best Adapted Screenplay (Driving Miss Daisy), and Best Picture (again, Driving Miss Daisy). At the 63rd Academy Awards, Costner faired a bit better. Dances with Wolves, his directorial debut, was the fourth highest-grossing film of 1990 ($424 million) behind Ghost, Home Alone, and Pretty Woman. It would go on to win seven Oscars including Best Director and Best Picture. Say what you will in retrospect, but this was a BIG film, one of those event movies that everyone, even 5th grade kids (this one at least) were talking about. Think Titanic. Think The Dark Knight. Costner was able to do this with an often-subtitled Civil War-era film about Native Americans. No small feat.

covercover1991. The Gulf War. Nirvana. Magic Johnson’s HIV. JFK. Half a decade after bursting onto the scene as do-gooder Eliot Ness, Costner returned to crusade for justice as New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison in Oliver Stone’s controversial film on the events of November 22, 1963. That summer, with Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Costner gave us a fun if forgettable summer adventure. But few were ready for the cultural phenomenon that was JFK. Even Seinfeld referenced the “Magic Bullet Theory.” Having recently re-watched this film for the first time in years, I was shocked at how well it’s held up over the past two decades. JFK was the sixth highest-grossing film of 1991, taking in more than $200 million. For a 189-minute film about conspiracy theories and legal minutia, this is utterly amazing. Much of the success can be chalked up to the buzz and controversy, but my money’s on Costner. By this point, he’d crossed that invisible line of trust with the general public. Every now and then, we (Americans) make a collective silent decision about an actor/actress. We love them. We like them. They’re one of us. We’ll follow their lead. Jimmy Stewart. Tom Hanks. Kevin Costner. Well, almost. Even though his streak wasn’t completely over, I feel that JFK marks the end of Costner’s golden age. His next release, 1992’s The Bodyguard, was a huge hit, but more for its soundtrack than anything else. Perhaps sensing a change, Costner took on his first villain/anti-hero role in Clint Eastwood’s criminally underrated 1993 film, A Perfect World. Playing an escaped convict who befriends a young boy, Costner finally gets to show his full range. He’d been the everyman (The Untouchables, Field of Dreams), the charismatic liar (No Way Out), and the sexy rebel (Bull Durham). But with this little movie, shot on the back roads of rural Texas, Costner is able to mix those ingredients together for something new. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen it since.

The Golden Raspberry Award or “Razzie” as it’s better known, is an annual award for the worst in movies, the polar opposite of the Oscars. In 1991, Kevin Costner was awarded the Razzie for “Worst Actor” in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. It was his first nomination and first win. No big deal. The movie made a ton of money. Many great and well-respected actors have had the (dis)honor of taking home a Razzie or two. It happens. But Kevin Costner, through bad luck, bad choices, or a combination of the two, has since received an additional six Razzie nominations for “Worst Actor,” winning twice for Wyatt Earp (1994) and The Postman (1997).

coverThe debacle that was Waterworld has been written and talked about ad nauseum. I have nothing to contribute to the conversation other than to say that it wasn’t as bad as everyone said it would be and it made more money than was expected. As for The Postman? That one will forever be in the WTF file. I’m 32 now. I’m sad to say that for more than half of my life, I’ve been living in a post-Costner world. For many years I held out hope that he would return to form.  There were moments. Tin Cup had a Bull Durham-esque appeal. And Costner, who seems to naturally take himself way too seriously, is very appealing when he lightens up and goofs around. Open Range was a good western. Not a great one, but pretty damn good.

coverIn an interview with The Hollywood Reporter earlier this year, Costner seemed ready for a vibrant third act. “I don’t give up. I’m a plodder. People come and go, but I stay the course.” Who knows, with the success of Hatfields & McCoys, perhaps some of the sparkle is returning to Costner’s star. Next summer he plays Clark Kent’s father in the hotly anticipated reboot, Man of Steel. But much of the audience, many born in the post-Waterworld era, will have no idea that for a brief but glorious period in my formative years, Kevin Costner was, at least cinematically speaking, Superman himself.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

is an author and editor. He has written for publications including Publishers Weekly, Poets & Writers and GOOD, among others. His latest book is The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books. Jeff lives with his wife in Oklahoma.