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In Defense of Kevin Costner

The rising stardom of Kevin Costner in the 1980s perplexed me. Sure, he starred in a string of good movies — “The Untouchables,” “No Way Out,” “Bull Durham,” “Field of Dreams,” “Dances with Wolves” — but, “Bull Durham” aside, he was often a bland presence upstaged by supporting players. James Earl Jones added punch to “Dreams,” Morgan Freeman added dignity to “Robin Hood” and Sean Connery added balls to “The Untouchables.” In fact, every Untouchable upstages Costner. His Eliot Ness wants to do good but it’s Connery who shows him how, Charles Martin Smith who points the way and Andy Garcia who provides the firepower. Ness? He plays butterflies and Eskimos with his daughter.

The falling stardom of Kevin Costner in the 1990s perplexed me, too. Just when his work became dark and complex the audience vanished. I’m thinking of “A Perfect World,” which came out the year after the monster-hit “The Bodyguard,” and was directed by Clint Eastwood the year after he made “Unforgiven.” Great star power, right? Critics loved it. It was released in November — prime movie real estate. Yet it made only $31 million in the U.S. — a quarter of “The Bodyguard’s” take —and garnered no end-of-the-year awards.

I’m also thinking of the unfairly maligned “Wyatt Earp,” in which Costner plays the titular lawman who grows darker the longer he lives and the more he kills. There’s an air of authenticity to the movie — an attempt to ground the mythology that grew out of Hollywood’s early depictions of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. But Costner’s Earp was a cold character and that translated into even colder box office. It made only $25 million.

Costner’s next starring role was “Waterworld” and two years later he made “The Postman,” and the party was over.

The biggest movie star on the planet

In “Bull Durham” Susan Sarandon calls him gorgeous, and in that movie he is, but he’s never had classic Hollywood good looks. His jawline is weak, his hair is thin and his voice is flat. He has athletic grace — hitting actual homeruns during the filming of “Bull Durham”; riding a horse while shooting a rifle in a buffalo stampede in “Dances with Wolves” — but in an age when everyone in L.A. has six-pack abs he has the nerve to show a gut.

Still, for a time, he was the biggest movie star on the planet. His movies weren’t just popular, they were part of the national dialogue. Few movies inspired more chatter than “JFK.” “The Bodyguard” was not just a huge international hit ($410 million worldwide, his second-biggest gross after “Dances”), but its soundtrack was the best-selling album of the decade, and Whitney Houston’s song “I Will Always Love You,” which is about Costner’s character after all, was everywhere. People got annoyed. We build up to tear down in this country, and now it was Costner’s turn. He wasn’t cool enough for us. Madonna made a barf gesture after Costner called her concert “neat” in “Truth or Dare.” He kept showing his ass in his movies. Who did he think he was? And did you hear his English accent in “Robin Hood”?

Then the Razzies started in. A year after the Academy nominated him best actor for “Dances” he won the Razzies’ worst actor award for “Robin Hood.” They made him a perennial nominee: “The Bodyguard,” “Wyatt Earp,” “Waterworld,” “The Postman,” “Message in a Bottle,” “3000 Miles to Graceland.” Long after he was down they kept kicking.

Costner didn’t help himself either. He kept making his movies long, longer, longest. None of his 1990s movies — none! — was less than two hours. “Dances with Wolves” was 180 minutes; “JFK”: 189; “Earp”: 191; “The Postman”: 177. He left us wanting less.

Anti-Costner folks attribute this to ego, but in Rick Lyman’s “Watching Movies With...” series in The New York Times, Costner, watching “Cool Hand Luke,” says, “I’ve always loved the longer narrative.” He says great films don’t rush through their important moments, and that’s true, and he complains that studio executives always want to make films shorter, and that’s true, too. But just because executives want something doesn’t mean it’s wrong. In separate commentary tracks to “Bull Durham,” Costner and writer-director Ron Shelton cross paths: Costner bemoans good scenes that were cut, Shelton talks about the necessity of cutting those scenes. “I don’t think great directors fall in love with their scenes,” Shelton says. “Great directors are always trying to make it tighter and less indulgent.” Artists everywhere know this: You’ve got to kill your little darlings.

Costner protects his little darlings. “I don’t think movies can exist without fat,” he tells Lyman. His films died of morbid obesity.

Why all of us are Cheech Marin

In “Tin Cup,” his character, Roy McAvoy, keeps “going for it” on the 18th hole of the U.S. Open instead of “laying up” and taking the short, smart shot. That’s Costner all over. His movie before “Tin Cup” was a three-hour long, post-apocalyptic movie that bombed so badly (at least domestically) it nearly wrecked his career. “Tin Cup” helped resurrect it. So what does he make next? A three-hour long, post-apocalyptic movie that bombed so badly it did wreck his career. Listen to his “Robin Hood” commentary. He accepts blame for his “dumb-ass [English] accent” and adds, “If I ever get the chance to do it again...” and you think he’s going to swear off British accents forever; instead: “...I’m going to do it again and I’m going to do it right.” You feel as frustrated as Cheech Marin, his “Tin Cup” caddy. Dude! Lay up! Take the safe shot!

He’s got ego, all right, but it’s not a traditional movie star’s ego. Traditional movie stars don’t allow themselves to be upstaged. “I’ve been in a lot of movies where somebody stole the movie,” he says of Alan Rickman in “Robin Hood.” “I’m always grateful for it.” Traditional movie stars have to be the hero and get the girl, but at his peak, in “The Bodyguard” and “Wyatt Earp,” Costner turned off the charm and played cold bastards. In “Waterworld” he beats a woman and threatens to kill a child. In “The Postman” he’s a schlub who’s mistakenly turned into a mythic hero. One wonders if Costner didn’t identify.

Watching “Waterworld” and “The Postman” again, you can see the mistakes as bright as day. “Waterworld’s” big revelation, halfway through the picture, is that there are cities beneath the water, but we’re basically told this in the opening narration so it’s no revelation. (Plus the villains are silly: “Mad Max” on jetskis.)

“The Postman” is about a rogue who doesn’t deserve his legend but, halfway through, the movie buys into the legend. It gives us slow-motion, mythic shots of the Postman grabbing letters. “I thought he was supposed to be a lazy bastard,” you say to the screen. “Why are they making him out to be what he’s not?” The film lost focus and then it lost money. While “Waterworld” still made $264 million worldwide (184th all-time), “The Postman” wasn’t even released internationally and made just $17 million.

The All-American rascal

But Costner’s a better actor than many realize. In Robin Hood’s first meeting with Maid Marian she tells him to take a bath; later — months later in movie time — she’s flummoxed when she sees him naked in a waterfall and she blurts out, “What are you doing here?” You see him remembering, putting things together, before responding, “Taking a lady’s advice.” Most actors don’t give us that pause; their dialogue snaps and crackles as if it were scripted, which reminds us that it is.

When Nuke LaLoosh bids Crash Davis farewell by calling him “Meat,” Davis’ responding laugh is complex — both real and proud and bitter. There’s pride that Nuke has matured under his tutelage but bitterness in being overshadowed by a student; in once again being left behind in an A-ball locker room.

Costner has three basic roles: the nice guy (“Field of Dreams”), the cold hero (“Wyatt Earp”), and the rascal (“Silverado”). Of course many of his characters straddle categories. Garret Blake in “Message in a Bottle” is both nice guy and cold hero. People think “Tin Cup’s” Roy McAvoy (nice guy and rascal) is just a continuation of Crash Davis (cold hero and rascal), but Crash is the smartest character in his movie while McAvoy isn’t exactly the smartest in his. If anything, McAvoy is Nuke LaLoosh if Nuke had wasted his talents; if Nuke hadn’t met Crash.

Here’s the point: Costner’s best work has an element of the rascal in it: Crash, Butch Haynes, Roy McAvoy. His roles this year — Denny Davies in “The Upside of Anger” and Beau Burroughs in “Rumor Has It...” — help underscore the point. In both he plays nice guy/rascals comfortably surrounded by women; in both he plays his age. But in the end Beau is a little dull because he’s too much nice guy and not enough rascal, while Denny is classic Costner: the not-smart man who wins smarter women through patience, persistence and frumpy charm. He’s Roy McAvoy updated.

We need to see more of this. We need the Razzies to lay off already. Costner was never as great as people believed in 1990 nor as bad as people believed in 1997. But he’s always been good.

Twenty years ago, the first scene of Kevin Costner’s first starring role (“Fandango”) showed darts being thrown at a photo of Kevin Costner. It’s time we all stopped that crap.

—Erik Lundegaard believes in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and he believes in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days. This piece was originally published 12/29/2005 on MSNBC.com.