Maybe he saw it on ESPN's Web site a few weeks ago, which is in the midst of having readers determine the most overrated actor working today. There he was, seeded No. 1 in the first round, where he beat out Tim Allen. "The worst actor of his generation," insisted the site. "Don't let roles in Bull Durham and The Untouchables fool you; he was saved by brilliant scripts." (He has since fallen to fifth seed Ashton Kutcher, and it doesn't seem quite fair.) Or maybe he heard it from Diane Sawyer, who, on Primetime Live last week, asked him about his reputation as being difficult to work with.
Or maybe he read it in last year's revised New Biographical Dictionary of Film, written by esteemed film critic David Thompson, who dishes out bushels of buttered scorn. "Humor is not Costner's strength," Thompson writes in the snippy tone of the expatriated Brit. "What a nice, ironic intro that remark makes for Kevin Costner's last decade. For what has emerged 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. It is dazzling, alarming and a warning to all in the last gasp of the age of film." Thompson goes on to dismiss most of what Costner offered in the 1990s and the new century: Wyatt Earp, Waterworld, The Postman, For Love of the Game, 3000 Miles to Graceland, Dragonfly. He forgot to mention Message in a Bottle, perhaps because Thompson, lucky soul, forgot it existed at all.
So here he sits in a hotel conference room in a white shirt and khaki pants, all crisply pressed--Kevin Costner, once so beloved, now so bruised by years of being battered about in the press and in the offices of studio executives who once thought him, at the very least, bankable. He is on the road to promote Open Range, yet another western he directed in which he stars as a haunted, melancholy man running out of range to roam. As was the case with Dances with Wolves, his 1990 directorial debut that returned from the prairie with saddlebags filled with Oscars, Open Range was made without studio financing; though it has Buena Vista distribution, it was made by Costner's Tig Productions company, which he set up 13 years ago for Dances. Costner explains that the major studios didn't believe a western, even one starring Costner and Robert Duvall, would make money overseas, so they passed. A film that won't play in Europe won't pay in the United States.
But maybe there's another answer to why no one would give him scratch for his western itch. Maybe studios are just tired of Costner. Tired of dealing with him, tired of fighting with him, tired of losing money on a man who was once as sure a bet as pocket aces. Stories are legion about his battles with Universal over the editing of Sam Raimi's For Love of the Game; he will likely never work for the studio as long as certain executives remain in power. He would encounter similar battles with New Line over Roger Donaldson's Thirteen Days, in which he played an adviser to President Kennedy. In both instances, scenes were deleted that Costner felt developed characters left half-baked by bad edits. But he defends his battles by insisting he cares about the final product, that he's not just some hired gun doing his job till the next paycheck beckons. And if that makes him look like a pain in the ass, well, so be it.
"I'm not like, 'Hey, do what you want, I'm on to my next film,' you know--'Lots of luck, idiot,'" he says, without cracking a smile. "Do you know what I'm saying? You've got to say, 'Wait a second, because people put a lot of time into this.' Some of the movies that I've done, they suffer from a conventional cutting. If they had six more minutes in them, a lot of things would float for you...I would like to have a rich uncle come along and say, 'I believe in the movies you make.' I believe they're going to always look like a movie, and I believe there's a big market out there for it. And, you know, whether that happens or not, I'm not going to wilt like a daisy as long as the desire is in me. The next story I come up to that I want to make, I'll find a way to make it. I'll find a way to make it. "
Costner is told he has a reputation for being a troublemaker.
He says, "I'm trouble for people who change their mind and don't stand by what they say."
Perhaps Costner's reputation has so degraded over the years because somewhere along the way, he seemed to stop enjoying himself in the movies he chose, and audiences stopped enjoying him in the theaters in which they screened. The grins of his early films, among them Fandango and Lawrence Kasdan's western Silverado, both out in 1985, gave way to the grim seriousness of his later work. The bravado of Crash Davis in 1988's Bull Durham and the boyish enthusiasm of Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams a year later drowned in the soggy Waterworld and were trampled to death by horses in Wyatt Earp and The Postman and even Dances with Wolves.
His characters, once rowdy and feisty, were suddenly haunted and solemn--deadly dull shadows who seemed to enjoy life as much as a conservative talk-show host. When he showed up as cocky, ditzy, even kind of dorky West Texas golfer Roy McEvoy in Tin Cup in 1996, you were reminded of how much fun the guy could be when he lightened up and brightened up the screen. But three years later he was a mopey widower in Message in a Bottle, and it hit you: Costner no longer played characters you wanted to hang out with, but guys you'd tried to avoid at the bar as they told you their sob stories or started reciting mangled Shakespeare.
Some of that just comes with a man getting older: Costner was 30 when he made Silverado, in which his yee-haws were louder than the sound of gunfire, and now he's a man of 48 who endured a very public divorce in 1994, whose friendship with Fandango director Kevin Reynolds sank along with $175 million during the filming of Waterworld and whose Postman was buried beneath rain and sleet and hail and snow and a review in The New York Times that called it a "truly awful movie." Costner, who will marry 29-year-old Christine Baumgartner next summer, has picked up a lot of baggage since he began in the movie business--and it's heavy luggage at that, loaded with tons of bricks that can make a man's shoulders slump just a little. He's asked whether that's the case, whether the roles he seeks change the older--and wiser, or whatever--he gets.
"Maybe it happened subconsciously," he says. "I never thought of it that way, but, you know, what happens is, as I go forward I see the weight and the level of interest in the characters, and I become interested in them, you know--what they want to be about. I don't feel the need to do it all over the place. Any role I take, I'm comfortable in it, or I won't take it."
It doesn't seem quite fair, watching Costner put on the defensive in interview after interview; he's done nothing more than commit the crime of caring about his movies, some of which haven't been worth caring about, but still. He insists he cares about nothing more than entertaining the audience, not serving the studios who employ him. If those two things don't jibe, he's willing to take it outside and into the press.
"My movies aren't unreasonable; they aren't unreasonable at all," he says. "I think they are what they are, and you have to treat them as children--individually. You just do, and if you don't, if you treat them like a piece of product, which they get turned into anyway, you lose their personality...I don't think of myself as a real cutting-edge guy. It's not like I'm making movies that no one can understand, but it's OK, you know. It's OK if you believe in whatever your destiny is; this is probably who I am."
In the end, you must admire Costner in some way--for his tenacity, his stubbornness, his willingness to make unpopular choices and stick with them, consequences be damned. He knows--he knows--making another western is not the wisest career choice, just as he knew making three baseball movies wasn't the best thing to do; in Hollywood, man, they will freakin' bury you in that pigeonhole. Sure, he would love to star in a franchise; he once considered doing a Bodyguard sequel with Princess Diana. He wants commercial success. "I have an ego, I'd like that," he says, almost grinning. But then he talks about wanting to make yet another western, because he has faith in Open Range to find an audience despite studios' assertions that the genre died with its boots on a long time ago.
"I'm still the beaver," he says. "I've still got to build a dam. I'm still feeling like I want to make the next great movie if I can, and I won't go off and make something that I don't think makes sense to me. I don't know that this is the best career move, to go make a western, but I feel really good about the story. I feel really good about the movie experience. I want my relationship with myself, with an audience, to be an honest one. I really wanted to make this one. This wasn't a move to get back into some station or whatever. It's what I wanted to make, and there's room for everything. What I hope is, when I don't want to do this, I will stop. That's what I really hope. That I won't linger because the money exists."
And how will he know when that moment arrives?
"I know," he says, smiling at last.