As the release of Kevin Costner’s Hatfields and MCoys approaches, there has never been a better time to take an in-depth look at his varied career. From his breakout performance in the 1985 western Silverado to his latest role in the History Channel mini-series, you can’t say that Costner has repeated himself (except maybe when returning to the westerns and baseball- but who can complain about that?).
An avid film fan when growing up in California, Costner was fascinated by epic westerns such as Red River and How the West Was Won, he dreamed of being cowboy (a dream that would be fulfilled many years later). Following his marriage to his High School sweetheart in 1978 Costner plunged himself into becoming an actor, starring in a series of plays and low budget films.
Costner’s break into major films came in 1983’s The Big Chill. Although his scenes were later cut from the film, director Lawrence Kasdan was so impressed by the young actor that he promised to keep him in mind for a role in one of his later films. This led to Costner’s casting in the western Silverado, a role that stood out, even though Costner was acting alongside more established actors like Scott Glenn, Kevin Klein and comic legend John Cleese.
Costner was now a hot commodity and he followed up his star making role with the cold war thriller No Way Out co-starring Gene Hackman and Brian De Palma’s Oscar-winning epic gangster film The Untouchables. The Untouchables showed that Kevin Costner was a fully fledged leading man and his charisma shone through, even when sharing the screen with Hollywood legends like Robert De Niro and Sean Connery (who won an Oscar for his performance in the film). The film was a box office smash and Costner would follow it up with two of his most iconic films baseball dramas Bull Durham and Field of Dreams.
Field of Dreams in particular as developed legendary status due line “If you build it he will come”. The film, based on the novel Shoeless Joe, tells the story of an Iowa farmer (Costner) who hears a voice that tells him to build a baseball diamond in his field. He complies and goes on a journey of self discovery that brings hope and excitement to his friends and family. A critical and commercial hit on its release it solidified Costner’s leading man status and he entered the 1990’s. However his next film wouldn’t be so successful. Revenge directed by Tony Scott as his follow up to Beverly Hills Cop 2 was a box office flop. A hard edged action-drama co-starring Madeline Stowe and Anthony Quinn it was little too violent for the (mostly female) Costner fan base of the time. Today it stands out as a minor gem and I urge you to seek it out on television or on DVD.
In dealing with his first major flop, Costner decided to turn to directing, turning down acting roles in films like The Hunt for Red October he partly financed the film based on his friend Michael Blake’s novel; Dances With Wolves. Critic and Hollywood insiders mocked Costner’s faith in the film and they said that it was an over blown vanity project. Before it’s release it was known as Kevin’s Gate (after the legendary flop western Heaven’s Gate) and Costner’s Last Stand (after the legendary Battle of Little Big Horn).
Costner proved his critics wrong and the film and the three hour film went on to gross over $400 million worldwide, impressive my today’s standards, amazing when you consider that the film was released in 1990. The film swept the board at the year’s Oscars winning seven awards, including one for Costner’s direction. With the 1990’s off to a blockbusting start, Costner continued to make hit after hit, with critical and commercial favourites such as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, The Bodyguard (which re-teamed him with Lawrence Kasdan) and Oliver Stone’s highly controversial JFK. All of these films are classics in their own genre and all were very successful. Costner was now an international superstar at the top of the Hollywood A-list ladder. They only way for him to go was down.
There’s only one thing that the press like to do more than build people up and that’s knock them down. Following the release of A Perfect World which was directed by and co-starred Clint Eastwood in 1993 Costner re-teamed with Lawrence Kasdan for yet another western Wyatt Earp (a biopic of the famous frontier lawman). With a lavish budget and a cast that included Gene Hackman and Dennis Quaid the film was expected to be yet another huge success for Costner. However Wyatt Earp was beaten to the cinemas by Tombstone, a more adventurous take on the material that starred Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer. The films three hour running time betrayed its origins as a television miniseries and the film failed at the box office, yet it did get good reviews for Quaid’s performance as Doc Holliday. Yet again dubbed Kevin’s Gate by the press (so good they used it twice) Costner shouldered most of the blame for the films failure, yet he couldn’t have prepared himself for what would come next.
Since its release in 1995 Waterworld has been for the film that truly threw action films into the mega-budget realm. Plagued by delays, accidents and sinking sets the budget of the film spiralled out of control and although it was supposed to cost “only” $100 million dollars, the films eventually cost upward of $175 million. The film, an enjoyable action-adventure set in a post apocalyptic earth following the melting of the polar icecaps is made in the vein of old Hollywood pirate films. It’s tough to see where most of the budget went to, but the press smelled blood in the water and again went after Costner. Although the film turned a tidy profit Costner’s career was tarnished by the film and he took a hit from the press following his divorce from his wife. In an attempt to get his career back on track he joined forces with his Bull Durham director Ron Shelton and made golfing comedy Tin Cup. The film co starred Rene Russo, Don Johnson and Cheech Marin. A hit on its release, the film helped Costner claim back some commercial and critical favour.
In 1997 the release of The Postman delivered another blow to Costner’s career. The film, Costner’s second directorial effort was yet another post-apocalyptic action adventure, only this time with a futuristic western feel. A huge flop on release (it grossed $17 million from a $90 million budget) The Postman was again slammed by the critics, the film however is a highly enjoyable and old fashioned , if a tad over long.
1999 saw the release of another two Costner films, Message in a Bottle, an old style weepy co-starring yet another Hollywood legend Paul Newman. The film was a commercial success, but few critics were charmed by the nautical tale. Costner returned to more familiar territory with Sam Raimi’s baseball drama For Love of The Game. The film’s performance was however hampered by Costner’s public falling out with Universal Pictures over the direction that the film should take during the editing process and many of the reviews alluded to this.
The start of the 21st century saw something of an upturn with the release of the critically lauded Thirteen Days, a historical drama charting the Cuban missile crisis. The film once again reunited Costner with a director he worked with previously, No Way Out’s Roger Donaldson. Costner then teamed with fellow Wyatt Earp Kurt Russell for 2001’s box office bomb 3000 Miles To Graceland. The film tells the tale of a robbery during an Elvis convention in Las Vegas and Costner gives a fun performance as the villain of the piece. Although critically mauled on its release the film is quite a stylish action film with a top tier cast.
2002’s Dragonfly was another change of pace for Costner as it was supernatural thriller in the mould of The Sixth Sense, however he followed it with one his finest films; Open Range which was released in 2003. This was yet another directorial effort and another western, critics and audiences were unanimous with praise, with the film which features a violent and powerful shootout in its climax. Costner’s next two films were the quirky comedies The Upside of Anger and Rumour Has It. The former, directed by Mike Binder was praised for Costner’s strong performance as (what else) a retired baseball player .
The Guardian co-starring Ashton Kutcher saw Costner take to the waves once again as a lifeguard and mentor in this Top Gun style drama. The film was a commercial success and introduced Costner to a new generation of cinema-goers, while Mr Brooks saw him return to the role of villain as the eerie title character opposite Demi Moore, although the film was far from successful.
He touched on politics again in the political comedy Swing Vote, and then made the economic drama The Company Men opposite Ben Affleck. Costner will next be seen (albeit on the small screen) in Hatfields and McCoys, a western which sees him saddle up with Bill Paxton and Tom Berenger. After that he’ll star as Jonathan Kent in Zack Snyder’s Superman film Man Of Steel.
With a career spanning over twenty five years, Costner has seen his fair share of ups and downs, however he has shown incredibility and endurance as a leading man. He makes brave choices and is often willing to swim against the current Hollywood trends, and unlike most A-list actors he has never made a sequel to any of his films, amazing when you look at some of the roles that he could have returned to. One thing is for sure Costner’s career and versatility looks to run and run as he has more films in the pipeline and he has also turned his hand to music and he is currently set to release a new album (inspired by Hatfields and McCoys) with his band Modern West.