The reinvention of Kevin Costner

Kevin Costner, honored with a Cinema Icon Award, arrives for the Big Screen Achievement Awards...

Kevin Costner, honored with a Cinema Icon Award, arrives for the Big Screen Achievement Awards during CinemaCon, the official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada March 27, 2014. (REUTERS/Steve Marcus)

Bruce Kirkland, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:45 PM ET

Superstar status in Hollywood can fade away in ugly fashion, especially if it is based too much on youthful good looks and sexual charisma. Excellent example: Kevin Costner.

At 59, with a worn, weathered face and ready to hit 60 on Jan. 18, 2015, Costner is no longer a marquee name with the “superstar” tag. He is also no longer the arrogant S.O.B. who used to be almost as prickly to talk to as Tommy Lee Jones, Hollywood’s most infamous junkyard dog. Before his life change and overdue maturity, Costner once dropped a “C” bomb on a friend of mine, an American TV journalist who asked him a question that rankled. She cried. He scowled.

Now, however, Costner has matured into a wonderfully versatile character actor. He can still carry a movie such as Ivan Reitman’s football-themed Draft Day, opening April 11. Costner has mellowed. Reaching middle age in 2000 — when he turned 45 — has done wonders. Losing that “superstar” status has meant that life, and his acting career, are chugging along happily. Even his country rock music sideline — he fronts Kevin Costner & Modern West — is doing well.

Flash back nearly 30 years. Costner was critically noticed in 1985 in Fandango, breaking out later that year in Lawrence Kasdan’s off-beat western, Silverado. This after he appeared as a corpse in Kasdan’s landmark film, The Big Chill (1983). Kasdan cut out Costner’s flashback scenes, but promised a role in a future movie, which turned out to be Silverado.

In 1987, Costner became a bona fide star. He played the lead role of FBI agent Eliot Ness in Brian De Palma’s hit revival of The Untouchables. With unexpected flair and an over-abundance of confidence, Costner combined action, grit and intelligence. When the contemporary crime thriller No Way Out was released the same year, he added the sexual component.

Cut to two classic baseball movies: Bull Durham (1988) and Field of Dreams (1989). Segue to a triumph in his directorial debut, Dances with Wolves (1990). The epic film generated 12 Oscars noms, winning seven. Costner personally won two: as best director and as co-producer of the best picture winner.

That led to a string of hits that included The Bodyguard with Whitney Houston (1992) and Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World (1993).

By the end of that decade, however, Costner had starred in his friend Kevin Reynolds’ Waterworld (1995) — a post-apocalyptic disaster movie that still made money, despite its awful reputation — and he both directed and starred in The Postman (1997) — a post-apocalyptic disaster itself and a box office bomb. There were also romantic misfires – Message in a Bottle and For the Love of the Game (both in 1999)

End of the superstar phase. Some actors never re-invent themselves, even when they have to. Only a few never really have to. Among them are legends such as Cary Grant, John Wayne, James Stewart, Gregory Peck, Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood. Even they go through career phases. But Costner needed to radically change things up.

That started in 2000, after that 45th birthday, when he co-starred in Roger Donaldson’s Thirteen Days, an underrated film about the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Costner showed grace and restraint in his role as a presidential adviser to JFK. He was beginning to shed the trappings of stardom, focusing more on character than ego and self.

Here is the best of what he has done since (with no further mention of the awful Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, although Costner was the best thing in that travesty):

• Open Range (2003): Shot on location at Alberta’s Stoney Indian Reserve, with Costner as director and co-star, this is his elegant return to western themes. Costner cast Robert Duvall, giving him top billing. But they both had to repair some damage when curmudgeonly Duvall foolishly criticized the talents of local Canadian actors in support roles. I personally heard Duvall apologize twice for his transgression.

• The Upside of Anger (2005): Billed as a romantic comedy, Mike Binder’s bittersweet drama features Costner as a retired baseball player who strikes up an affair with a neighbour played by Joan Allen. You can see Costner taking an obvious path as a character actor, giving his characters world-weary wisdom and depth.

• The Company Men (2010): Based on meticulous research, John Wells’ film about the downsizing of corporate America is a great reality drama. Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper and Tommy Lee Jones have the leads but Costner is terrific as the embodiment of the working man, a contractor willing to hire on his white-collar brother-in-law (Affleck) when the recession hits.

• Hatfields & McCoys (2012): Back again with director Kevin Reynolds, Costner stars as the real-life Devil Anse Hatfield, head of the clan that wages a legendary war with the McCoys. This television mini-series was a huge hit, with Bill Paxton as Randall McCoy. Costner won an Emmy as best actor in the mini-series/movie category.

• Man of Steel (2013): Costner played Superman’s foster father, Jonathan Kent, in Zack Snyder’s reboot. He gave the movie its gravitas and its moral compass, perfectly embodying his career as a quality support player to younger stars.

Twitter: @Bruce_Kirkland

bruce.kirkland@sunmedia.ca


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