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In Defense of Kevin Costner

October 5, 2006

On my recent trip to Hawaii, I got in a heated discussion with my host–and loyal MOWC reader–Brendan Higgins on the virtues and flaws of Kevin Costner. It’s popular to think of Costner as a cheesy assball; after all, he directed and starred in two of the biggest bombs of the last 20 years, Waterworld and The Postman; some of his biggest successes, like The Bodyguard and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, have been terrible; and everybody resents him for winning all those Oscars for Dances With Wolves (especially because it beat out GoodFellas, which is the far more beloved and watched movie 15 years later). In the documentary Truth or Dare, Madonna–no stranger to accusations of phoniness and bad acting–memorably complained that one of the pitfalls of fame was having to be nice to losers like Kevin Costner. That was 15 years ago. His reputation hasn’t gotten any better since.

All that being said, there’s a reason that Costner has been playing lead roles in American movies for more than two decades, since soon after he got in show business. The man is a star.

What I mean by that is, when put in the right role, few actors are as charming. Watch him in Fandango, from 1985: he’s cocky, immature, a bit of a drunk and bossy to his friends. Yet, it’s impossible not to like him. He casts a similarly charming spell in a few other of his movies, notably Bull Durham and Tin Cup. Sure, he’s unbearable in Waterworld, but that’s because he’s playing outside of his range: the charming Texan gone to seed.

In the right roles, Costner possesses an all-too-rare combination of traits: he is physical without appearing to try too hard (unlike Tom Cruise); he’s funny without being sarcastic or a goofball (unlike Will Smith or Jim Carrey); he’s enormously self-confident, but somehow not hatable; and he’s playful, even when he’s a cynic (unlike Harrison Ford). Mix in perhaps the most disarming smile in the business–it practically spiderwebs across his face–and you have an actor who woman are attracted to and men want to follow. That’s a delicate balance, one pulled off by few actors; the only other movie star I can think of who seems as comfortable–and believable–as a leader of men is George Clooney. Most of our stars make better renegades than presidents.

The reason why Costner’s career got so fucked up, I think, is ironically due to one of the few of his movies most people actually like: The Untouchables.

In The Untouchables, he dropped the Texas swagger for Ivy League earnestness, and cut way back on the spiderweb smile. The movie was a hit, but not because of his performance. But the lesson he took, and no doubt many producers took, was that we liked Costner as an earnest goody two-shoes. Once Field of Dreams succeeded with Costner playing a similarly self-serious role, his fate was sealed. It’s only a short distance from the idealistic former hippie of Field of Dreams to the morally patronizing multiculturalist of Dances With Wolves. What his best movies have taught us, however, is that Costner is better at playing a devil than an angel.

Since he no longer brings in audiences reliably, he seems to be returning a bit to the charming badboy roles that he’s best at. From what I hear, he was a not-so-reformed gigolo in Rumor Has It… In Upside of Anger, he played a drunk former ballplayer who gets laid and paid based on smiles, deception and fumes of a fading fame. Unfortunately, the movie is pretty bad, and Costner overplays being drunk. And it doesn’t look like The Guardian is a return to form either; more than anything, it looks like a last gasp attempt to show that Costner is still a viable action star, sort of like what Harrison Ford has been doing for the last 10 years.

But in the right, and all-too-infrequent role, Costner can cast a spell like few other movie stars.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Jef Tiff permalink
    October 5, 2006 6:02 pm

    I lean toward recently-engaged MOWC’s thoughts on Costner’s value. Costner has had an admirable career with some big let-downs. He’s like the cinematic version of former Red Sox closer Bob Stanley – done some admirable work, made some huge errors and, at the end of his career, morphed into playing a caricature of himself – what Micah described as the “charming Texan gone to seed” only mixed with good-natured obtuseness and some alcohol” (vis-a-vis the overweight has-been who’s still refered to as the STEAMAH just sarcasticlly enough to reveal that people thought he sucked at the end of his career).

    I though his part in Upside of Anger (saw it on a plane) nailed how people probably perceive him the same way Cameron Diaz is best suited for roles as the pretty well-intentioned ditz who just made some poor decisions (saw In Her Shoes on a plane too). He passes my basic leading man test: would I want to have a few beers with him? In his defense, he doesn’t suck that bad.

  2. Juan permalink
    October 7, 2006 6:53 pm

    Costner has made mistakes, sure, but he’s given numerous fine performances. I’m thinking, of course, of movies like BULL DURHAM and TIN CUP. But, unlike you, I thought he was excellent in THE UPSIDE OF ANGER, and I thought his earnestness was exactly what was called for in THE UNTOUCHABLES. Anyway, he’s a much better actor than he’s generally given credit for and, as you say, he’s undeniably a star.

    Now, Ben Affleck…

  3. October 10, 2006 3:53 pm

    Interesting you bring up Ben Affleck. You’re totally right: Ben Affleck is NOT a star, and is terrible in any movie he headlines. Rather, he is a character actor in a star’s body; the sooner he–and Hollywood–realize this, the better for his longtime reputation. (Then again, supporting parts in Boiler Room and Hollywoodland don’t pay the bills the way star turns in Daredevil and Surviving Christmas do, so maybe Affleck knows what he’s doing…)

  4. October 10, 2006 3:54 pm

    One other thing: I wasn’t saying that Costner did anything wrong with his portrayal of Elliot Ness in The Untouchables, it’s just that Costner, his agents and producers all took the wrong lessons from his success in that movie.

  5. Juan permalink
    October 10, 2006 8:33 pm

    Well, I’d say Affleck’s role in HOLLYWOODLAND is more than a supporting part — it’s the lead. But, despite the good reviews, I wasn’t all that impressed with his performance there, either. He WAS impressive in BOILER ROOM, but I still think CHASING AMY features his best work. (When I saw that movie recently, for the first time since 1997, I was shocked to realize that’s the same actor I think so little of today.)

  6. Bren permalink
    October 26, 2006 1:22 pm

    So sorry about being late to the debate… What you say about Costner being out of his realm in Waterworld is true, but the thing is that he put himself in that situation, didn’t he produce it?!? Not to mention the Postman…He’s kinda like Mike Holmgren… If you remember Holmgren was both GM and coach of the Seahawks and they sucked for quite some time, then, they demoted him to just coach, put some good pieces in place for him, and then WHAMMO (so yeah I did just say that, don’t tell anyone) he made it to the Super Bowl, I think the Holmgren thing also fits because he’s great, but he’s certainly not the best. Similarly, Costner is great in the sports movies, but seriously he has as much range as Nomar.
    As for Affleck, to be from city who loves to take credit for all their hometown guys, to be universally…hated may be too strong… disowned would probably be best, by the entire city is amazing. He has sucked completely since Good Will Hunting, you could make a case that he was decent in Dogma (again character actor), but on top of completely sucking, he had the whole J-Lo thing, and all the time getting more publicity for cheesy tabloid shit. Meanwhile Matt Damon is a hometown hero. I know someone earlier had written that Affleck’s Boston accent was too much when you wrote the Boston accent column, but really his accent was good, no one complained about it at the time… but now that he’s Affleck…even his Boston accent sucks… He’s just turned into someone very unlikeable

  7. June 3, 2015 5:36 am

    costner is better then affleck who cant act worth shit. MAn of steel made lots of money so suck it

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