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COSTNER AT THE TOP Fame has changed actor from sunny to supersensitive

THE BALTIMORE SUN

New Orleans - Kevin Costner is in a bad mood. He does not want to be trivialized. He does not want to be analyzed. He does not want to be criticized. He does not want to be "titillized," as he puts it, much less titillated.

He stalks down a street on the cusp of the French Quarter, wearing jeans and a bright green shirt, his hair slicked back and his scorching blue eyes shaded behind dark sunglasses. The heels of his brown cowboy boots tap an impatient tattoo, and he is annoyed when a group of middle-aged women hesitantly beg him to pose for a photograph while he waits at a red light.

"OK," he says, glowering at them and gesturing to a reporter who has moved out of the shot, "but can't you see I'm being interviewed?"

The highly anticipated $40 million-to-$50 million epic produced by Morgan Creek Productions and distributed by Warner Brothers, "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," looms. Mr. Costner seems nervous about how "Raiders of the Lost Sherwood Forest," as some of the stars are calling the movie, will be received.

He is still adjusting to superstardom, to the blessings and burdens that come with inheriting both Paul Newman's mantle as Hollywood's "head hunk" and Orson Welles' mantle as a quirky acting-directing prodigy. "Orson Welles with no belly," Pauline Kael, the New Yorker movie critic, wrote sarcastically in a scalding review of "Dances With Wolves" that contains the now-famous line, "Costner has feathers in his hair and feathers in his head."

Despite what Ms. Kael wrote about Mr. Costner's "New Age Gary Cooper" act and his "bland megalomania," the public embraced his innocent daydream of the West, just as they had embraced his innocent daydream about baseball, "Field of Dreams." "Dances With Wolves" received seven Academy Awards and vaulted Mr. Costner into Hollywood heaven.

Others may still be debating whether he is a lucky naif or a brilliant visionary, but Mr. Costner feels at home at the top. "I wanted to operate in the highest circle," he says, as he settled in his elegant hotel suite for a lunch of club sandwich, potato chips and a beer, as a radio played easy-listening music in the background.

The 36-year-old has, however, been taken aback by the wind shear of his stardom. "I have tried not to get caught off guard and to be kind of prudent in anticipating the stuff to try to understand the good and the bad and the success," he says. "I've tried to monitor my life that way, not just in terms of Hollywood, for a long time. But 'Dances' did catch me by surprise, the leap, the kind of quantum leap that occurred with the public. Things have changed, and changed for me in ways that were difficult to anticipate.

"Personally, I don't know if people think I suddenly can think now, or I'm smarter than I ever was. And you're more vulnerable."

It has been said that Mr. Costner is worried about his thinning hair. His hair looks OK. It's his thinning skin he should be worried about. Almost every question evokes a prickly response from the once-breezy actor.

He feels defensive about several things at the moment: his strange, now-you-see-it-now-you-don't English accent in "Robin Hood"; his penchant for "politically correct" scripts with an anti-white male twist; criticism that he has lost the roguish gleam exhibited in early interviews and in early films such as "Silverado" and "No Way Out," in favor of a tiresome thirtysomething earnestness and smugness; controversy over whether he is lending his prestige to the dubious conspiracy theory of former New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, whom he plays in the Oliver Stone movie "JFK," now being filmed here.

Like other movie stars who capture the public's attention through their looks, Mr. Costner is both pleased and tetchy about his image as sex symbol and stresses that he prefers riding horses to kissing leading ladies.

At the moment, what is bothering Mr. Costner most on this score is a nude swimming scene that the "Robin Hood" producers have played up in the film's trailer. The scene shows Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, who portrays Maid Marian, experiencing a flash of desire as she watches Costner swim in a pond below.

Mr. Costner, who had a similar nude scene in "Dances With Wolves," offers a long, exceedingly earnest explanation, saying he agreed to the swimming scene only because it was integral to the original script. He says he feels a little used now because the "meaning" of the nudity was left on the cutting-room floor. To make it even more absurd, it's not even his derriere. It belongs to his double.

"There was a reason for that scene that's not there anymore, so it seems maybe gratuitous or seems like all this is an opportunity to titillize -- what is the word, titillate?" he says. "But it's not. The whole point of that scene was when she sees him, he has tremendous scars on his back from prison, and the camera never picked it up; and out of that she begins to change."

But Mr. Costner has bigger problems with this movie. There is, for starters, his accent.

The star says that the director, his friend Kevin Reynolds, who gave Mr. Costner a start in the 1985 movie "Fandango," and the Morgan Creek producer James Robinson were wary about his trying a British accent. He started out with an accent coach, but, he says, before he felt he had perfected the accent, the coach was gone and he was left to his own devices.

He says he thought it was important for the movie's reality to sharpen his relaxed California surfer drawl with an English accent, but it comes out sounding like Moondoggie goes Nottingham as Mr. Costner drops his "r's" in words like "armor," "fear" and "sworn."

Asked if he was feeling defensive about the accent, Mr. Costner replies: "I'm going to have to answer questions about it. So you can choose what you think my posturing is. You know about it. You have to answer questions about it. So if you're asking questions about it, you're being offensive about it. Are you being offensive about it by asking about it?"

There is also bound to be much comment about the awkward addition to the Robin Hood myth of Morgan Freeman, an Oscar nominee for best actor for "Driving Miss Daisy" in 1989. Freeman plays Azeem, a Moor rescued by Robin Hood during the Crusades in Jerusalem. Freeman's character follows Robin to Sherwood Forest, where he uses the skills of a higher civilization to teach the racist Merry Men some lessons in loyalty, gunpowder and delivering a breech baby.

Critics will no doubt draw parallels to Mr. Costner's treatment of the Sioux in "Dances With Wolves," a movie that glorified the Indians while presenting the white soldiers as cruel louts.

"I didn't write the piece," Mr. Costner says of the new movie. "But I wouldn't have done 'Robin Hood' unless it leaped forward in terms of genre. I saw the humor in it. And it seemed exotic that Robin Hood would start in Jerusalem and how he behaved not as a boy but as a man, not as a rascal but as a person who's been through some things, as a hired trained soldier who's capable of fighting, as opposed to guys who've been killing deer illegally."

Since Mr. Costner is "a Robin Hood for the '90's," as the producers proclaim, this version of the medieval fable is violent, even though it has received a PG-13 rating. Mr. Costner is proud of the fact that his Robin Hood is grittier than Errol Flynn's, in 1938. He wears studs on his jacket and brown pants instead of tights, and there's no cunning green hat with a feather.

Mr. Costner also dispensed with Flynn's tongue-in-cheek derring-do, because it did not fit with the brooding new Freudian twists in the plot -- young Robin's refusal to accept his widowed father's affair with a peasant woman, and the murder of his father by the Sheriff of Nottingham.

"You tell me my father just died, and I can't do the next scene tongue in cheek; I can't get all revved up; that's not really real behavior," he explains.

Asked about the backlash of fame, asked how he feels when he is criticized for being too self-righteous, he goes on a lengthy, bitter and largely unprintable rampage against critics like Ms. Kael and Tom Shales of the Washington Post, who has dubbed Mr. Costner "the Prince of Sanctimony."

Asked what he thought of his less-than-flattering cameo appearance in "Truth or Dare," in which Madonna makes a gagging motion after Mr. Costner comes backstage looking strangely dweebish and praises her show as "neat," the actor looks daggers but says: "I didn't see it, and I'm not going to give you a quote on it." He adds a sarcastic "Wow," when asked if he wished he had chosen another word besides "neat."

The Warner Brothers press agents, realizing what a touchy subject the new "JFK" movie is, have warned against asking Mr. Costner too many questions about the Oliver Stone film. But the actor seems quite ready to rebut suggestions that he may be putting his prestige on the line with this saga.

Mr. Garrison's theory holds that Lee Harvard Oswald was merely a CIA fall guy for a plot to assassinate President Kennedy that involved the highest levels of the United States government.

Mr. Costner says "incredibly honorable men" lent their credibility to the Warren Commission Report, which concludes that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, a finding Mr. Costner regards as "unbelievable, like one bullet causing seven different wounds, like one man doing all that himself." "It's easy to poke fun at Garrison because he can be made to appear a Southern caricature, but he was asking some very, very important questions."

Mr. Costner says he is trying to "fight my way back to the 20th century and a tie" and plans to stay away from period pieces for a while. He worries about the effects of fame on his wife, Cindy, and their three young children, but he is not worried about his professional future in Hollywood.

"I always felt armed with the one thing that they value, which was good stories, you know, because, like, basically, that's what they're in business for."

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