Costner is facing another showdown

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Kevin Costner could use a hit. Badly. His glorious Dances With Wolves Oscar night was more than a dozen years ago. He hasn't really been in a winner since Tin Cup was released in 1996.

"What has emerged [in his recent films] is the most blatant example in screen history of an actor following his own fantasies," critic David Thomson has written of him. Costner might have had something he wanted to say or do with Dragonfly, Message in a Bottle, Thirteen Days, 3000 Miles to Graceland, The Postman or For Love of the Game. But audiences weren't listening.

"I am not necessarily in vogue," Kevin Costner says. "I like what Jefferson said about that. 'In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.'"

He's not in style, and as a matter of principle he's not trying to be.

"I don't feel out of touch with the times," Costner says. "I feel that what I have to say is really relevant. I don't necessarily feel that bad about not being commercial, because I see what passes for it these days."

He isn't apologizing for his flops. And he isn't second-guessing them, either.

"That's kind of spitting on your own idea of who and what you are."

There's no buck-passing with Costner. He might not address the failures of the past. But he professes an utter fearlessness about career, changing audience tastes and his worries that his leading-man days may be numbered.

An actor-director who tosses "I am not afraid" in front of a lot of sentences, his favorite sports metaphor is "swinging for the fences." With Open Range, which opens Friday, he's doing just that. He's starred in and directed a long, talky and evocative Western.

And he financed it with a lot of his own money. Industry trade publications put Disney's investment in the $22 million film at just $10 million.

"I had to pay for Dances, too," Costner says with a rare grin.

Open Range takes him back to the scene of the genre that launched him and that made him, Westerns. Costner plays Charley Waite, a cowhand "with a past" who has long ridden with Boss Spearman, played by Oscar-winner Robert Duvall. When a member of their company is wronged by a villainous town boss who wants to ban open-range grazing, Charley's troubled past is revealed and comes in handy.

Straight shooter

In person, Costner, 48, is a bluff, no-nonsense kind of guy. He wears worn jeans that you know weren't pre-washed or "relaxed fit," and can wear cowboy boots without looking like a poser. He makes eye contact, as if sizing you up to see if you're friend or foe.

"Charley Waite has special antennae that tell him when somebody's gonna be trouble for him," Costner says. "But I don't have those."

"Prickly" is a word often used to describe him. Ask something that sounds like a criticism and he'll blurt out, "I'd rather people just come out and say what's on their mind."

He'll allow as how he has a lot riding on his return to the saddle, to the West. But not as much as some people seem to think.

"I'm pretty aware of what is being said about me in the culture," he says. "But my relationship is with movies, it's not concerned with being in some fictional 'Hot 100 stars' list. What's at risk is your perceived standing. And that doesn't mean anything unless you have taken a risk. If you play it safe, or try to play the game of anticipating or moving constantly back into the comfort zone of a type of picture that you know has been received well, you're just making career moves. That's shrewd. But it's not artistic.

"I don't knock people who do things the shrewd way. I'm not such a stand-alone rock that I wouldn't like to have those things that stroke my ego, a box-office smash, for instance. But I want to chase that on my own terms."

So he takes the hits, the "no longer on the A-list" jibes from the media. The gossip columnists like to ascribe his descent from the Hollywood mountaintop to a busted marriage and other female-fan-turnoff events - not willingly owning up to a child he fathered out of wedlock - that emerged post-Dances, when he was commanding $15 million a movie.

"Everybody needs their champions, people who defend them when others criticize," he says. "It's not up to me to answer all those negative things."

And he pins his hopes for a comeback on Open Range.

"I feel like most Westerns are bad," Costner says. "They're costume parties. If you have boots, a hat, a rope and a horse, you have a Western."

Costner says he wanted to make a slower-moving film that broke free of "that staple of the Western, the iconic, quiet guy," one where a cowboy's romance (with Annette Bening) is captured in a gesture that isn't a kiss, but a gunslinger on his hands and knees, picking up the dirt he's tracked into the lady's parlor.

"I'm not racing to get to the gunfight," Costner says. "I wanted to see other things, such as 'How do towns empty out when a gunfight is coming?' Hollywood doesn't care about that detail. I do. I think the reality can be every bit as exciting as the myth."

He lets his cowhands talk, bicker and tease.

"Cowboys were not people who just said 'Yup,' and 'Nope.' I hear lines like ... 'Trust is worth more than a handful of cards, Button,' and I hear a big shoe drop. They say something."

Sports and Westerns

Costner has been in movies since he was 19 (a bit part in 1974's Sizzle Beach), surviving being cast as a frat boy in Night Shift, being bottom-billed in his first baseball film (Chasing Dreams, 1982) and even being edited out of his "big break," The Big Chill (1983). Though his sports films - Bull Durham, Field of Dreams and Tin Cup, among them - have been his calling card, when the chips are down, Costner knew he had to return to the Old West, where his delayed big break came with Lawrence Kasdan's iconic but chatty Silverado, another gunfight-to-see-who-runs-this-town film.

Costner puts "my own stamp on a gunfight" in Open Range. Another plus, he and co-star Duvall develop a homey rapport. Bening is a mercifully age-appropriate love interest. But he figures that the movie's success or failure is riding on its pacing, on an earlier scene, a simple one about rain and wagons and what happens when they meet.

"I wanted to slow the audience down to our speed, to find two or three ways to put them back in that era," Costner says. "Your typical Western may show it raining, but they don't show the wagons getting stuck and what they have to do just to get moving again. I look for details that put you in a place."

Costner spent even his best years wearing labels ("the new Gary Cooper" was a favorite of the critics). He took his hits over his ego, his poor choices - Unforgiven was one movie he tried to make for years, and failed - his showing up in Madonna's backstage documentary Truth or Dare and calling her show "neat," a description she later mocks on film. He's perfectly aware that he isn't considered "cool" in showbiz circles, and probably never was.

"I can't afford to give cynics a lot of time," he says. "I'm not an intellectual. I'm fascinated by them, by people who seem to be 'above it all.' I'm not. I'm engaged."

Other Hollywood folks lobby for the environment. Costner takes a more hands-on capitalist outdoorman's approach.

"I have been pumping money, for nine years, into a company trying to find a way to separate oil spills from sea water," he says. "Mark my words, something big is coming from that. That makes me a 'What if,' guy, somebody looking for solutions."

And Open Range is his biggest "what if" since Dances With Wolves, a movie he's poured himself into that he won't know, until the tickets start selling, if audiences want to see.

"These things aren't valentines, little vanity productions for my ego. If you or anybody finds value in the things I find value in, then that means I'm communicating to somebody. ...

"But even if this isn't a hit, nobody should feel sorry for me. Twenty years in, I still think it's a wonderful profession. I never lost sight of what I love."

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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