At this point in his career, most critics and film viewers see Kevin Costner as a bit of a laughingstock. The reasons they would cite are legion. The "wooden" acting style. The affinity for baseball movies. The debacle that was the fantastically expensive (at that time) Waterworld. The receding hairline. The Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves non-accent. These are just the ones that I came up with off the top of my head. Surely, a Wikipedia search would send me to many more.
The truth is it's been a while since Kevin Costner made a decent movie. Or at least I think so. You see, a lot of these things I wasn't going to go near with a 100-foot pole, so I can't really say if they were good or not. The Guardian? A lifeguard movie with Ashton Kutcher? Pass. Swing Vote? A nightmare scenario where one uneducated hick gets the chance to decide who the next President of the United States is going to be? No thanks. Rumor Has It...? A glossy Jennifer Aniston vehicle that sought to glom some street cred out of its connection to the film The Graduate. I don't think so. Mr. Brooks? Costner trying to change his image by playing a serial killer. Actually, that sounds pretty cool. But I don't think it turned out as planned.
The point is that, other than the very solid Western Open Range (which he also directed) and a role that was right in his wheelhouse in The Upside of Anger, it has been a tough 15 years for Kevin Costner. But this shouldn't stop people from saying what I believe to be an absolute truism: Costner's work from 1987 to 1996 marks him as one of the truly great and underrated American actors of our time.
Costner's string of successes started in 1987, with Brian DePalma's The Untouchables. The film featured two scenery-chewing performances, one a Supporting Oscar award winner from Sean Connery and a second by Robert DeNiro, who played gangster Al Capone. While Connery got all of the good lines and Robert De Niro played his role in a magnetic yet completely unhinged manner, it was Costner who kept the film grounded with a reserved performance as G-man Eliot Ness. The next year found Costner as the main attraction in Ron Shelton's Bull Durham. The actor was hilarious and affecting as a catcher who has the ignominious distinction of chasing the minor league home run record, and he perfectly conveyed the self-assured yet humbled psyche of a man who stands as the best player in a second-class league. He also participated in some of the sexiest scenes ever converted to celluloid via his electric chemistry with co-star Susan Sarandon. And then there was 1989's Field of Dreams, which many people might find corny due to its sentimentality and its instantly ripe-for-satire"If you build it, they will come," but I have always found it to be a very enjoyable entertainment as well as a pretty good picture of the nature of obsession due to Costner's committed turn as a novice farmer who constructs a baseball field in his cornfield so he can have a catch with his Dad.
The year 1990 brought about one of the more polarizing films on Costner's resume, the Civil War era Western, Dances with Wolves, which Costner both starred in and directed. In retrospect, there are individuals who would denigrate it, saying that it was a crime that it was named Best Picture or that Costner somehow was given a Best Director Oscar that rightfully belonged to Martin Scorsese for Goodfellas. Here's the thing: I would agree with that. Goodfellas is the better movie and there is no way in hell that Costner could even be put in the same league as Scorsese in a movie-directing contest. After saying this, Dances with Wolves is still a tremendous film, full of excellent performances, beautiful cinematography, and scenes of gripping drama and emotion. Many scenes could be cited to justify the effectiveness of this movie, but the one that rushes immediately to mind is the scene in the beginning where Costner's Lieutenant John Dunbar rides a horse out into an open field, sacrificing himself to a rebel army, not in an effort to aid his Union comrades, but because he is disillusioned by the rigors of war. Costner expertly conveys his character's desperation, while making excellent choices behind the camera. The slow-motion shot of Costner, arms spread as Confederate rifles fire off in the background, may be overly Christ-like, but it is also iconic and gorgeous.
The next year, Costner made what is most likely the greatest film he has ever starred in, and yet he didn't make a major splash with his acting. I believe that is the point. JFK, Oliver Stone's kinetic exploration of the motives behing the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, was at its heart a procedural. With details flying at the audience a mile a minute, being shot in fifteen different kinds of film and edited in Stone's ferociously paced style, a more manic, attention-grabbing performance may have worked to the film's deficit. Therefore, Costner plays district attorney Jim Garrison in a reserved fashion that allows him to fall almost into the background. As a result, the audience is allowed to simply focus on the story. It's one of Costner's best performances, and one that marks him as an unselfish, professional marvel (don't get me wrong, it isn't like he has no decent moments in the film; one, a perfectly timed eyebrow raise after a question to Joe Pesci's David Ferry, is absolutely indelible).
With Tin Cup in 1996, Costner showcased his signature laidback, cocky cool as struggling golfer Roy McAvoy. It seemed like the type of film Costner could do with his eyes closed, but that is not to say that it felt mailed in. On the contrary, Costner's effortless performance allows a film that could have been a typical underdog sports story to become something more: a standout comedy of redmption with memorable supporting performances from actors like Rene Russo, Cheech Marin, and Don Johnson.
Of course, the film we are here to talk about is A Perfect World. It is one of Clint Eastwood's best films and it centers on the performance of Costner, who portrays escaped convict Butch Haynes with a skill that show's the character's essential goodness as well as the boiling menace that lies beneath. The scenes he works with child actor T.J. Lowther, who plays a boy taken hostage by Costner after a tense post-escape standoff, display Costner's greatest gift as an actor: his ability to share the scene. Instead of hamming it up, Costner works with Lowther in a way that draws a credible performance out of a kid engaging in his first significant filmwork. Of course, while these scenes help to establish Haynes' essential good nature, it would have been easy for Costner to shove into the background the character's violent tendencies, buying more sympathy from the paying customers. However, when called upon to show the damage that has been done to Haynes, a character who was beaten by his father as a young boy and harshly incarcerated by Eastwood's Texas Ranger Red Garnett, Costner did not shrink. Especially harrowing is a scene toward the conclusion where Costner threatens to kill an abusive father, not realizing the damage he is doing to the young boy he believes he is protecting. What the audience sees is a man blinded by hatred of his own past and the scene is even more affecting for the restraint that Costner has applied to the performance during the preceding 110 minutes.
Will Costner's career ever undergo the renaissance so deserved for a man of his underappreciated yet clearly evident skills? Signs seem to be pointing up. He is rumored to be part of the cast of Quentin Tarantino's next history-revising, homage-paying fever dream, a slavery story called Django Unchained. Costner is rumored to be playing Ace Woody, a man who runs an underground fighting ring and prostitution operation for his racist plantation owner boss (played by Leonardo DiCaprio - yes, this could be some of the greatest stunt casting of all time). Whatever you think of the sound of this movie and role, it will undoubtedly give Costner a chance to show himself in a way one never would have thought possible. And maybe it will prove to a new generation of film fans that Costner is an actor of considerable talent and ability. But if not, he will always have those ten solid years of greatness. And how many actors can say that?