What Happened To Kevin Costner’s Career?

Ben Falk
UK Senior Movies Writer

Between 1987 and 1992, Kevin Costner had a quite staggering run. From the brilliant Al Capone movie ‘The Untouchables’ and vastly underrated thriller ‘No Way Out’, he starred in one quality hit after another, including ‘Field of Dreams’, ‘Bull Durham’, ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ and ‘JFK’. And that’s not even counting the things he turned down, like ‘The Hunt for Red October’.

In amongst his successes was 1990’s epic Western ‘Dances With Wolves’ which he starred in, directed and produced and for which he won the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars. In 1992, he appeared opposite Whitney Houston in ‘The Bodyguard’, the soundtrack to which remains the best-selling of all time, having shifted more than 47 million copies.

Unfortunately, it didn’t last and 20 years later he’s starring in things like ‘Criminal’, a silly high-concept actioner about a dangerous convict who gets a mind swap from Ryan Reynolds.

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So what happened? And can the now-61-year-old star once synonymous with superior hits ever reach the dizzy heights of Sherwood Forest again?

‘Waterworld’ and ‘The Postman’

Even if a film isn’t actually a flop, being labelled as one can be just as damaging.

That was the case with 1995’s ‘Waterworld’, which featured Costner as a man with gills looking for dry land in an ocean-covered dystopian future.

Already known for being exacting and unafraid to push for what he wanted on a production, rumours started swirling about the blockbuster being in trouble when the film’s budget gradually crept up from $100m to $175m.

“I know how I try to make a movie; I know how I lose sleep over it;” he told Roger Ebert in 1994. “I know how I deliberate for hours over the difference between saying, ‘she went over there’ or saying, ‘she’s gone’…when you work hard on things like that, it’s frustrating to me that a movie can be dismissed so easily.”

Certainly it seems like it was Costner’s ‘time’ for a comeuppance and as fodder for the naysayers, ‘Waterworld was the gift that kept on giving. His child co-star was stung by jellyfish, the original composer was let go, Costner’s stuntman almost died and there was a debate over whether the director Kevin Reynolds – a friend of Costner – was fired by him, or whether he walked off the film.

Joss Whedon did uncredited work as a script doctor and was initially hired for a week. “I was there basically taking notes from Costner, who was very nice, fine to work with, but he was not a writer,” said Whedon later. “And he had written a bunch of stuff that they wouldn’t let their staff touch…I was there for seven weeks and I accomplished nothing.”

Still, despite continuing to feature in all-time bomb lists, ‘Waterworld’ made $264m at the worldwide box office and eventually more than made its money back through home entertainment sales. It continues to be a successful attraction at the Universal Studios theme park in Los Angeles.

Nevertheless, the die was cast. And Costner didn’t do anything to right the ship or quell the rumours with his 1997 directorial effort ‘The Postman’. Running almost three hours and starring himself as a laconic mail carrier in post-apocalyptic America, the film was a genuine failure, earning only $18million at the US box office.

“I won’t make a movie unless I have the ability to do it the way I want, so I hold my breath for a very long time,” he told the Telegraph in 2011, explaining his working methods. “I don’t want to make a movie I don’t want to make or one that somehow gets manipulated in a way I don’t feel comfortable with.”

But is ‘The Postman’ that bad? Well, it certainly has some hackneyed dialogue, is way too long and takes itself very seriously. And Costner does sing on the end credits. But most likely it died a death thanks to the release of another three-hour epic just a week previously – Titanic came out on 19 December 1997, with ‘The Postman’ following on Christmas Day.

Busy off-screen

Away from the movie theatre, things weren’t going so well either. Costner broke up with his college sweetheart after 16 years of marriage in 1994. What’s more, as the star-driven Nineties gave way to the more cynical Noughties, it started to feel like the actor’s brand of aw shucks everyman was becoming out of step with audiences.

Also, as he pointed out to the Telegraph some years later, his attitude to moviemaking sat in stark contrast to the Hollywood business model which was starting to concentrate more and more on franchises and superheroes.

“I haven’t worked for a really long time because I tend to make movies that aren’t sequels, so I’m not exactly in vogue,” he said.

He’s right – there was at one point a serious consideration to make ‘The Bodyguard 2’ with Princess Diana as well as a second ‘Robin Hood’, but neither came to pass.

Yet despite the occasional good film – JFK-era political drama ‘Thirteen Days’ in 2000 and another Western directorial effort ‘Open Range’ in 2003 are two examples – mediocre choices and a reputation for being difficult to work with persisted.

When trouble brewed behind-the-scenes on 2005 romcom ‘Rumour Has It’, Costner was accused by web agitators of masterminding a plot to have the original director Ted Griffin fired. Meanwhile, others were saying he was actually one of the few people who backed the director, even giving him use of his house.

New family – and oil

Certainly, Costner’s disillusionment with the film business came at a time when he was also experiencing massive change in his personal life that meant being away from home was difficult. He married again, to the 22-years-younger Christine Baumgarten and together they have three young children (to add to the four grown-up ones he already has).

He also became fascinated in environmental causes and apparatus, investing more than $20million of his own money in oil separation machines, which paid off spectacularly and controversially when BP bought a number in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Costner was even sued by ‘Usual Suspects’ actor Stephen Baldwin for allegedly cutting him out of the deal, a claim later rejected by a judge.

Comeback?

So can he reclaim at least some of the fame he had in his glory days? And does he even want to?

He was wasted as Jonathan Kent in ‘Man of Steel’ and ‘Criminal’ doesn’t look like it will improve things.

But his 2012 Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries Emmy for his performance in Western series ‘Hatfields & McCoys’ proved he still had drive and talent and he has more recently intimated there’s a cowboy-themed trilogy he wants to direct.

It’s unlikely he’ll ever help spur the sales of a multi-platinum record again – he’ll be hoping for one himself with his country band Kevin Costner and the Modern West, with whom he’s released two albums – and much of his time is dedicated to his oil business and environmental philanthropy.

Yet for anyone who still can’t get ‘Everything I Do’ out of their head or hopes that if they build it they might come again, then watch this space.

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Image credits: Rex_Shutterstock