By Lauren Smart
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Maybe he saw it on ESPN's Web site a few weeks ago, which is in the midst of having readers determine the most overrated actor working today. There he was, seeded No. 1 in the first round, where he beat out Tim Allen. "The worst actor of his generation," insisted the site. "Don't let roles in Bull Durham and The Untouchables fool you; he was saved by brilliant scripts." (He has since fallen to fifth seed Ashton Kutcher, and it doesn't seem quite fair.) Or maybe he heard it from Diane Sawyer, who, on Primetime Live last week, asked him about his reputation as being difficult to work with.
Or maybe he read it in last year's revised New Biographical Dictionary of Film, written by esteemed film critic David Thompson, who dishes out bushels of buttered scorn. "Humor is not Costner's strength," Thompson writes in the snippy tone of the expatriated Brit. "What a nice, ironic intro that remark makes for Kevin Costner's last decade. For what has emerged is the most blatant example in screen history of an actor following his own fantasies--at enormous cost sometimes, without any offsetting humor, but doggedly, like some lone scout mapping the far Northwest. It is dazzling, alarming and a warning to all in the last gasp of the age of film." Thompson goes on to dismiss most of what Costner offered in the 1990s and the new century: Wyatt Earp, Waterworld, The Postman, For Love of the Game, 3000 Miles to Graceland, Dragonfly. He forgot to mention Message in a Bottle, perhaps because Thompson, lucky soul, forgot it existed at all.
So here he sits in a hotel conference room in a white shirt and khaki pants, all crisply pressed--Kevin Costner, once so beloved, now so bruised by years of being battered about in the press and in the offices of studio executives who once thought him, at the very least, bankable. He is on the road to promote Open Range, yet another western he directed in which he stars as a haunted, melancholy man running out of range to roam. As was the case with Dances with Wolves, his 1990 directorial debut that returned from the prairie with saddlebags filled with Oscars, Open Range was made without studio financing; though it has Buena Vista distribution, it was made by Costner's Tig Productions company, which he set up 13 years ago for Dances. Costner explains that the major studios didn't believe a western, even one starring Costner and Robert Duvall, would make money overseas, so they passed. A film that won't play in Europe won't pay in the United States.
But maybe there's another answer to why no one would give him scratch for his western itch. Maybe studios are just tired of Costner. Tired of dealing with him, tired of fighting with him, tired of losing money on a man who was once as sure a bet as pocket aces. Stories are legion about his battles with Universal over the editing of Sam Raimi's For Love of the Game; he will likely never work for the studio as long as certain executives remain in power. He would encounter similar battles with New Line over Roger Donaldson's Thirteen Days, in which he played an adviser to President Kennedy. In both instances, scenes were deleted that Costner felt developed characters left half-baked by bad edits. But he defends his battles by insisting he cares about the final product, that he's not just some hired gun doing his job till the next paycheck beckons. And if that makes him look like a pain in the ass, well, so be it.
"I'm not like, 'Hey, do what you want, I'm on to my next film,' you know--'Lots of luck, idiot,'" he says, without cracking a smile. "Do you know what I'm saying? You've got to say, 'Wait a second, because people put a lot of time into this.' Some of the movies that I've done, they suffer from a conventional cutting. If they had six more minutes in them, a lot of things would float for you...I would like to have a rich uncle come along and say, 'I believe in the movies you make.' I believe they're going to always look like a movie, and I believe there's a big market out there for it. And, you know, whether that happens or not, I'm not going to wilt like a daisy as long as the desire is in me. The next story I come up to that I want to make, I'll find a way to make it. I'll find a way to make it. "