He was one of the biggest stars on the planet in the 1990s, not only bankable as an actor but as a director, too, courtesy the success of Dances with Wolves. Through 1994, Kevin Costner was king.
But then came Waterworld—at the time, the most expensive movie ever made—which was disastrously bad and while it has ultimately made money, it was labelled a “bomb” because of its poor domestic box office. Then two years later, Costner took an even bigger hit with The Postman, which is still ranked as one of the biggest flops of all time. And though Costner worked steadily in the ensuing years, all the heat disappeared and he went from Movie Star to punch line (a meeting at work recently concluded with me saying, “The Postman: the movie that ruined Kevin Costner’s career”).
So why are we talking about Kevin Costner? Because all of a sudden he’s one of the hottest actors out there, coming off a huge mini-series and signing multi-picture studio deals to front major tent pole properties.
Lainey asked me to assess Costner and his resurgence (am I a guest lecturer in the Faculty of Celebrity Studies?), and what I found as I poked at the rock Costner’s been hiding under for seventeen years is that Costner is not alone, that the Movie Stars of the 90s, most of whom have seen their prestige wane if not disappear altogether, are recalibrating for the new, post-Movie Star reality. Kevin Costner’s second act is the Movie Star’s second act.
Costner has actually been working regularly, it just hasn’t been particularly relevant or distinguished. Fans of Westerns might single out Open Range (which he directed and managed not to set a pile of money on fire, thanks entirely to a sub-$25 million budget), and documentary fans will point to his participation in the top-notch Tom Petty doc, Runnin’ Down a Dream. But those are rare bright spots in a time when he attempted to foist Dane Cook, Serious Actor on us (the hellacious Mr. Brooks) and participated in the classic “don’t do this” school of filmmaking gem, 3000 Miles to Graceland. The most relevant public moment for Costner in the last decade-plus was his effort to help with the BP oil spill cleanup.
At least until he appeared at Whitney Houston’s funeral, which…yeah, it’s gross but such events, with celebrities, there’s always another angle. No matter how sincere the grief, there is always another angle. Remember Princess Diana’s funeral? I’m not cheapening Costner’s real friendship with Houston but…her big moment was his, too. They’re inextricably linked in our minds. Her voice, THAT SONG, and we think of him. It was a, “Oh hey, yeah, Kevin Costner” moment, at her funeral. It was a reminder of the place he once held though his Movie Star days were over.
And they still are, simply because the Movie Star is dead. But Costner is catching a wave that is still building, a trend that is still sinking into the cultural psyche—he’s re-emerging not as Kevin Costner, Movie Star, but as Kevin Costner, Portrayer of Memorable Characters. This is the way forward for actors in a star-less world. Their names will, for 99% of them, not be enough to guarantee audience returns. But the right actor playing the right character? We’re already seeing the fruit of this new branding in which celebrity and character persona merge from RDJ as Tony Stark to Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes. These days, I don’t think a true star can break through unless it’s on the back of a signature character.
This is the strategy Costner is deploying. He came back strong this summer with the History Channel’s record setting mini-series Hatfields & McCoys, which is nominated for 22 Emmys, including a Leading Actor nod for Costner. Next he’ll be seen as Superman’s Earth-dad in Man of Steel—he narrates one of the trailers—but it’s the deal he’s working out with Paramount that marks his return to bankable status. Paramount is negotiating for him to play William Harper, who will make his first appearance in the Chris Pine-fronted Jack Ryan reboot, and will provide continuity for the proposed spin-off, Without Remorse, with all of it potentially culminating in a movie centered on his character. It’s a deal similar to Samuel L. Jackson’s gig with Marvel, but the implication is that Costner’s deal will be more lucrative than the cheapsies deals Marvel strikes (whatever, that’s good business sense on Marvel’s part).
It’s a promising future, a chance to reestablish himself as a premiere actor with a multi-picture deal under a major studio that includes a starring vehicle. But it depends more on the character than Costner. Paramount isn’t signing Kevin Costner to make Kevin Costner movies. They’re signing Kevin Costner to make “William Harper” movies. This is the future. This is the Movie Star’s second act. It’s not about the star anymore. Now it’s about the Celebrity Character.
(Lainey: here’s Costner, um, performing at the Boots and Hearts Music Festival a couple of weeks ago.)