Back in the Saddle

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CHRIS LARGE/BUENA VISTA

Costner and Duvall share a watchful moment in "Open Range"

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As an actor-auteur, Costner has an appeal akin to Clint Eastwood's — he might be Clint's suburban kid brother — and at least as much directorial skill. But he didn't latch on to the Eastwood quick-'n-cheap production model. He thinks in the epic (long and expensive) mode, and he loves the movie moments that others dismiss as downtime: the pauses between lines of dialogue, the glimpses of vast vistas. "Nothing in a movie should threaten to bore," he says. "But I think silences are dramatic. I think images are dramatic. And if there's a dramatic reality going on, I let it play."

Slow-moving westerns (he also starred in the three-hour Wyatt Earp) might seem the very model of a moviemaker's arrogance. Costner sees the epic length of his oaters as the highest form of cinematic etiquette. "In Hollywood you get leaned on to cut out parts of the subplot. 'They won't know it's gone.' But people know if you don't give them coffee and dessert after dinner. No one's going to bitch out loud, because certainly you've fed them. But have you taken care of them? Has the experience been as full as possible? People can tell when they have been given everything — they can just tell. And somehow, subconsciously, they appreciate that level of generosity."

The question now is whether people will show up for his dinner, when the menu is cows and grit and heaps o' sizzling Kevin. The star understands that he can't finance an $80 million movie that gets a $17 million return, as The Postman did. He made Open Range on the cheap: for $26 million, taking no salary, shooting in affordable Alberta and raising all but $10 million of the budget himself. Disney put up the rest. "People wanted to make this movie," he says of his sponsors at the Mouse House, "not for a lot of money, but they still wanted to make it."

Dick Cook, who runs Disney's movie units and whose kids went to the same school as Costner's, admits that the movie "was attractive because of the modest risk. But it was also a great project. It was my judgment that Kevin was at a place where he could make something of quality." And, as Cook notes, Open Range is the only studio film for adults out there now, after Seabiscuit.

Costner is no sprinter; he's a long-distance Thoroughbred. And he doesn't seem fretful about his rising or falling spot on the hot list. He is happily engaged to his longtime live-in, Christine Baumgartner, and content to have projects as actor (Mike Binder's The Upside of Anger) and director (a possible HBO version of the Pulitzer-prizewinning trilogy The Kentucky Cycle). Count on Costner to continue with a loner's, a cowpoke's stubbornness. He will make a relationship western about an older man and his young partner — and, dammit, he'll play the younger guy. (Duvall is 72.) He will keep on making movies for filmgoers who don't get antsy if something doesn't blow up or someone doesn't fart every two minutes, for people who appreciate films as landscape paintings and heroes as strong men dwarfed by that big sky.

That's because it's not the glory, or the box-office tally, that appeals to him. It's being, cinematically, in the saddle. "There's no reason I won't again make hit movies," Costner says. "But I can't identify that as who I am, or I'd be lost. My song hasn't changed. So if you want to attack me, you know the hill I'll be standing on every morning."

So ride on, cowboy. Just not into the sunset.

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