Back In the Saddle

Can KEVIN COSTNER, with a string of bad films in his wake, make a good one? An epic western, no less? Yup.

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Costner is a kind of dinosaur: a movie man out of his time, a guy making slow-fuse epics in an age when Hollywood product is ever more agitated, ever more fearful of the teenager's hand on the fast-forward or eject button. Doesn't he know that a top film these days needs a furious pulse? "There's a whole mentality of people who believe that's correct," Costner declares, "and they probably are correct. That's why those movies are making hundreds of millions of dollars. It's just that I have to hold on to myself."

There was a time when being himself was more than enough. He came out of nowhere (his most prominent role had been the corpse in The Big Chill) in the mid-'80s with four consecutive, highly respected hits: The Untouchables, No Way Out, Bull Durham and Field of Dreams. His presence--affable, earnest, expressing hopes, hiding wounds--became a guarantee of quality in Hollywood films.

Of course, what he really wanted to do was direct, so he did a three-hour western with half the dialogue in Sioux, and Dances won him Oscars for Picture and Director and earned $420 million worldwide. He roamed through genres, playing a surfer-accented Robin Hood, a bodyguard for Whitney Houston, JFK's Jim Garrison: three more improbable hits. Costner regularly made grownup films popular. He was Hanks before Hanks was Hanks, and with a sex appeal Tom couldn't match.

From the start Costner was one of the few grownup males in films. That's partly because he came late to celebrity. "People see stardom as a place," he says. "They don't see all the steps that it took to get there. Stardom didn't happen to me at 19 or 21--it happened to me at 30. So I wasn't that impressed with my success, wasn't dizzied by it. I wasn't all that eager to ride down Sunset Boulevard with my head out the window doing cocaine."

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."

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