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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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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