Guest Post: The rise and fall of Kevin Costner’s career

With the news that Costner will play Jonathan Kent in the new Superman film, Man of Steel, I thought I should write up about his rise to super-stardom and his fall from that status.

You see I never thought of Costner as good actor and yet I’ve seen every single film of his from 1985 to 2003, starting with Silverado and end with Open Range. It’s kind of ironic since both the first and last film I saw him are both Westerns.

To me, Costner was never a strong leading man, even though a lot of his films in the late 80s and early 90s were box office hits. Don’t get me wrong, I like a lot of his early films, The Untouchables, Field of Dreams, Revenge and Dances with Wolves were quite good. In those films, he just never stood out; I felt like he was there but not really ‘carried’ the movie but somehow he made it worked. Especially in Revenge, I always thought had someone like Bruce Willis or Tom Cruise starred in it, the film could’ve been even better.

I’ll list the films that made him a superstar and films that ruined his career as a leading man. Here goes:

  1. The Untouchables
    This was his first starring role in a big summer movie, co-starring with Robert De Niro and Sean Connery. The movie was a big hit at the time and catapulted Costner into an A-list leading man status. Looking back, this was a big gamble for Paramount, having a relatively unknown actor as the leading man for a summer film. Of course it paid off for both the studio and Costner, it didn’t hurt that they surrounded him with veterans like Connery and De Niro.
  2. No Way Out
    This film also came out in the summer of 1987, two months after The Untouchables, in fact. Even though it wasn’t a huge box office hit, it cemented Costner as a sex symbol to a lot of his female fans. I saw this film when I was in my early teens and I fell in love with Sean Young, who’s quite sexy in the film.
  3. Bull Durham
    Now that he’s an elite leading man, Costner decided to tackle romantic comedy and his first baseball theme film. This film was released in the summer of 1988 and again it was a box office hit. I didn’t particular like this movie, I thought the chemistry between Costner and Susan Sarandon didn’t really click.
  4. Field of Dreams
    Costner decided to do another baseball theme film and I thought this one was much better than Bull Durham. Again this one was a box office success and Costner can pretty much do whatever he wanted in the Hollywood.
  5. Revenge
    After two lighter films, Costner decided to star in a dark thriller and this was his first box office misfire since becoming a Hollywood star. I did like this film but I thought Costner was wrong for the part. He just wasn’t strong enough for this role and apparently many people agreed since the film barely made more than $20mil at the box office. Also, I think maybe because of the film’s violent content, it might’ve turned off many of his fans.
  6. Dances with Wolves
    He turned down the role of Jack Ryan in The Hunt for Red October so he could star and direct this Western. Well, I guess it was great a move on his part because the film made close to $200 mil at box the office and won him an Oscar for best director. (Scorsese should’ve won that year, but that’s another debate at another time.)
  7. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
    By this time, Costner was on the top of world and it seemed everything he touched turned to gold. This film came out in the summer of 1991 and again it was a huge hit.
  8. JFK
    In this film he teamed up with another A-lister, Oliver Stone, the film did pretty well in theaters and also got several Oscar nominations. I thought this was a very good movie, just a tad too long in my opinion.
  9. The Bodyguard
    After several serious films, he decided to come back and make a romantic-themed film. He teamed up with Whitney Houston (she was a huge pop singer at the time) and of course the film was a box office gold. I really hated this movie, the chemistry between Costner and Houston just didn’t click and the plot was more of a TV movie of the week than a big screen film.
  10. A Perfect World
    So after a few box office hits, he decided to team up with another A-lister, Clint Eastwood and make this film. I believe this is the film that started his downfall as a box office leading man. The film didn’t do well in theater and it didn’t receive any praises by the critics. I’m sure the studio executives probably thought, hey we got Eastwood who’s just won an Oscar for Unforgiven and a young hot box office star, it’s a sure box office gold. Well it didn’t turn out that way and the film got zero Oscar nominations. Personally I thought the film was okay, the plot’s really uneven and again Costner just wasn’t a strong enough leading man to carry the film.
  11. Wyatt Earp
    After the disappointment of A Perfect World, Costner’s back doing a Western. This time he played the title character and it’s a big budgeted summer film. Unfortunately most people have already seen a similar film a few months earlier, Tombstone. So this movie barely made back it’s $60-mil plus budget and again Costner’s bankable leading man status went down fast. Now I actually like this film better than Tombstone, I know I can’t believe it either, I really dug the whole back story of the Earps family and I thought Dennis Quaid played Doc Holliday in a more realistic way than Val Kilmer’s version.
  12. Waterworld
    Even though his last two films were box office duds, Universal still believed Costner was a bankable star, so they greenlit this $100 mil plus action/sci-fi film. The film was in trouble right from the beginning, Lawrence Fishburn left the project a few weeks before shooting starts and they had to scramble to find his replacement. Dennis Hopper ended up with the role. Then just a few weeks into shooting, a hurricane destroyed the sets and so they had to rebuild them. By now the film’s budget had ballooned up to $150 mil, some even said the film’s final budget was somewhere between $170 to $200 mil, this was the mid-90s when that kind of numbers was unheard of.

    Then towards the end of shooting, director Kevin Reynolds and the studio people were in disagreement over the tone of the film. The studio wanted him to cut down the violence so it could get a PG-13 rating; Reynolds on the other hand wanted a more gritty and violent film. Costner stepped in and sided with the studio and Reynolds left the film before editing even started. He still received a directing credit even though Costner finished the movie in post-production. The film opened in the summer of 1995 and of course it tanked big time and pretty much ruined Costner’s cred as a bankable leading man.
  13. Tin Cup
    After a string of box office misfires, Costner decided to go back and starred in another romantic comedy. The film opened in the summer of 1996 and it did a pretty decent business at the box office. I actually enjoyed this film quite a bit, probably because I was madly in love with Rene Russo at the time and not because of Costner. A lot of people in Hollywood around this time still think that he’s a bankable star. Which explained why his next film got made.
  14. The Postman
    Warner Bros. somehow believed that Costner could still open a movie with just his name alone, why else would they give him $80 mil to shoot this movie, right? This film was based on some little-known novel of the same name, which I had never heard of the book until they announced the movie. I assumed Warner Bros. thought Costner can make another Dances with Wolves since they scheduled the film to open on Christmas Day of 1997.

    Well, a few months prior to the film’s release date, the trailer was shown and a lot of people in theaters around the country laughed out loud at the title and the test screening didn’t go too well either. A friend of mine got selected to the test screening at the Mall of America theaters and he told me to stay away from it at all cost. I didn’t listen and went to see the movie anyway; after I saw it I wish I’d listened to him. A few months before the film open, it got such a bad word of mouth that Warner Bros. decided to not to even spend big money promoting it. The film made about $17 mil and pretty much destroyed Costner’s career as a bankable leading man.

After The Postman, Costner made a few films with similar genre that made him a big star in the first place but none of them were big hits. By the late 90s and 2000s, leading men weren’t really necessary to open films anymore, people went to see big films for only certain genres. Of course, some big-named stars could still open films on their names alone, i.e. Tom Hanks, Jim Carrey, Will Smith and Tom Cruise, just to name the few. But around this time, it’s clear that Costner is not in that club anymore. As I mentioned earlier, the last film of his that I saw was Open Range and I thought it was great. It didn’t wow many people so it didn’t really help Costner’s career at all.

I’m curious to see how big a screen time he’ll get for the new Superman film, it’s hard to believe how his career has fallen so fast as it did. [rtm’s note: Deadline has just reported yesterday that he’s working on a TV miniseries for the History channel]

What do you think of Kevin Costner? Are you a fan or do you feel the same way as I do that he’s just not a strong leading man?

28 thoughts on “Guest Post: The rise and fall of Kevin Costner’s career

  1. Vince

    Cautionary tale:) Personally, he lost me with the whole Robin Hood with a mullet thing. I couldn’t take him seriously after that. I think it was indeed Waterworld that did him in for everyone else…

  2. Good post there Mr S,

    I used to love Mr Costner. He was always going to be a sure fire box office smash. Amazing how he fell so far out of favour with Hollywood and the public.

    Untouchables, love it. Field of Dreams, pretty cool.

    I deffo should have added Robin Hood into todays Bad Hairdo post over on FRC!!

    Thanks for putting this together Ted and Ruth!!


    1. Ted S.

      Thanks Custard, yeah I enjoyed The Untouchables and Field of Dreams quite a bit myself. It’s amazing to see his career fell so fast and he just couldn’t recover after Waterworld.

    2. Oh the credit is fully Ted’s. I just found the photos and formatted the article 🙂

      I think my fave Costner movie is No Way Out, I remember having a bit of a crush on him when I saw it in high school. The Bodyguard is a guilty pleasure… yeah it’s not a good movie but I thought he had a pretty decent chemistry w/ Whitney. I LOVE Whitney songs though, so maybe that’s why I like the movie a lot.

  3. Jack Deth

    Never been much of a Costner fan to begin with. Certainly
    not as a leading man. I still think his best and shortest role was as the corpse being dressed in the beginning of ‘The Big Chill’.

    Second best role was as Scott Glenn’s kid brother, Jake in ‘Silverado’. Even though Glenn and Brian Dennehy buried him

    ‘Dances With Wolves’ may have put Costner over the top, but I wasn’t surprised when he crashed and burned with his ego driven ‘Waterworld’. Very much the same way Michael Cimino plummeted with ‘Heaven’s Gate’ after his much heralded ‘The Deer Hunter’.

    1. Ted S.

      Agree Jack, I thought he was pretty funny in Silverado, maybe he should’ve done more straight comedies instead of his dramedies.

    1. Ted S.

      I’m pretty sure I did, unless there’s another version out there. 🙂

      But I saw it like over 10 years ago so maybe I might have a different opinion if I see it again.

    1. Ted S.

      Yeah I think he was good in The Untouchables and it’s probably my favorite film of his. But he got help from both DiNero and Connery.

  4. Yes, I agree that Costner isn’t a very strong leading man. He seems to always be the same not only from movie to movie but even moments to moments. He doesn’t really have much range and can’t seem to convey all that much emotional depth. I did enjoy The Untouchables and Dance With the Wolves but those movies probably could have been stronger with a more expressive lead.

    1. Ted S.

      Exactly, in all of his films he never really stood out. I enjoyed Wyatt Earp a lot more than Tombstone but I wanted Russelle’s Wyatt in that movie instead of him.

      BTW, thanks for the shout out on your site. If you’re going to see Tree of Life this weekend then I’m looking forward to your review.

  5. Pingback: The Open Bar: Memorial Day Weekend — ANOMALOUS MATERIAL

    1. Ted S.

      You know I never thought of him as a “bad” actor, just that he never stood out, especially as a leading man in big films.

  6. He’s made some really horrible movies through the years but I’ll always have a soft spot for him because he’s made two of the best baseball movies ever made (and a third that wasn’t too shabby, ‘For Love of the Game’). For a very brief five year period in my formative years, he was “it”- the Hollywood Buzz guy who could do no wrong, and he made a lot of movies in those years that I genuinely liked. Untouchables, JFK, the baseball movies, even the much maligned Dances with Wolves…

    I guess now I sort of look at him like I might a drunk uncle who used to be the high school quarterback, but is now merely a shell of his former self. But the glory days were very real for Mr. Costner.

    1. Ted S.

      That’s exactly how I feel about him too. It’s just so amazing how his career just went down the crapper so fast and he can’t seem to recover from it. Maybe he should try and get a role in Tarantino’s upcoming new films, who knows QT might be able to revive his career like he did with John Travolta. But then again Travolta’s career is also in the dump the last few years too.

  7. I remember an item about Kevin Costner saying that his career was over the minute he appeared in In Bed With Madonna and Madonna makes a vomit gesture behind his back. From that moment on Costner lost all his cool, if he had any in the first place.

    But Mr Brooks was a good movie though.

  8. Nobody’s mentioned The Guardian which I liked him in, in a Dennis Quaid sort of way. Costner is a take it or leave it actor for me but I completely see him as Jonathan Kent type.

  9. Interesting list. I saw Message In a Bottle recently, I didn’t think it was that great. I agree – I don’t think his past performances have been as spectacular as others have deemed it. Though, I guess everyone has a different opinion! 🙂

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