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COSTNER TAKES A STAND : He's Made a Western. It's Three Hours Long. It Has Subtitles. And He Likes It Like That.

November 04, 1990|Elaine Dutka | Elaine Dutka covers the film industry for The Times.

IT IS NEARLY 100 DEGREES in the flats of Hollywood. Kevin Costner is sitting in his modest, un-air-conditioned office on the lot of Raleigh Studios, next to a table fan working overtime. Propping his rawhide-tipped, two-tone cowboy boots on the desk, white polo shirt setting off his steel-blue eyes and California tan, the 35-year-old actor leans back and gives his icy assessment of the movie industry. Record heat notwithstanding, he's the epitome of cool.

"I'm not in the hit business," he says, in that engaging, straight-on manner that evokes comparisons with another paragon of cool, Gary Cooper. "To me, a flop is a bad movie, not one that fails at the box office. There were five flops this summer that will make $80 million each."

The topic of conversation is movie-making and risk-taking--more specifically, Costner's biggest gamble yet: co-producing, directing and starring in "Dances With Wolves," an $18-million epic scheduled for release Friday. Mere mention of the word gamble , though, is enough to set Costner off. A testiness shows around his eyes. The confident tone veers toward cocky. As he sees it, he has simply made the movie he wants to make--now, as always, playing the Hollywood game his way.

Defying a business that's based on dues-paying, Costner has jumped from featured actor to auteur in near-record time. Five years of notable roles such as the rambunctious cowboy in "Silverado," an antiseptic Eliot Ness in "The Untouchables," a steamy double agent in "No Way Out," an over-the-hill, bush-league catcher in "Bull Durham" and the Iowa farmer in last year's sleeper, "Field of Dreams," dropped him on the brink of superstardom. But unlike such Hollywood eminences as Paul Newman and Robert Redford, he didn't stop to solidify his status before moving behind the camera.

And if he slowed down to listen to Hollywood's conventional wisdom, it's clear he didn't heed it. "Dances With Wolves," the story of a U.S. cavalry officer living among the Sioux Indians in the 1860s, ignores the industry's edict that Westerns are out. A full third of the dialogue is spoken in Lakota, the Sioux language, so audiences will have to wrestle with subtitles. And for good measure, this movie is long: The film logs in at a couple of minutes under three hours--a full 50% longer than profit-oriented studios and theater owners deem ideal.

By deferring his actor/director salary to the tune of several million dollars, Costner has put not only himself but his bankbook on the line. He's already met the skeptics head-on. When word leaked out last year that his film was over budget and behind schedule, the press dubbed the project "Kevin's Gate," a reference to "Heaven's Gate," the industry synonym for an epic flop.

Jim Wilson, a producer and director of low-budget features who created Tig Productions with Costner in 1989, knows what the insiders are saying. "These are Kevin's golden years. Hollywood is paying huge sums of money to leading men, of which there are not many. Kevin has taken 18 months of his life, made himself unavailable to do anything else, just to make this movie. It's a high-wire act in full view of the industry."

Costner is forced to agree--at least in part. "It's a dumb first movie," he says with a grin. "Full of kids, animals, first-time actors speaking in a foreign language. A period piece on top of that. But I'm just offering up the film, letting the people decide.

"My only concern is whether the movie is good. And I think it is," the actor continues, dead serious. "I have no control after that. My friends are afraid I'm going to be eaten up. They know I've put my heart in it, up there on the block for anyone to do with what they will. But I don't care what Hollywood thinks. You can underline that."

IT'S NO COINCIDENCE THAT Costner is staking his reputation on a Western. Part Cherokee on his father's side, he has always been drawn to the image of a man on a horse, self-sufficient, all his worldly possessions in a bedroll. At 18, he built a canoe, and he and a friend traveled the country, boat strapped to the top of their car, driving and paddling some of the routes taken by Lewis and Clark. A high point of the trip was a stop at the site of Custer's Last Stand in southern Montana. Still, Costner wasn't on the lookout for a story about Native Americans. This one literally fell into his lap.

It was 1986, and Michael Blake--a screenwriter and friend of Costner--was sitting on the actor's living-room floor complaining that the scripts he'd written were never picked up. "Write a novel," advised Costner, pointing to a stack of 20 scripts piled in the corner. "If you write a screenplay, it'll just end up there."

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