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Going against the tide

Westerns, baseball films, `Waterworld.' Kevin Costner defends his contrarian ways.

May 27, 2007|Paul Cullum | Special to The Times

"NOT out here -- I don't stand talking in the wind." That's noted western aficionado Kevin Costner easing us toward a quiet corner of his beachfront home outside Santa Barbara. Except that he's quoting John Wayne from "The Searchers," when he first encounters the Indian chief Scar. Whether this is a test of movie lore or the harbinger of a showdown yet to come is not immediately clear.

We sit beneath a giant Peter Beard triptych of African lions, a late-model Gibson acoustic guitar within arm's reach of the couch, binoculars on the credenza for whale spotting. Despite the stunning ocean view, this is actually just a starter home, while the Costners' new house is being readied on the 17-acre horse ranch just up the beach from this gated community. Dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, his two golden labs lazing nearby, Costner seems every bit the laconic everyman he has played for two decades on screen.

In fact, it's only the "Cedars-Sinai Guide to a Happy Baby" open on the coffee table ("A baby will usually nurse between 10 to 20 minutes on each breast") and the occasional muted offstage cry that indicate that Costner, 52, and his wife, Christine, 32, welcomed their first child -- Cayden Wyatt Costner, his fifth and her first -- a scant seven days before. Mother and son are resting somewhere out of sight.

"Well, you're either an observer or a participant," says Costner, grinning, of this late-second-act wrinkle. He is clearly not intimidated by a challenge -- as the biography of a Compton-born, Cal State Fullerton-educated actor-director-producer who makes up to $15 million a picture might suggest. Especially one who grew nine inches in college. After a series of midcareer setbacks and a recent critical and commercial reawakening, Costner is frank and combative about the reputation he has garnered along the way, and most intent on controlling his destiny.

Costner goes on display in "Mr. Brooks," a modest thriller in which he and William Hurt (a friend since "The Big Chill," from which Costner had the misfortune to be almost completely excised) portray dueling personalities of a reluctant serial killer -- an id and ego that drive around aimlessly together, engaging in amusing banter, eluding detective Demi Moore.

In its conception, "Mr. Brooks" seems like a remnant of the "Silence of the Lambs"-era's charming psychopath cycle run through the conceit of addiction and recovery -- the film opens with the Serenity Prayer -- and retooled for the current horror craze. (Director Bruce A. Evans and co-writer Raynold Gideon wrote the '80s films "Stand by Me," "Starman," "Made in Heaven" and the 1992 Christian Slater vehicle "Kuffs" -- Evans' only other directing credit -- as well as the more recent "Jungle 2 Jungle" starring Tim Allen.)

It is also being billed as a departure for its star and producer. Instead, it features Costner at his most affable -- a continuation of recent roles in "The Upside of Anger" and "Rumor Has It ..." but with a considerably darker thread of humor running throughout and a little more fun at the expense of his nice-guy persona.

Yet the image of Costner as a split personality is not altogether a foreign one. Early successes with "Silverado," "The Untouchables" and the baseball double-header "Bull Durham" and "Field of Dreams" culminated in 1990 best picture and best director Oscars for his directorial debut, "Dances With Wolves" (roles in "JFK" and "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" followed).

But soon afterward, his "Jimmy Stewart, aw-shucks persona," as Madonna once described it, began to collide in the press with images of profligacy (cost overruns on the $175-million "Waterworld"), egomania (locking his directors out of the editing room on "Robin Hood" and "The Bodyguard") and intransigence (refusing to comply with studio cuts on his pictures). He stubbornly clung to what were considered outmoded genres (baseball films, westerns, post-apocalyptic epics). His films routinely topped the two-hour mark, and his directorial follow-up, 1997's post-apocalyptic epic western "The Postman," was ridiculed on its release.

Of course, to be fair, "Waterworld" went on to earn $265 million worldwide, putting it safely in the black, and "Robin Hood" and "The Bodyguard" made roughly $400 million apiece. Not even 20 years after "Wolves" and westerns are back in vogue ("Deadwood," Paul Thomas Anderson's upcoming "There Will Be Blood," Costner's own 2003 surprise hit "Open Range"), as is post-apocalypse (Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," Jim Crace's "The Pesthouse," Matthew Sharpe's "Jamestown"). "The Postman" may well be due for reconsideration, now that nostalgia for benign government is in the ascendant. And before you begin to doubt the degree of Costner's commitment to his work, consider that in "Waterworld," the man drank his own urine.

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