Kevin Costner: All That Kevin Allows

In a career that is now in full ascension, Kevin Costner has slowly and deliberately made all the right moves, and has skillfully survived some wrong ones.

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Kevin Costner is not the most powerful person in Hollywood. He's not even the highest-paid actor. But right now he is the undisputed Prince of Tinseltown, glowing with natural beauty and preternatural confidence, surrounded by a loyal retinue of creative cohorts gathered over the years of struggle, celebrated by colleagues, adored by fans, free to star in or direct virtually anything he wishes. And all this must be all the sweeter to Costner because he surely knows that his phenomenal success has surprised the hell out of Hollywood.

It's reasonable enough--as many Costner observers had been predicting for almost a decade--that eventually, an amiable handsomeness, tipsy grin, raw-boned physique, and slowpoke, mid-America-friendly charisma would get a guy noticed by mass audiences. But, when Costner finally hit at the box office (after doing flashy turns in movies nobody saw, and getting cut from one everybody did), becoming gold playing a sexy military whistle-blower in No Way Out and a sexy gangbuster in The Untouchables, he really hit. By the time he played a sexy ballplayer in Bull Durham, he was in a powerful enough position to be advising on the final cut. And after his appeal turned the sleeper Field of Dreams into a surprise hit, he had not only become moviegoers' heart-throb of choice, he had won a studio's confidence to the point where they were ready to back his directorial debut. Then, even more remarkably, Dances With Wolves--a three-hour revisionist Western with subtitles, for Pete's sake--won Golden Globe and Oscar recognition and over $100 million at the box office, turning Costner overnight into a filmmaker to reckon with. To round things out, he's about to be unveiled as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in a $50 million swashbuckler that knocked two other Robin Hood movies out of com-mission the minute he said "yes" to the $8 million offer.

At awards shows, as Costner clutches statuettes and calls out halting, plain-spoken gratitude to people whose names are unfamiliar to most people outside of the business--those "Sure-I'm-king-of-the- world-but-I-remember-who-helped-put-me-here" speeches--he sounds just the right note of humble pride. Had the cameras captured the reactions of the parties Costner named--casting directors, agents, directors, studio bosses-- they might have wiped away our memories of a similarly touching speech by "Eve Harrington," the fearsomely ambitious, conniving heroine of All About Eve, who throbbingly thanked the very people on whom she had stomped to reach the top. Unlike Eve--or dozens of real-life actors and directors who use up people like Kleenex--Costner rose to the top apparently leaving few grinding their axes, fewer still questioning his loyalties or his ethics. "I know that whatever I want, I get," he asserted four years ago in an interview. "But I think how my career has gone is a mystery to people."

Exactly. And perhaps that's how he prefers to keep things. "Likable," he once described himself, "but full of secrets." Given to genial and well-man-aged, though hardly confessional, inter-views ("It's an Indian thing," he explained to a Time journalist trying to dissect his appeal. "I try not to get into my medicine at all."), Costner declined to talk for this story. But the themes that characterize Costner's rise to success are really not hard to spot. He operates out of powerful conviction about what's worth doing and how it ought to be done. He builds working relationships and friendships with people that continue from one project to another (instead of chewing people up and spitting them out, a Hollywood norm). He holds out for what he wants and never doubts that he deserves it.

To retrace the trail that ends in Costner's auteurship of an $18 million Indian epic, one must leave the golden land of healthy ambition, shrewd career engineering, deep interconnectedness, and brilliant luck to enter a far less lofty sphere where such movies as Stacy's Knights are made by folks on the hustle. That movie, eight years old now, is about a pair of gamblers, each with a system. If you're intrigued by Costner's scuffling days, you can rent the thing from your video store. But the story behind the story tells much more about how one actor got to be king of the hill. It started with a screenplay, Double Down, commissioned by young, would-be movie-maker Jim Wilson (persuasive, ambitious, from a moneyed background) and written, for $400, by bright, barely-making-it ex-G.I. Michael Blake. Wilson and his then-girlfriend, JoAnn Locktov, a first-time producer, pitched the project to various young, willing-to-work-cheap collaborators. "The promise was: work on this for free," recalls production assistant Katherine Orrison, "be-cause we're going to make money and go on to do more movies together. Why? Be-cause we've got this hot guy in the lead. We hear a lot about this hot guy."

Although still green, Costner--the hot guy Wilson and Blake found at an open casting call to play "Will Bonner"-- was tall, rangy, and, best of all, available for $500 a week. Orrison recalls that the budget was so tight that only essential crew members trekked to Reno locations, from which the news, right to the end of the shooting, was bullish: "The leading man is dynamite." During postproduction, Locktov and Orrison were lunching at Taco Bell when, Orrison recalls, "This nice, pleasant guy joined us and chatted awhile. When he left, JoAnn said, 'Isn't he dreamy?' I answered, 'Not particularly.' She told me that was our star. I said: 'We're sunk.' "

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