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Profile in Courage

In the political thriller Thirteen Days, Kevin Costner explores the Cuban Missile Crisis and how John and Robert Kennedy saved the world.
David Giammarco
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Costner, Nov/Dec 00

(continued from page 3)

By all accounts, it seems Costner has always marched to the beat of his own drum. When he was a struggling actor in the early '80s, he refused to utter his only line of dialogue, opposite Jessica Lange in 1982's Frances, because it didn't ring true for his character, even though it would have earned him a Screen Actors Guild card--a prerequisite for the union auditions that had eluded him for some five years. And after attaining stardom as noble--albeit slightly flawed--heroes in films such as The Untouchables, Bull Durham and Field of Dreams, Costner bucked conventional wisdom by directing, producing and starring in the three-hour-plus Western Dances with Wolves--with a third of the dialogue in the Lakota Sioux language.

"One guy told me to buy a gun and shoot myself--it was a cheaper way to commit suicide," he recalls with a grin.   But the 1990 film ended up grossing more than $500 million worldwide and earned Costner his stripes as a Hollywood heavyweight, bagging seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for the first-timer. He followed that triumph with the controversial role of beleaguered New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, who was determined to expose the conspiracy behind the assassination of President Kennedy in Stone's politically dangerous epic JFK. Costner was cautioned not to take the role, but he knew it was too important a story to shun.

"Kevin anchored that movie for me enormously," Stone says. "JFK needed an adhesive glue, someone to keep it together over a three-hour running time, and that's exactly what he did. It was a long movie, with a lot of dialogue and a lot of different and unique characters. His is a very understated performance, because other people come in and have flashier roles--like Kevin Bacon or Tommy Lee Jones or Joe Pesci--but you needed that glue for a film of that scope and size."

"I felt that this country can accept the truth, just like we can accept our past, and we stand to learn more from [knowing] it then burying it," explains Costner. The 1991 film not only ignited a firestorm of controversy, but also was single-handedly responsible for helping pass the JFK Records Act, which opened up millions of pages of classified documents concerning the assassination. "You know, we want to get our children to understand that example, yet as adults, we just don't want to live it ourselves."

Costner's next hit was the 1992 film The Bodyguard, which costarred Whitney Houston. But then came Waterworld in 1995, and when it started running into financial and production turmoil, Costner again stepped to the plate and deferred his salary to keep the film afloat. "I felt like there was a responsibility to the studio that had put a lot of money into the movie, and I didn't want to abandon it," Costner says. "A lot of people ducked out, but I stayed with the film. For me, if I was going to retrace the history of my life, while that was a painful point for me, it was a highlight in that I rode it through to the end." And in the end, Waterworld grossed more than $400 million worldwide--certainly one of Universal's highest-grossing films in recent history. "And that movie would have failed if I'd walked away," adds Costner. "I was literally the last man standing."  

Although Wyatt Earp and his second directorial effort, The Postman, failed commercially and critically, Costner makes no apologies. "I loved Wyatt Earp and I really loved The Postman, and no one can take those movies away from me," Costner says emphatically. "I would stack those films up, not in the world we live in today, but five years from now, where people can just watch them untainted. I would stack my movies up with anybody's movies. All their sequels included.

"And quite honestly," adds Costner, "I am haunted by the decisions that are commercially based. Absolutely haunted. In the rest of my life I'm a pretty tough character, but in that one aspect, I crumble. I mean, I don't do it in public, but I go back and I'm by myself. I just hate that you don't see every moment that I really wanted you to see, as a man. Because I make my films for men, from a man's point of view. And I always try to have great women characters in them as well."

But the alternative, Costner says, is that "I could make every decision that could cater to the biggest demographic and try to make as many friends as I could. All my decisions would be really flat and really safe. And I would go, 'God, I still didn't manage to make them like me.' Then I would hate myself. I would kill myself if I reduced myself to the lowest common denominator and then failed. I'd think, 'Shame on you, you miserable baby. You have successfully done nothing!'"  

Costner is the first to admit that Thirteen Days is an anomaly in an era when teenage comedies and cost-cutting measures are de rigueur in Hollywood, and goes so far as to liken Thirteen Days to an art film by comparison. "Our demographic for this movie is shrinking, but I still had to make it," says Costner, who also serves as a coproducer on the film. "I mean, it's not a star turn for me, but it's important. It's important that we don't shy away from the subject matter. I wanted whoever sees this movie to know about our history. We're losing our legacy of greatness and our legacy of failure because we're just putting it behind us. But I'm in love with our history. So for me, it came down to 'What is your filmography going to look like in your life?'   "I never try to anticipate the mood swings of what's commercial and what's not," he adds. "I've just always gone towards what I thought was a really good story."  

Costner knows that there are still plenty of good stories left to tell. But whether he directs again remains to be seen. "Yeah, I'll direct again," he says with a mischievous smile, "when it's time for another beating." But what remains is his love for filmmaking. "Maybe it's an arrogance that I have, but I know the way I feel about movies is absolutely pure. And that's not to say I'm infallible and I'm the one who knows best, but somebody has to have a point of view about the movie and somebody has to pull it through. I don't tolerate anyone tinkering with them for commercial reasons. I just can't allow it--maybe that's the trouble with me.   "But you know, I'm always so pleased at the letters I get from around the world about the movies I've done. And always when I get a great letter, it reminds me that most of everything you fight for is the reason you do it. I don't fight to fight, 'cause that's not my nature. I fight cowardice and I fight fear."  


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