Kevin Costner’s 10 Best Performances to Date

It’s worth remembering that one of Kevin Costner’s most memorable credits is for a film that he does not appear in. When Lawrence Kasdan was filming The Big Chill, he included scenes of Alex, the friend whose death the central group of friends and lovers have come together to remember and mourn, in flashback, but decided to cut his physical presence and personality from the film in the end. Costner portrayed Alex in the scenes that Kasdan ended up cutting out, which is for the better of the film, as the focus becomes more and more about regaining something that was lost in spirit rather than stressing that its an actual, distinct person.

Image via Paramount

On the other hand, much of Costner’s late career has hinged on men relocating their youthful hope, idealism, and passion, or inhabiting figures of a time long passed. His type, for lack of a better word, is the All-American man, at both his most proud and heroic, and in his most dangerous and delusional states of mind. In the 1980s and 90s, these were the roles that Costner built a surprisingly sturdy and varied career on, leading him to work with such magnum-level auteurs as Clint Eastwood, Oliver Stone, and Brian De Palma. His embodiment of the bold and brave, however, also led him to take on two particularly catastrophic roles as a leader of the future in The Postman and Waterworld, only the latter of which has genuine camp appeal and strain of notable imagination.

It’s not surprising, then, that when he returned, following his excellent, galvanic work in The Upside of Anger, he started playing characters that are forced to relive a haunting past – 3 Days to Kill, Black or White, and McFarland USA all center on middle-aged men forced to face their old mistakes and to rethink old strategies or philosophies. Even in the role of Pa Kent in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, he represents the nostalgic ghost of a type of straight-shooting father that has so often been idolized in pop culture. In his latest movie, Criminal, he plays a man with two identities, one of a cynical career criminal and one of a young, virile genius-spy, again touching on a kind of rebirth and revitalization of a middle-aged.

To coincide with the release of Criminal, I decided to cobble together Costner’s ten best performances, which range from lifelong boozers and rigid fathers to obsessed lawyers and fighters against the rich and corrupt.

10. Swing Vote

In better hands, Swing Vote could have been a comedy worthy of Frank Capra in its contemplation of American politics and societal concerns from an imaginative yet relatable perspective. Here, Costner portrays Bud Johnson, a blue-collar factory worker who is given the power to decide the outcome of the presidential election due to some hugely fictional turns of the democratic process. Writer-director Joshua Michael Stern does well by offering theatrical, occasionally funny glimpses at both candidates, played by the likes of Kelsey Grammar and Dennis Hopper, as well as their staffers (represented most prominently by Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane), but the heart of the film is in Bud’s relationship with his daughter, Molly (Madeline Carroll). In essence, this is a masculine-paternal wet dream, to have your reasoning be the only logic that matters at the end of the day, and had the script been sharper and a bit more complicated in its vision of the American political system, Swing Vote would have been something like a revelation. Sadly, Stern, who would go onto direct the horrendous Jobs, leaned on a popular strain of cynicism that lets Swing Vote sink into a soft, sentimental family drama, but Costner is convincing, even moving, in representing what many would consider the “average voter.” Beyond the platitudes of the script, the actor ultimately evokes the challenging, self-questioning process of deciding if a vote is being cast to satisfy one’s own personal gripes and skepticism, or in the hope of the next generation doing better than we did.

9. Field of Dreams

A man begins building a baseball diamond in the back of his house, offering nothing more than some nonsense about a voice calling out to him when his wife and family ask for reasoning. “If you build it, they will come,” the voice says, and there’s a feeling here that for the film’s writer and director, Phil Alden Robinson, this was as much about following his cinematic dreams as it was for Costner’s Ray Kinsella’s wanting to build a kind of totem to America’s pastime in his backyard. Thus, Field of Dreams is something of a fable, a story about faith in America rather than faith in some random almighty, although that idea factors in as well. It’s a cheesy, sentimental idea and without Costner, and Amy Madigan as his hard-nosed wife, the film almost certainly wouldn’t work. The strain of nostalgia in Field of Dreams is one that leads back to an uncomplicated ardor for homespun values, but the heart of the story, about a son’s uncertainty about his own familial legacy, hints at something far more personal, a fear of being forgotten that often powers one’s work ethic and creativity. As a true believer, Costner is funny as often as he is tragic and nearly mad with devotion to the project, to the point that the fact that the film is ultimately as sweet-natured as it is comes off as a minor coup or, if you will, a kind of miracle.

8. Tin Cup

There’s nothing quite as white as a golf comedy, whether that be Happy Gilmore, Caddyshack, or Tin Cup, the latter being the most serious-minded of the lot. The film is directed and co-written by Ron Shelton, and as one might expect, it shares more than a few passing resemblances to Bull Durham, though is never quite as radically scripted as White Men Can’t Jump. Centered on a genius golfer who has always been a bit too scruffy to stay on the professional circuit for too long, Tin Cup is denoted by an experiential sense of the inside politics and nuances that separate sports from leisure from professional athletics, a reflection of Shelton’s experience as a Triple-A baseball player. Though it’s a different sport, and Bull Durham is clearly the more personal work, Tin Cup similarly has the scrappy charm of watching local sports, and Costner offers a convincing vision of pickled talent that has turned to the drink and flippancy rather than risk more disappointment and bitterness. The film has an endearingly careless tone, a lightness that isn’t exactly easy to invoke, and Costner is almost elegant in the way that he evokes the feeling of not having to prove anything to anyone anymore…until you feel the wanting to do just that.

7. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

Over the last few decades, few directors who have decided to take on the tale of Robin Hood have come within spitting distance of the sheer entertainment value of Michael Curtiz’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, in which the great Errol Flynn played the bow-and-arrow-wielding champion of the common man. Ridley Scott’s version drags on and grows monotonous within its first hour, and though there are some inspired touches in BBC’s TV adaptation of the character, the entire production feels overworked and doesn’t match its nuanced writing with equally stirring visuals. There’s a similar issue at hand in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, but the actors more than make up for the dour filmmaking and occasional flashes of emotional manipulation. The late, great Alan Rickman has the best scenes as the nefarious Sherriff of Nottingham, but the film belongs to Costner, who plays the role not unlike a war veteran who has renounced rich society in the wake of seeing the horrible realities of the battlefield and the dungeons where the poor are tortured mercilessly. His interactions with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, as Marian, are especially compelling, but his work with Morgan Freeman, Christian Slater, and Michael Wincott are just as memorable and entertaining. The film itself airs a bit too much on the side of classicism, but Costner makes the great hero of the working class a figure worth believing in, even as the script tends to overplay that very hand.

6. The Upside of Anger

In the wake of duel disasters of The Postman and Waterworld, to say nothing of lesser misfires like Dragonfly, Costner was fielding a lot of straight-to-DVD work when the role of Denny Davies hit his desk. One has to imagine that Costner sends writer-director Mike Binder a gift basket every year for creating Davies, the romantic, boozy neighbor of Joan Allen’s Terry Wolfmeyer, a bitter, recently divorced mother of four who has become a raging alcoholic in the wake of the split. Though Binder’s direction is straight run-of-the-mill, the acting is sensational here, and Costner is the clear standout, allowing memories of a disappointing, burnt-out life as a baseball player to bubble-up underneath the goofy, fun-loving demeanor of a drunkard. The actor is so seemingly relaxed in his charms and humor, you wouldn’t think that he was putting an ounce of effort into the role, until you remember how rare performances as endearing and memorable as this are in the grand scheme of things.

5. Dances with Wolves

As a visual artist, Kevin Costner is not particularly gifted, but clearly has plenty of ability to make a passable, classical film. Dances with Wolves is often a gorgeous drama, a kind of neo-Western with plenty of magic-hour shots and a story that vaguely confronts America’s, uh, “problematic” history with anyone who isn’t white. Considering these elements, its not surprising at all that the film won the Oscar for Best Picture and was nominated for a slew of other big awards, but the film lacks true curiosity and outrage at what has happened to Native Americans, which goes far beyond the fact that Mary McDonell is meant to portray one in the film. And yet, Costner’s performance in the film, as a military officer essentially banished to an isolated outpost where he befriends a tribe of Native Americans, reflects the kind of searching spirit that the film is meant to invoke over its bloated 180-minute runtime. In fact, the performance comes to incorporate a feeling of what it was like for Costner to research and make the film, having his character learn about the traditions of his new friends and adopted family as he settles down as an outsider. Though the film itself lacks any complicated political vision, and is helplessly plain in terms of style, Costner’s performance provides a wild pulse of discovery and hard-won honor, which nearly makes up for the film’s myriad missteps.

4. JFK

JFK is by no means a perfect film, but it’s easily one of Oliver Stone’s most engaging creations, diving headfirst into the case against Lee Harvey Oswald, played here by Gary Oldman. It’s a unwieldy epic, chasing a number of conspiracy theories and unexplained facts down several different rabbit holes, but it’s energy, it’s core, comes from an obsession with justice, a furious disbelief over one of the most tragic crimes of the 20th century. Costner embodies that disbelief and a stalwart professionalism as Jim Garrison, the lawyer who is bullied by the government as he begins to build-up a case that Oswald was a patsy for a rich southerner named Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones). The array of conflicting facts, stellar production design, and the simple joys of courtroom and lawful procedure make for an engrossing tonnage of story, and its Costner who keeps the whole thing from spinning out of control. In his passionate belief in American justice, of law and order, the actor comes to represent not only Garrison but Stone himself, a filmmaker whose unerring obsession with the cruel and crooked schemes of the American government has often overwhelmed and corrupted his formal skill and narrative ambitions.

3. Bull Durham

This is the kind of role that Costner was born to play: cocky yet sensitive, skilled yet undisciplined, loyal yet unreliable. And Ron Shelton builds this comedic drama as a fight between professional ambitions and personal desires, the latter being represented by none other than Susan Sarandon. Costner is “Crash” Davies, a veteran baseball player who has been sweating out his career in the minor leagues for well over a decade when we meet him, a station in life that’s shaken up by Sarandon’s Annie Savoy and the arrival of new pitcher “Nuke” Laloosh, played by Tim Robbins. Laloosh is Annie’s latest “project” but Crash stirs her up in unexpected ways, making her question her goals as much as she makes both him and Nuke question theirs. It’s a film that’s unexpectedly driven by its shaggy eroticism, a clear-eyed sense of the strange sexual connections between men and women that would vaguely qualify as “seeing each other.” And Costner is as sexy in his way as Sarandon is, especially in the classic scene where he silently paints Annie’s toenails. It’s inventive scenes and sequences like this that have made Bull Durham endure, but its resonant emotional wallop belongs to what Costner conjures up with Sarandon.

2. The Untouchables

There are plenty of fireworks to be found in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, even though it is, by every account, the most sober-eyed and narratively uncomplicated film in the career of the Blow Out director. It’s hard to think of anything other than the baseball-bat scene, with Robert DeNiro sinking his teeth into a surpassingly theatrical version of Al Capone, when looking back at the prohibition-era crime saga; DePalma’s remake of the Battleship Potemkin “stairs” scene when Capone’s accountant is captured would run a close second. It’s Costner’s tender, deeply human performance as gangbuster Elliott Ness that gives the film its heart though, seeing Ness as not just a starched governmental suit but rather as a big-hearted family man and natural leader. Though Ness’s inherent goodness is all but written on his forehead, DePalma infers the foolishness of Ness’ fight to put Capone away for bootlegging, and Costner is perceptive and measure enough to play those notes to evoke a melancholic uncertainty at the core of the legendary Chicago-born prohibition agent.

1. A Perfect World

It’s not easy following up a film as immediately profound and moving as Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s masterful Western from 1992, and it’s likely because of that film’s clout that A Perfect World has never quite received its due. Like most of Eastwood’s films, the central concept here is the myth of the straight-laced American hero, and Costner portrays one of the director’s most vibrant symbols of that mythology in the role of ‘Butch’ Haynes, a gun-toting thief on the run with a young boy, who equates him to the outlaw heroes he idolizes from TV. Costner’s inherent charms are on full display here, and they draw the audience in the same way they draw the young boy in, only to then give way to an uglier, more complicated vision of criminal violence. When the tellingly nicknamed ‘Butch’ lets his anger overcome him, he is a scary, unforgiving entity, such as when he nearly murders a father for slapping his son. Costner is just as frightening and menacing when these crucial turns come in as he is lovable and funny when he’s having fun with his charge, and it’s a credit to him that ‘Butch’ is such a fully realized creation. The character ends up being as much a symbol of what America gets wrong about its hero as he is a thoroughly damaged, tender human being whose father taught him to react with violence and fear rather than with words and understanding.

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