This month marks the 30th anniversary of the UK release of Bull Durham, one of the career peaks of one of its stars, Kevin Costner, who not only starred in four other films about baseball but was the definitive Hollywood icon of the late 80s and early 90s.
Because his commercial winning streak ended with big-budget mid-90s flops Waterworld (1995) and The Postman (1997), and he’s now too often overlooked as a throwback, it’s easy to forget that there was a time when Kevin Costner worked with some of America’s greatest auteur directors and himself transcended matinee idol status to win the Oscar for best director.
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The Untouchables (1987)
Director: Brian De Palma
Kevin Costner’s first bona fide hit as leading man. Brian De Palma’s slick, entertaining gangster thriller finds him holding his own with scene-stealing (and Oscar-winning) support from Sean Connery, Ennio Morricone’s hook-filled score, a muscular screenplay from David Mamet and De Palma’s bravura set pieces.
Among all of this cinematic machismo is Costner as treasury officer Eliot Ness, the ‘crusader cop’ sent to Chicago to take down arch-mobster Al Capone (Robert De Niro, not so much chewing scenery as brutalising it with a baseball bat). Slender in frame compared with the broad shoulders and pot bellies of Chicago’s cops and crooks, Ness at first seems boyish, even naive, in his incorruptible commitment to the cause – but he soon comes to represent a new American hero, and Costner a new Hollywood star.
No Way Out (1987)
Director: Roger Donaldson
The second adaptation of Kenneth Fearing’s novel The Big Clock (following John Farrow’s 1948 film noir of the same name), No Way Out shifts the action from the New York magazine world to the Washington corridors of power. The result is a taut and sexy political thriller that pulsates with Cold War paranoia and firmly sealed Costner’s status as a leading man.
Coming mere months after his role as Eliot Ness in The Untouchables, Costner again plays a man in service of the state doing battle with corruption, this time as decorated naval officer Tom Farrell caught up in a dangerous conspiracy within the Department of Defence. It’s a charismatic and complex performance, and his white-hot chemistry with Sean Young is one of the film’s chief pleasures. Their initial encounter in the back of a limo is among Hollywood’s greatest sex scenes.
Director Roger Donaldson delights in the convoluted plotting and delivers an unexpected final twist that adds layers to Costner’s performance and offers a glimpse of the way he would go on to subvert his star image in A Perfect World (1993).
Bull Durham (1988)
Director: Ron Shelton
“I believe in the sweet spot, softcore pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve, and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days.” The monologue that serves as minor-league catcher ‘Crash’ Davis’s manifesto saw Costner deliver one of the most iconic moments of his career. Writer-director Ron Shelton’s comic, erotic summertime ode to the ‘Church of Baseball’ sees Costner stuck wryly and poignantly in a love triangle with Susan Sarandon as a poet-priestess and Tim Robbins as a reckless rookie pitcher. Playing Crash as both steadfast athletic stud and round-the-block has-been, the 32-year-old Costner simultaneously demonstrates the wit and sex appeal of peak stardom and the poignantly short shelf-life of a sports career.
Dances with Wolves (1990)
Director: Kevin Costner
Though its reputation has been unfairly diminished over the last two decades, largely due to the fact that it beat Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990) in the major categories at the Academy Awards, Dances with Wolves is an astonishing picture that stands alongside Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) as one of the great western epitaphs. Both films engage with the legacy of the genre and its vision of American history, but where Eastwood’s film was dark and fatalistic, Costner’s was hopeful and melancholic, betraying the same sense of cautious idealism that would define all of his subsequent work as a director, including the unfairly maligned The Postman and the brilliant Open Range (2003).
Director: Oliver Stone
Arriving in the middle of Costner’s Hollywood heyday – after Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves (1991), just before The Bodyguard (1992) – JFK sees KC dropped in the deep end of Oliver Stone’s dense conspiracy thriller. Over three hours, this captivating ‘counter-myth’ recounts the Kennedy assassination from the era-defining incident to the investigation by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Costner) into the claims that shooter Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) worked alone.
Throughout, Costner isn’t so much a star as an agent of the film’s ambitious sweep, first introduced as one of the many American citizens shocked by the event, and then as a guide through the screenplay’s complex web of theories and conspirators, before finally, in a compelling courtroom recreation of the events of 22 November 1963, providing a mouthpiece for Stone’s own rallying-cry for truth.
A Perfect World (1993)
Director: Clint Eastwood
After establishing himself as an embodiment of upright American integrity in films like The Untouchables, Dances with Wolves and JFK, Costner complicated and darkened his persona with his performance in Clint Eastwood’s magnificent and sadly overlooked thriller A Perfect World. As escaped convict Butch, on the run from the law with an eight-year-old hostage by his side, Costner possesses a roguish charm that’s offset by an underlying coldness and ruthlessness, with this more sinister edge emerging in the film’s most chilling moments.
It all comes to a head in a climactic sequence that sees Butch terrorising a rural family after seeing the father aggressively slap his son; an action that triggers something deep inside Butch and ignites his wrath. Eastwood has always been fascinated by the impact of violence and the multiple ways in which it can affect a person’s life, and the skill with which Costner suggests the scars that a history of abuse and violence has left on his soul may be his finest work as an actor.
Thirteen Days (2000)
Director: Roger Donaldson
Reuniting with No Way Out director Roger Donaldson, Costner joined a dynamic ensemble cast, including Bruce Greenwood as John F. Kennedy and Steven Culp as Bobby Kennedy, in this tense, intelligent chronicle of a world on the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis.
Adopting a thick Massachusetts accent as Kennedy’s special advisor Kenny O’Donnell, Costner doesn’t dominate the proceedings but is one cog in a weighty, stressed decision-making enterprise, demonstrating calculation in brinksmanship, talking about loyalty in the face of political skulduggery and attempting stoicism despite mortal fear. As with so many of the actor’s roles, Costner’s work as O’Donnell exemplifies an old-fashioned American ideal of leading man as team player.
3000 Miles to Graceland (2001)
Director: Demian Lichtenstein
Wyatt Earp meets Wyatt Earp as Kurt Russell and Kevin Costner go head to head playing rival Elvis impersonators intent on robbing a Vegas casino in this disreputable noughties heist movie. It’s fair to say 3000 Miles to Graceland is not a film that’s remembered fondly, if it’s remembered at all. But after a string of flops for Costner its release coincided with a career revival heralded by Thirteen Days, and his snarling performance as trigger-happy sociopath Murphy drew praise.
With his giant sideburns, wraparound shades, leather jumpsuit and a rapidly rising body count, he tramples all over his early star image, going full ‘bad guy’ and delivering the kind of wild, pulpy performance of which Nicolas Cage might be proud. With rookie director Demian Lichtenstein at the helm, Costner and Russell both had final-cut rights and turned in wildly different versions of the film, but it was Costner’s action-heavy version that connected with test audiences and ultimately made it to the screen.
Open Range (2003)
Director: Kevin Costner
The western has always been the bedrock of Costner’s career on both sides of the camera, and his third (and, to date, last) film as a director is his most heartfelt homage to the genre that shaped him. In Open Range he stars alongside Robert Duvall as a pair of free-grazers coming into conflict with Michael Gambon’s ruthless cattle baron, with Craig Storper’s script drawing inspiration from the likes of My Darling Clementine (1946), Red River (1948) and Rio Bravo (1959).
Costner’s direction is classical, unhurried and assured, prioritising character and atmosphere over action, and keeping his powder dry until the explosive climax. In front of the camera, he is often content to let Duvall take the spotlight, but he still presents a compelling portrait of a tormented soul, tempted by the thought of domestic bliss but knowing that vengeance must be taken before he can find peace. As he says in the film: “There’s things that gnaw at a man worse than dying.”
Draft Day (2014)
Director: Ivan Reitman
One of the great, underrated sports movies of the last decade, Draft Day is set on one of the most important days in the football calendar – when the NFL teams select players from the college ranks to join their squads. Costner plays the manager of the storied Cleveland Browns, a man at the centre of the storm, beleaguered on all sides, in a film that uses football – the sport that usurped the place of baseball as America’s pastime – to reflect on duty, legacy and stewardship.
It’s no coincidence that director Ivan Reitman chose to focus on a team in the heart of the rust belt, the former hub of industry beset by urban decay. Draft Day casts football as a source of hope for the people of Cleveland, and Costner’s Sonny Weaver Jr as its steward.