THE BACK PAGES

Oops, did I just say 'comeback'?

Kevin Costner is on an upswing with 'Swing Vote,’ but he still denies there was a slump

BRIAN D. JOHNSON August 4 2008
THE BACK PAGES

Oops, did I just say 'comeback'?

Kevin Costner is on an upswing with 'Swing Vote,’ but he still denies there was a slump

BRIAN D. JOHNSON August 4 2008

Oops, did I just say 'comeback'?

film

Kevin Costner is on an upswing with 'Swing Vote,’ but he still denies there was a slump

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

When talking to an actor, especially a movie star, “comeback” is a dangerous word to float into the conversation, no matter how generous the sentiment behind it. Recently I sat down with Kevin Costner, who was in Toronto to promote Swing Vote, a broad political comedy that he produced. He stars as a drunken yokel whose vote, through a ballot box fluke, will decide the fate of a presidential election. The movie, and his performance, are better than they have any right to be. But when it’s suggested that Swing Vote marks a comeback, the 53-year-old actor looks puzzled. A comeback implies there has been a slump. And no actor wants to admit he’s been in a slump.

But Costner’s box office constituency has undergone its own wild swing votes. Batting in a string of home runs during the late 1980s— The Untouchables, Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, and the Oscar-winning directorial coup, Dances with Wolves—this former athlete emerged as the Gary Cooper of his generation, a no-nonsense star who radiated quiet charisma and inarguable honesty. Then he counterfeited his heroic currency in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991). And with the epic disappointments of Waterworld (1995) and The Postman (1997), his rugged individualism began to look like tarnished hubris.

But three years ago, in a deft comedic drama called The Upside of Anger, Costner revealed another side of himself as a retired ballplayer stuck in a middle-aged rut of drunken bachelorhood. He autographs baseballs, fields calls from fans on a radio phonein show—and sheepishly pursues an alcoholic fling with the single mom next door (Joan Allen). This unflattering portrayal of a washedup celebrity came right out of left field—and seemed a bold move for a major-league star who had himself unceremoniously slipped from Hollywood’s A-list.

If The Upside ofAnger was an underappreciated gem, Costner drives home its promise in Swing Vote, playing another derelict loser who keeps waking up with a hangover on the wrong side of the American Dream. Costner stars as Bud, a small-town slacker who’s fired from his job in a New Mexico egg factory. Due to a technical glitch on election day, Bud’s ballot—covertly cast by his precocious daughter (Madeline Carroll)—fails to register. He’s given a chance to re-vote, but the race is so tight that the fate of the presidency will hinge on his choice. Bud becomes an instant celebrity, the hapless target of massive campaigns by the Republican incumbent (Kelsey Grammer) and the Democratic challenger (Dennis Hopper). Despite the far-fetched premise, Costner summons up emotional depths that aren’t even hinted at in the trailer, elevating cornball farce to Capraesque fable—that old field of dreams.

Is that not a comeback? When Costner pretends not to understand the question, I suggest, euphemistically, that his career has had some ups and downs. “That’s all perception,” he counters. “The perception is tied absolutely with monetary [value]. If you’re going to live your life by the numbers, you can have what you call your ups and downs. I’m cognizant of what you’re saying, but you’re dealing with a scorecard. I don’t score movies that way. I understood every movie I tried to make, so I feel good about that.”

Really? Does he feel good about the muchridiculed Waterworld? And what about The Postman, which is regarded as his own personal Heaven’s Gate? “A lot of people thought Waterworld didn’t make any money but it did. So what am I supposed to say about that? I liked The Postman. Is it a flawed movie? Yeah, but every movie I’ve made has flaws in it.”

What sets Costner apart from many Hollywood stars is that he’s willing to take risks with his career, and his own money. He defends his independence as if his life depended on it. “You’ve got to blaze your own trail,” he says, “or you’re just going to feed at the trough. Feeding at the trough can get you pretty fat. But I choose to go my own way.”

Swing Vote—a $30-million feature debut by writer-director Joshua Michael Stern—“was a movie I stumbled upon,” he says. “It wasn’t going to be made. It wasn’t valued because it didn’t seem to have an international upside. I liked it enough that I thought I would make it regardless, to the point that I financed it.” Disney later came on board and now, he adds, T think I’m poised to be in a good spot.”

Just don’t call it a comeback. M

ON THE WEB: For a video of the Costner interview, visit www.macleans.ca/costner