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Kevin Costner has never been a blockbuster megastar, but through decades of critically-acclaimed performances in movies both big and small, his staunch, quiet reliability has emerged as his very appeal.
After rising to prominence in Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables” and the baseball-themed successes “Bull Durham” and “Field of Dreams,” Costner went on to win two Academy Awards out of three nominations for writing, directing and starring in “Dances with Wolves.” But that film didn’t launch Costner into super-stardom. Through the decades since, he has established himself as a different kind of leading man. He doesn’t always attract much attention, and the material he’s given isn’t always worthy of his talents. Yet through it all, his charm and charisma consistently leave a mark.
In any case, Costner appears to be in the midst of a resurgence. In 2013, he turned to television in the miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys,” and went on to win the Emmy, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award — the rare person to nab the trifecta — for Best Actor. Last year, he generated serious Oscar buzz for his turn in the socially-conscious drama “Black or White.” And this year, the actor went back to his inspirational sports route with “McFarland, USA,” a Disney-produced indie that earned strong reviews and grossed over $40 million domestically.
In honor of Costner’s creative comeback, we’ve gone through Costner’s extensive filmography and have pulled out what we consider to be his seven best performances. Read on below for the full list.
“Bull Durham” (1988)
Ron Shelton’s “Bull Durham” is as gritty and pained as “Field of Dreams” is inspirational and idyllic. The film, set in the alternately promising and despairing world of Minor League Baseball, stars Costner as “Crash” Davis, a world-weary veteran catcher who never quite made it to the big-time. He’s tasked with mentoring a hot, cocky young pitcher (played by Tim Robbins) whose enthusiasm aggressively pushes against Crash’s pessimism. Costner’s quick wit and impressive physicality both get plenty of time to shine in “Bull Durham,” but Shelton’s layered script and perceptive direction allow the actor to dig deeper. There’s a jaded soul to Costner’s performance (not to mention a sexy ruggedness), and it ultimately attains an impressive emotional resonance.
“The Company Men” (2010)
John Wells’ prescient 2010 recession drama gave several actors-of-a-certain-age, including Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper, their best roles in quite some time. But as the blue-collar Jack Dolan, Costner most certainly left the biggest impression. He comes into the picture as the brother-in-law of Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), the film’s six-figure-making, corporate-ladder-climbing protagonist who gets laid off and reluctantly takes a job in Jack’s carpentry business. Costner’s deeply-felt and down-to-earth work as Jack is essential to the film’s success. “The Company Men” has a tendency to be too sympathetic towards “rich people problems,” but Costner injects an intensely authentic and richly-textured energy to keep its ideas and tragedies in perspective.
“Dances With Wolves” (1990)
Who better to get a great performance out of Kevin Costner than Kevin Costner? Although he received more attention for making such an auspicious directorial debut, the actor-director still manages to showcase his strengths as a performer by putting an immensely likable and surprisingly sensitive spin on John Dunbar, a First Lieutenant in the American Civil War. The film follows Dunbar as he’s assigned to an abandoned fort after expressing his desire to see the American frontier before it’s gone. He becomes drawn to the customs and culture of his neighbors, a Sioux tribe, even as both sides must overcome their initial fear and mistrust. Equal parts affable, relatable and heroic, Costner proves himself as a magnetic leading man in this role, and went on to earn his first (and only) Oscar acting nomination.
“Field of Dreams” (1989)
Costner can be an insanely likable presence, and so it’s no wonder that he’s returned to the family film genre again and again, most recently with “McFarland, USA.” “Field of Dreams” is quintessential Costner for too many reasons to count: It’s warm, sweeping, inspirational and, most importantly, baseball-centric. He plays Ray Kinsella, an Iowa corn farmer who lives simply with his wife and daughter. Haunted by the ghost of his baseball-loving father, with whom he had a difficult relationship, Ray’s visions eventually lead him to building a baseball diamond in his cornfield. As is Costner’s way, the actor manages to craft a compassionate and genuine central character without sacrificing his bubbling grief or wracking guilt. It’s not the most complex role he’s performed, but he tunes it to a perfect pitch, and it remains among his most famous to date.
Embroiled in controversy before it even saw a release, Oliver Stone’s enticing three-hour docudrama “JFK” still drew raves from critics and represented a major departure for its star, Kevin Costner. Fresh off his “Dances With Wolves” performance, the actor was cast in the central role of Jim Garrison, a New Orleans district attorney who digs deeper into the assassination of President Kennedy and uncovers a conspiracy. Even within the race-against-the-clock construct of “JFK,” Costner brings a measured control and unwavering conviction to the divisive figure. In effect, he imbues this tense political thriller with soul and purpose, providing a sturdy anchor even as the film wanders into operatically high-stakes or historically-dubious territory. Costner was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance.
“A Perfect World” (1993)
The underrated, character-driven period piece “A Perfect World” fused the sensibilities of two actor-directors fresh off of Oscar smashes. Clint Eastwood directed and starred in this rigorous crime drama, playing a Texas Ranger in pursuit of Butch Haynes, the fugitive played by Kevin Costner who took an eight-year-old boy hostage. The two actors together convey a troubled relationship to the past, with Costner particularly making clear in his performance that Butch’s “escape” is less a physical and more emotional journey. The old wounds and persisting scars of “A Perfect World” create a neat challenge for its actors, and they rise to the occasion. Costner breathes life and empathy into this lifelong criminal, tenderly expressing his mythology and entrapment through a devastating performance.
“The Upside of Anger” (2006)
“The Upside of Anger,” Mike Binder’s spiky and well-observed marital drama, gives Kevin Costner and Joan Allen a depth of material they too rarely encounter in middle age. In this quiet, occasionally raucously funny suburban slice-of-life, Allen’s Terry Wolfmeyer struggles with the sudden disappearance of her husband, only to be brought back to life through a budding relationship with Costner’s Denny, an alcoholic neighbor and retired baseball player (he is played by Costner, after all). Binder’s script is necessarily domestic, as he sketches out familiar types and allows his actors to dig in and find nuances. Costner’s performance works in many ways a meditation on his earlier roles, as the promise of youth — of dreams, love and, yes, baseball — has given way to the murkiness of middle age. He invests in the character with an amusing prickliness and undying dignity, and in so doing gives what might be his fullest and most emotionally naked performance.