Dances with Oscar

Memo to: Kevin Costner

From: Peter Bart

I’ve always wondered how someone with your savvy deals with the approach of Oscar time, Kevin. After all, you’ve been there — big time. When “Dances With Wolves” won seven Oscars in 1990, it seemed like a true triumph of artistic courage. You sensed even then that it would be a hard act to follow. “If ‘Dances’ is to become the movie of my career, I won’t run from its shadow,” you said after the ceremony.

Well that shadow is even more ominous than imagined.

At a time when nominees are rehearsing their Oscar acceptance speeches, yet another misbegotten Costner vehicle has just come and gone. “Dragonfly,” writes A.O. Scott in the New York Times, conveys once again “Kevin Costner’s unlimited talent for conveying self-pity.”

Now I’m keenly aware of the blizzard of choices that confront a movie star, not to mention the pressures that accompany them. That’s why the remarkable durability of De Niro, Nicholson, Connery, Eastwood and their ilk is so impressive.

A Tom Hanks will shrewdly march from “Forrest Gump” to “Saving Private Ryan” to “Cast Away” without missing a beat. And sure, Hanks, like you, Kevin, once surrendered to the lure of directing, but the result was the mild diversion “That Thing You Do,” not a portentous pseudo-epic like “The Postman.”

You’re a smart guy, Kevin. Over the years you have resisted being manipulated by the power players — by the studios, the agents or the random packagers. “Kevin’s a thoughtful individual who wants to go his own way,” says one producer with whom you’ve worked. “He doesn’t want to feel like he’s just an element in some master package.”

For a while, this attitude paid off. Through the ’80s, your career seemed to burst with happy surprises, whether it was “The Big Chill” (your corpse shown beneath the opening credits) or “Silverado” or “Field of Dreams” or even “JFK.” Your choices suggested both intelligence and daring. While projecting the image of “the guy next door,” you levitated yourself as a $20 million-per-picture superstar.

But then what happened? What could account for missteps like “Waterworld” or “The Postman?” What compelled you to make “Message in a Bottle” or “3,000 Miles From Graceland?”

You had a chance to star in “Traffic,” but the producers said your deal was so unbending they decided to go with Michael Douglas. As a result you ended up doing “Dragonfly,” which was hastily pulled together to beat the supposed strike deadline. That was a definite “whoops,” Kevin.

The upshot of all this? First the gossip columnists took after you for alleged infidelities to your family, then the critics for infidelity to your craft.

Of course, no one would point to all this had it not been for the initial promise. In the ’80s you not only broke the rules, you broke the records. You were arguably the most exciting young actor to emerge in that period.

So it comes down to this, Kevin: Your supporters are looking for you to emerge from “the shadow.” We notice you’ve just fired yet another agent to sign with the steely Rick Nicita at CAA, who guides the fortunes of Tom Cruise. That would suggest you’ve decided to join the establishment, not do battle with it.

Whatever works, go for it.

One of these years, you might even be rehearsing a new Oscar speech, Kevin. It’s probably more fun the second time around.

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