Cinema: How Kevin Costner blew it

'Waterworld' is in big trouble, but the career of its star has been in decline for years. Quentin Curtis reports on an accident waiting to happen
"I'VE had two recurrent nightmares in my life," Kevin Costner revealed in 1991. "One was that I was on the Titanic, the other was that I was at Custer's Last Stand - I know that's strange, but it's true." Not so strange now: more like pres-cient. Costner's hugely expensive new film, Waterworld, is like both nightmares combined: the sinking of a cherished project, followed by a cavalry charge of criticism. The movie starts with a sequence as insalubrious as the publicity that has surrounded the film. Costner urinates into a Heath Robinson-style contraption. Pipes and filters turn the liquid into water. Costner drinks it. The movie itself, though, has pulled off a still more remarkable chemistry experiment - a kind of reverse alchemy. It has turned gold into crap.

Already Waterworld has become a movie-making myth. The media are not interested in the facts. They are obsessed with the figures. Here are a few. Overall cost: $172m (pounds 107.8m, a record). Costner's personal investment: $20m. Length of shoot: 220 days. Cost of Costner's villa per night: $2,200. Number of welders, carpenters and mechanics working on the main set: 300. Height of main set: 40ft. Length: 1/4 mile. Weight: 40,000lbs. Distance under the sea, after it sank: 160ft. Number of marriages broken up by the shoot: "at least" eight (including Costner's own). Costner's divorce suit: $80m. Years of happy Costner marriage hitherto: 16. Number of people with confidence in Kevin Reynolds, Costner's choice of director: 0 (including Costner). And, finally - the vital statistic - the first weekend gross in the US: $21m.

That is good, but not good enough (Batman Forever took $53m). Another number bandied about is a break-even figure of $600m worldwide. Such sums don't tell the whole story. Hugh Grant's Nine Months made only $22m in its first weekend, and yet is being hailed as a box-office hit. Of course, it was less expensive than Waterworld, but there was also a huge studio spin-doctoring operation (rather like that performed by Tory ministers after John Major's leadership "triumph") which determined that Grant would be saved, even though his movie, by the standards of romantic comedies like Sleepless in Seattle, failed.

With Costner there is only schadenfreude. Hollywood is happy to give up on him. He is not the star they thought he was. But then the key to Costner's decline is that nobody - not Hollywood, not the critics, and least of all Costner himself and his fans - understood what sort of star he was.

He had been acting in movies for six years when he made it big, at the age of 32, in 1987. He starred in two of that year's hit thrillers. In Tony Scott's No Way Out, playing a naval officer, he looked as if he had been born in his starchy white uniform, even though his character was a spy. He was spruce enough for you to smell the after-shave. In Brian De Palma's The Untouchables, he was clean-cut to the point of being antiseptic. When he took on two baseball films, Bull Durham (1988) and Field of Dreams (1989), it was clear that here was a peculiarly American hero. His whiny voice strove for slanginess - archetypally American, macho but relaxed. Given his staid recent work, it should be remembered that in these films he was compelling, acting performers of the calibre of Gene Hackman, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins off the screen.

Yet there were already limitations - and the secret of Costner's early success was that he made them work for rather than against him. Limitation was part of his character, a pettiness that fitted snugly into the narrow berth of prohibition enforcer Eliot Ness in The Untouchables; or of prissy prosecutor Jim Garrison in the 1991 film JFK. (It wasn't Costner's fault that Oliver Stone chose to build a film around such an absurd man.) Likewise, Costner's gaucherie in No Way Out - understandable when confronted with the reckless sexual abandon of Sean Young in the back of a limousine - came over as a beguiling take on American male awkwardness.

There was also a seediness that the All-American Boy image didn't allow for. It was there in his contorted, slightly warped grin. And in his hair. Coiffure is character, and Costner has always been at his best with his locks cropped short - a kind of anti-Samson. Early on, he sported a short- back-and-sides. But it was topped by just the ghost of a quiff, which suggested a rakishness behind the innocence. He looked both clean-cut and louche, born to play fallen idols - or even failures. In Bull Durham, he is genuinely moving as the nearly-man ball-player who has great intelligence but little talent (maybe Costner's own predicament). You felt, in those early films, that Costner's sculpted face, with its furtive hints at repression, might be extraordinary in extremity. He could have been superb - far better than Tom Hanks - as the Aids-suffering lawyer in Philadelphia.

So what went wrong? Dances With Wolves (1990) is what. Which may sound a strange thing to say about a movie that won seven Academy Awards, including Best Director for Costner. Yet Dances was a freak that came off through a mixture of sound storytelling and Zeitgeist. It shouldn't have been a blueprint for a career. The melancholy stoicism of Lt John Dunbar made for one of Costner's dullest performances: straight heroism showed up his blandness. The Sixties fraternity-house hairdo didn't help. Epics rarely come off. Costner got lucky with Dances, and thought he could repeat the trick. Worse, having once broken the rules with impunity (going over- budget; having a three-hour running time; using extensive sub- titles), he deduced that rules were for flouting.

And thus we have Waterworld, a sea epic with all the coherence of an oil slick. Costner was performing major surgery on the script throughout the shoot. He had a battle with Reynolds over his character (the old one about how dark to be). He ends up brutish enough to alienate female fans, while nowhere near savage enough to tear teenagers away from Tarantino. His receding hair is worn long but slapped over his forehead in a briny helmet. Like most of Costner's troubles, Waterworld is a perverse indication of his earnestness and intelligence. His disastrous partnership with the highly regarded Reynolds - like that with Lawrence Kasdan on Costner's other doomed epic, Wyatt Earp (1993) - springs from a desire to work with true talent.

Still, not all the flak is merited. Costner is a victim of media prurience and viciousness. The unprecedented hate campaign is partly motivated by bias against his conservatism. In many ways, Costner (who joined the Republican party aged 21) is a superstar of the 1980s. More precisely, he is the star of Bush's America. The critic Pauline Kael's famous attack on Dances With Wolves ("He has feathers in his hair and feathers in his head") was partly political - as was her hostility towards another conservative, Clint Eastwood. Eastwood, a more limited actor than Costner, and the director of Costner's best recent film, A Perfect World (1993), should be an example to Costner of making a virtue out of necessity. So should Tom Cruise, who prospers despite an equally pinched personality and sketchy technique. It says something not very pleasant about our age that two such meagre men are among its greatest stars.

The future can still be Costner's. If he could laugh at himself (a huge "if"), he might try comedy. He was unintentionally hilarious in his "neat" chat back-stage with Madonna, in In Bed With Madonna: a cringing parody of yuppie cool. How about Costner in a satire on Iron John? Or we might at last see his Alex Marshall, the role he played in The Big Chill before being cut from the finished film. It has always sound-ed his most intriguing part: the golden boy who ends up slitting his wrists. More likely we will get variations on his last big success, The Body-guard: laconic thugs and immovable lust objects. I look forward to a Costner renaissance. He has the intelligence and ambition. But, then again, they may be the problem.

8 'Waterworld' (12) opens nationwide on Friday.