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Kevin Costner. Oh dear

There he was. The babe toast of 1985. An actor who could direct. A film-maker who could call the shots. Then there were bad haircuts. And bad movies. And then, Waterworld. By David Shipman
"Being a celebrity puts you at the mercy of people who can walk all over you. But the price you pay is high. Actors are accorded too much attention and too much importance. In practice, I am paid $100,000 for my work and $900,000 for not having a private life anymore. I struggle to live a normal live in abnormal circumstances. Perhaps being famous means you've been a little too lucky," said Kevin Costner before he ran out of luck.

Since November he has been locked into an $80m divorce suit - after 16 years of marriage, reports in the press of infidelity and equally frequent confessions by the star that "we don't have a perfect marriage by any means, but we do work at it".

His espousal of native American causes evidenced by Dances With Wolves has turned sour on him. The eight-hour four-part documentary on the Indians he produced for CBS, 500 Nations, is said to have no sense of geography or chronology.

More seriously discussed is the construction of a casino and resort complex in an area sacred to the Sioux in Dakota, where their legendary leader, Red Cloud, held out for 25 years before the treaty of 1851. Costner and his brother Dan want to exchange 584 acres near Deadwood for 564 in the Black Hills to provide the resort's golf course. Mike Jandresu, chairman of the Lower Brule Sioux, said: "If in making the movie Mr Costner and his brother did not come to a recognition of the real emotion of the Sioux people towards the Black Hills, then a good deal has already been lost."

If the Sioux are successful in their petition, Costner could lose $100,000, but that is peanuts compared with the sums involved in his latest film Waterworld. At an estimated $160m, plus another $40m for advertising and distribution, it becomes the most costly film in history - almost twice as expensive as Terminator II, The Last Action Hero or True Lies.

Costner's fee for Waterworld was listed as $14m, but his star was already fading. He co-starred with Clint Eastwood in A Perfect World (released in November 1993), which brought in only a fair return of $31m. There were lukewarm reviews for his supporting role in The War (October 1994), which took only $13m. Wyatt Earp (June 1994) took $25m in the US on an estimated budget of $60m.

An analysis of the US grosses of the last three movies of 31 stars in the current issue of Empire places Costner last at No 31. Top, unsurprisingly, is Tom Hanks, but at an ironic 18th place is Kurt Russell, partly because of Tombstone, which took $30m more than Wyatt Earp. Not only do both concern the same historical event, but Costner turned down the first in order to do the second.

His tribulations may have started when three separate companies invited him to play the title-role in the new versions of the Robin Hood story. Castle Rock offered the direction of theirs to Kevin Reynolds who had given Costner his first break in his own first professional film, Fandango (1985). Anyone seeing that might think twice about assigning an expensive project to a relatively untried talent, and Reynolds subsequently made The Beast (1988) which was equally lumbering and predictable; it was also a flop, but at least it looked good.

The same could not be said of Robin Hood: Costner did not want it to look like the Errol Flynn Robin, which he described as "silly". Others might say it was "magical" and much more fun that this ill conceived, overly violent and lengthy version. "I'm sick of movies that are just two hours long," Costner said. "They're just designed to get you in and get you out."

Dances With Wolves and JFK were both long, but at least they could boast strong subject-matter: the notices, however, seemed to have told Costner he was the ideal interpreter of America's past - and among the seven Oscars for Wolves, those for best picture and best director would have gone to anyone's head.

So the situation of Robin Hood was repeated on two of Costner's next three films . On Robin Hood, Costner had shot several second-unit scenes without reference to Reynolds, who "was essentially told to distance himself" according to his director of photography, Douglas Milsome, "but Costner was in the cutting room, putting more close-ups of himself in, which Reynolds had left out."

The friendship between the two Kevins seemed over, but there was a rapprochement when Costner invested in Rapa Nui, a tale set on Easter Island, which also had a financial input from Warner Bros, who had Costner under an "exclusive" contract. It cost $24m and returned a mere $330,000 when Warners released it last September.

As they did so, Costner was in the midst of filming Waterworld, a sort of Mad Max with gills in which he and some followers are trying to survive after the polar ice caps have melted. As director Universal favoured Robert Zemekis, who - especially with the Back to the Future films - had established himself as an expert on expensive films with myriad special effects. What Universal got was Reynolds, director of three flops plus Robin Hood.

The original budget seems to have been $65m - already more than twice as much as most A-features - on a 96-day schedule, beginning off Hawaii in June last year. The set alone cost $40m. The problems of filming on water - changing light and currents, hardware sinking or floating away, the danger to the crew - don't seem to have been considered. The script went through endless re-writes - a situation endemic to the megabuck picture, said Variety.

Reynold's admitted that it wasn't Four Weddings and Funeral with a budget of $5m: he hopes to do something like that "where every change does not require three hours of meetings and thousands and thousands of dollars." He was still editing two weeks ago, when the first cut weighed in at 2hrs 34mins. Tom Pollick, chairman of MCA, which owns Universal, said: "It's everything we hoped it would be." But another source reported, "It knocked their socks off, but there's a lot of work to be done."

It is due to open in America on 28 July, but for the present it is a pawn for Seagrams, the liquor manufacturer, in its negotiations to buy MCA from Matsushita. Both are looking for tax-losses, and the write-off on Waterworld may be as high as $100m. MCA is also seeking brownie-points, especially as Steven Spielberg has struck up on his own; since he has given Universal the two biggest grossers in movie history - ET and Jurassic Park - the company is hoping he will consent to the new alliance.

To get back that $100m Waterworld needs to take as much as the two Spielberg films. Meanwhile it is being called Fishtar and Kevin's Gate, reminding the industry of past follies. But the last sobriquet was also applied to Dances With Wolves, and Costner confounded them then...