Profile: Self-made hero fails to deliver

Kevin Costner could do no wrong. In `Dances With Wolves' and `Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves' he was big, big box office. Then he wanted to be taken seriously and it all went sour. Cameron Docherty in LA traces the decline of the star whose latest film `The Postman' has bombed in the States.

There are billboards promoting the image of Kevin Costner in his new movie, The Postman. "The Postman Delivers!" boasts the tag line in big, bold letters. Not with audiences it didn't.

A post apocalyptic action epic with a running time of three hours - think Mad Max directed by John Ford and you've pretty much got it - The Postman was Hollywood's Heaven's Gate of 1997 and a perfect example of how one movie star's ego has completely run amok.

Costner frittered away $100 million - including $20 million he was paid to star in and direct the project - for what Warner Brother's hoped would be their big hit of the Christmas season.

Instead, just three weeks into its theatrical release, the studio is pulling The Postman from theatres. To date, it has grossed a paltry $17 million, while Titanic, released one week earlier, has surpassed $200 million.

After a decade at the top of the tree, is this the end game for Kevin Costner? His meteoric rise, built on critical and box-office smash hits, has come to a dramatic and crashing halt. From Wyatt Earp to Waterworld and now The Postman, Costner's star is falling fast.

In the process of making those movies, he has clashed with nearly everyone he has collaborated with, alienating friends such as director Kevin Reynolds, and family, such as Cindy, his loving wife of 16 years, whom he divorced in 1995, along the way.

Where did Costner go wrong? From his role as the incorruptible Elliot Ness in The Untouchables to paid protector Frank Farmer, in The Bodyguard, Costner epitomised the flawed heartthrob, the complicated hero, the sensitive loner.

He also became a respected auteur, with Dances With Wolves, which won Oscars for best picture and best director. The success of that film was doubly sweet for him, because he had to make it with very little support from a Hollywood skeptical of a three-hour Western with Sioux subtitles.

Such conviction would set the tone for Costner, who became known as a huge risk-taker, a man who could trust his own instincts and not be swayed by pessimists. He threatened to pull out of The Bodyguard unless Whitney Houston, who had no acting experience, was cast as his leading lady. The film ended up grossing $400 million.

No fanatic would have put as much effort into making himself likeable. Costner always understood that he was a commodity that needed to be packaged.

With no studio to mould him, he would be his own studio system and mould his image indelibly into the American consciousness. He was one of the first A-list stars to appear on Oprah, where he revealed his vulnerability and tender side. He opened up to Barbra Walters when his marriage collapsed in 1995.

Costner reduced the art of the deal to a formula: make "feel good" movie, sell "feel good" movie. You come and see movie. Me happy, you happy.

The plan worked well in the late 1980s and early 1990s when everything he touched turned to box-office gold. He followed up The Bodyguard with another hit, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and then teamed with Oliver Stone to tackle the Kennedy assassination in the critically acclaimed JFK.

Then Costner decided to tamper with the recipe and stretch himself as an actor. He got bored playing the all-American hero righting wrongs and fighting for justice. He wanted to be taken seriously like De Niro and Pacino. It was the worst thing he could have done.

He began to deviate from the characters America approved of when he played an escaped convict who kidnaps a child in Clint Eastwood's A Perfect World. Audiences stayed away in droves.

Things didn't improve much when he returned to familiar territory for the three-hour western, Wyatt Earp, a sprawling tedious drama. Costner continued playing heroes with a bad attitude in the highly anticipated $170 million Waterworld, which despite its critical panning, did far better than expected and at least made its money back.

"You can't blame him for wanting to try other roles," assesses one studio executive. "But guys like Costner have a certain image in the public's mind, and when they try to alter that image, they're playing with fire."

Now, Costner is mulling over what is probably the most damaging setback to his carefully constructed career. Why was the $100 million post-apocalyptic action film, The Postman, which he stepped in to direct at the last minute, such a disaster in the US, and what, can he do to save it from the same fate overseas?

"He went from being the most godlike figure in Hollywood to the person being blamed for everything," says one powerful producer. "I think anyone would have to think twice before hiring him again at his $20 million asking price. He's no longer in the ranks of Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson and John Travolta."

Nobody is counting Costner out. He is already in negotiations with director Sydney Pollack for a baseball movie, For the Love of the Game, scheduled to start shooting later this year. And he has just extended his production deal with Warner Brother's into the next century.

However, unlike Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis and Gibson - box-office heavyweights known for retreating to the safety of a sequel after experimenting in roles unfamiliar to their core audiences - Costner avoids encores.

While that may be admirable for an artist trying to stretch his talents, it can also be dangerous to his commercial cachet.

Of course, he was planning a sequel of The Bodyguard co-starring Princess Diana, but the project was abandoned when she died in Paris last summer. He reread the script after her funeral. "I picked it up and the first 30 pages were totally her," he said recently. "It was dignified, sexy, smart, funny. And I couldn't finish. I stopped. It broke my heart."

Now 42, Costner would appear to be at a crossroads in his career. Onscreen he has such a powerhouse image that he can play only heroes and villains, not anything morally in-between. He is too vain to pack on the pasta like Daniel Day-Lewis (for The Boxer) or Ralph Fiennes (for Schindler's List), and he has too much dignity to mow down psychos, like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

What he does have is the easy style of a Clint Eastwood, someone who can plant himself anywhere and look like a driftwood piece of Americana. He is strong playing men who are flawed, such as in his best films, No Way Out, Bill Durham and Field of Dreams.

He should return to that turf or do something completely out of character - maybe a Broadway musical. A Broadway musical? Costner has reportedly always fancied himself in a musical role such as King Arthur in Camelot. He recently commissioned a musical called My Cuba, in which he would star as an American naval officer stationed in Havana singing his way through Castro's revolution.

If that sounds absurd, consider that in 1991, Costner released an album in Japan, crooning away under the alias Roving Boy.