Fame has changed actor from sunny to supersensitive


June 16, 1991|By Maureen Dowd | Maureen Dowd,New York Times News Service

New Orleans - Kevin Costner is in a bad mood. He does not want to be trivialized. He does not want to be analyzed. He does not want to be criticized. He does not want to be "titillized," as he puts it, much less titillated.

He stalks down a street on the cusp of the French Quarter, wearing jeans and a bright green shirt, his hair slicked back and his scorching blue eyes shaded behind dark sunglasses. The heels of his brown cowboy boots tap an impatient tattoo, and he is annoyed when a group of middle-aged women hesitantly beg him to pose for a photograph while he waits at a red light.

"OK," he says, glowering at them and gesturing to a reporter who has moved out of the shot, "but can't you see I'm being interviewed?"

The highly anticipated $40 million-to-$50 million epic produced by Morgan Creek Productions and distributed by Warner Brothers, "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," looms. Mr. Costner seems nervous about how "Raiders of the Lost Sherwood Forest," as some of the stars are calling the movie, will be received.

He is still adjusting to superstardom, to the blessings and burdens that come with inheriting both Paul Newman's mantle as Hollywood's "head hunk" and Orson Welles' mantle as a quirky acting-directing prodigy. "Orson Welles with no belly," Pauline Kael, the New Yorker movie critic, wrote sarcastically in a scalding review of "Dances With Wolves" that contains the now-famous line, "Costner has feathers in his hair and feathers in his head."

Despite what Ms. Kael wrote about Mr. Costner's "New Age Gary Cooper" act and his "bland megalomania," the public embraced his innocent daydream of the West, just as they had embraced his innocent daydream about baseball, "Field of Dreams." "Dances With Wolves" received seven Academy Awards and vaulted Mr. Costner into Hollywood heaven.

Others may still be debating whether he is a lucky naif or a brilliant visionary, but Mr. Costner feels at home at the top. "I wanted to operate in the highest circle," he says, as he settled in his elegant hotel suite for a lunch of club sandwich, potato chips and a beer, as a radio played easy-listening music in the background.

The 36-year-old has, however, been taken aback by the wind shear of his stardom. "I have tried not to get caught off guard and to be kind of prudent in anticipating the stuff to try to understand the good and the bad and the success," he says. "I've tried to monitor my life that way, not just in terms of Hollywood, for a long time. But 'Dances' did catch me by surprise, the leap, the kind of quantum leap that occurred with the public. Things have changed, and changed for me in ways that were difficult to anticipate.

"Personally, I don't know if people think I suddenly can think now, or I'm smarter than I ever was. And you're more vulnerable."

It has been said that Mr. Costner is worried about his thinning hair. His hair looks OK. It's his thinning skin he should be worried about. Almost every question evokes a prickly response from the once-breezy actor.

He feels defensive about several things at the moment: his strange, now-you-see-it-now-you-don't English accent in "Robin Hood"; his penchant for "politically correct" scripts with an anti-white male twist; criticism that he has lost the roguish gleam exhibited in early interviews and in early films such as "Silverado" and "No Way Out," in favor of a tiresome thirtysomething earnestness and smugness; controversy over whether he is lending his prestige to the dubious conspiracy theory of former New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, whom he plays in the Oliver Stone movie "JFK," now being filmed here.

Like other movie stars who capture the public's attention through their looks, Mr. Costner is both pleased and tetchy about his image as sex symbol and stresses that he prefers riding horses to kissing leading ladies.

At the moment, what is bothering Mr. Costner most on this score is a nude swimming scene that the "Robin Hood" producers have played up in the film's trailer. The scene shows Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, who portrays Maid Marian, experiencing a flash of desire as she watches Costner swim in a pond below.

Mr. Costner, who had a similar nude scene in "Dances With Wolves," offers a long, exceedingly earnest explanation, saying he agreed to the swimming scene only because it was integral to the original script. He says he feels a little used now because the "meaning" of the nudity was left on the cutting-room floor. To make it even more absurd, it's not even his derriere. It belongs to his double.

"There was a reason for that scene that's not there anymore, so it seems maybe gratuitous or seems like all this is an opportunity to titillize -- what is the word, titillate?" he says. "But it's not. The whole point of that scene was when she sees him, he has tremendous scars on his back from prison, and the camera never picked it up; and out of that she begins to change."

But Mr. Costner has bigger problems with this movie. There is, for starters, his accent.

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