A mere 2 1/2 months ago, Kevin Costner was a golden boy who could do no wrong.
Casual in speech and manner, he was handsome in a way that infatuated female audiences without alienating the male constituency of moviegoers. As the star, director and creative force behind "Dances With Wolves," he seemed politically correct and terribly earnest.
Then "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" was unleashed upon an eager public. Its box-office response is not a point of concern. Audiences seem to love it. During its opening weekend, it grossed a spectacular $25.6 million. But those critics!
According to New York magazine, Costner's Robin Hood is "joyless and matter-of-fact, a speaker at a marketing seminar." The Los Angeles Daily News regards his performance as "one long embarrassment." The San Jose Mercury News deems him "pained, awkward and bland."
Most telling of all, in light of Costner's current star status within the film industry, were the comments of The New York Times: " ... Costner is the film's big problem. He plays Robin as if the character were a movie star being gracious to his fans. He is polite, but he doesn't exert himself. There's nothing wrong with his accent, only with his attitude."
This recitation of Costner's critical flaying would constitute beating a dead horse except that Costner is no horse -- and he is far from dead. He will live to sin again, but it is time for everyone to understand his limitations.
Robin Hood is essentially a fairy-tale hero with a strong social conscience. He is cheeky, cocky and ingratiating. Costner's Robin is in the same mode as most of his performances; he is mellow and moderate, two qualities that do not lend themselves to the Sherwood Forest legends. Costner, sad to say, hasn't been cheeky and cocky since he played the quintessential "little brother" in "Silverado."
There always has been something self-consciously autumnal in Costner's psychological makeup. Even his most carefree post-"Silverado" performance, in "Bull Durham," was tinged with the melancholy of an athlete past his prime. The character of Lt. John Dunbar in "Dances With Wolves" -- dreamy, eccentric, idealistic -- was perfect for the Costner persona. "Robin Hood" has the misfortune to follow in the footsteps of his most finely carpentered role.
Costner must also follow in the footsteps of Errol Flynn, the star of the oft-revived 1938 "The Adventures of Robin Hood." Flynn, ironically, was not the first choice for the role. James Cagney was. He would have been good, but not as good as Flynn. The important thing is that no one ever thought of casting James Stewart in the part. Costner, it seems, has become the James Stewart of the 1990s, and his range is too narrow to allow him to triumph over miscasting.
The media backlash also has been on a personal level. A New York Times interviewer referred to Costner as "the Prince of Thieves and Sanctimony." Entertainment Weekly's Hot Sheet stated that "fame hath made him pretentious and weigheth upon him like so much cow dung."
Nasty words, those, and not entirely undeserved. In his round of "Robin Hood" interviews and even in his Oscar acceptance speeches, Costner rather-too-dutifully attempted to place movie-making in a larger context. In discussing the difficulties of filming "Robin Hood," he informed us, with a perfectly straight face, "The hardships were on a professional level, not a life-force level. It wasn't Kuwait."
Even the most tunnel-visioned moviegoer would be aware of that fact, and a few snickers were in order.
How much will "Robin Hood" hurt Costner? Not too much. Starting with "No Way Out," he has consistently added to a solid foundation of audience good will.
Bruce Willis, on the other hand, may not be so lucky. "Hudson Hawk" had one of the fastest fades of any blockbuster wannabe. And "The Bonfire of the Vanities" was arguably even more of a disaster for Willis than for Tom Hanks, who, like Costner, seemed merely a victim of miscasting.