Depth and firepower of Wyatt Earp story draw Costner

June 24, 1994|By David Kronke | David Kronke,Special to The Sun

Los Angeles -- Megastar, sex symbol, Oscar-winning director -- phooey. First and foremost Kevin Costner is a movie fan.

"I like Westerns too much to be in a [crummy] one," he declares, just prior to the release of "Wyatt Earp," his third in the genre (following "Silverado" and "Dances With Wolves").

Epics, too, are Mr. Costner's forte -- he has now starred in three movies that run more than three hours in length ("Dances," "JFK" and "Earp"), more than probably any other Hollywood star working today. Says Mr. Costner, "I love knowing an epic movie is coming. I like going to those movies, movies you can make of meal of."

Audiences will have plenty to chew on with "Wyatt Earp," a sprawling horse opera on the life and times of one of the Old West's most celebrated -- and, in some circles, denigrated -- lawmen.

Mr. Costner plays the Western icon from his early days as a self-pitying drunk eaten up inside by the premature death of his first wife, to his halcyon years as a ruthless deputy and entrepreneur, to his later life, haunted by the ruin of his extended family.

This film marks Mr. Costner's fourth collaboration with writer and director Lawrence Kasdan -- the previous ones are "Silverado," "The Bodyguard" (which Mr. Kasdan only scripted and which, Mr. Costner says, would have been much better had he also directed it) and "The Big Chill" (in which Mr. Costner's role as the suicide victim who brings the other friends together was famously jettisoned from the film).

Mr. Costner, who won the Best Directing Oscar for "Dances," says flatly, "I didn't think I could direct ["Wyatt Earp"] as well as Larry. I was happy every day he was directing it.

"Every movie I've been in started out with a chance to be great," he continues, "but some, due to a lack of attention to detail, or attention to logic, may not have been. A lot of things can conspire to make a film be bad -- you need a steady hand in charge of things, and Larry is a steady hand."

Mr. Costner commissioned a script on Earp 3 1/2 years ago, not wholly convinced it would fly. "I thought the material seemed terribly familiar, but said, if he had an interesting life, let's hear about that.

"The [showdown at the] OK Corral is not the most interesting thing in his life," Mr. Costner concludes. "The most interesting things were the conversations with his wives. I love those scenes. Like 'The Godfather,' there are levels of meaning to his story and the characters inside it."

Men with guns

Not that the whole cast was into the psychological Sturm und Drang. As JoBeth Williams, who plays Wyatt's sister-in-law TC Bessie, recalls, "[The male actors] got to strap on six-guns and swagger down the street, so they were happy."

Dennis Quaid, who lost 45 pounds to assume the scene-stealing role of Doc Holliday, agrees. "When you were a boy, you put on toy guns to feel like a man," he says. "Now, you put on guns to feel like a boy."

Mr. Kasdan was approached to direct the completed script as a six-hour mini-series, but first wanted to do some rewrites and turn it into a three-hour film. "There was a vigorous, stressful period of negotiation over scenes which Kevin liked but I didn't feel comfortable with," Mr. Kasdan says diplomatically. All was eventually resolved, of course.

Like Mr. Costner, Mr. Kasdan was drawn to the man behind the myth. Despite numerous movies essaying Earp and his date with destiny at the OK Corral (including, most recently, last winter's "Tombstone"), Mr. Kasdan claims, "None has this comprehensive, full-bodied view of his life. He walked right down the center of his era. I wasn't just interested in this mythic character, but also, what he was like as a person -- why he made the mistakes he did. It's fascinating, the reality of someone's life when he becomes a myth."

Likewise, Mr. Kasdan finds the Western itself a wonderful cinematic genre. "It's a terribly useful, open genre for Americans. It concerns a time when we were forming the idea of what kind of country we were going to be."

Mr. Costner agrees. "Westerns aren't just black hat/white hat," he says. "Back then there was no one to arbitrate your problems for you. You didn't have agents or lawyers to interface for you.

"We were and are a violent society," Mr. Costner continues. "We conquered this continent. We exercised control through guns. There's an infatuation with the strong taking what they want."

What's next

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.