You wouldn't know it from his career today, but Kevin Costner was once one of Hollywood's biggest stars. His career as an actor, once it got off the ground, saw him starring in a string of critical and commercial hits, and his directorial debut gained 12 Oscar nominations. Of those 12 nominations, 3 were for him for producing and directing (both of which he won) and for acting. While his career did not immediately decline after that - his period of success continued unabated for about 2 years after his Oscar wins - once his career crashed, it became one of the more famous falls from Hollywood grace in recent memory. How did moviegoers go from love to indifference so quickly?
Costner's career started out slow, making his film debut in a skin flick (which is termed an "independent film" on Wikipedia) called Sizzle Beach, U.S.A., and then seeing his part in The Big Chill cut down to nothing more than quick shots of his hair and wrists. His first prominent role was in the film Silverado, which was a critical success and did respectably (for 1985 numbers) at the box office, followed by less memorable roles in the now forgotten films American Flyers (about bicycle racing) and Shadows Run Black, a cookie cutter thriller. After that, however, Costner vaulted to the top of the box office with classics like The Untouchables, Bull Durham and Field of Dreams, as well as the thrillers No Way Out and Revenge. In the span of just five years, Costner had created a solid base for what should have been a strong and varied career, having successfully appeared in multiple genres (western, thriller, romantic comedy, sports), as good guys and bad guys, straight arrow heroes, and charming rogues. This was the career in which he entered life as an Oscar winner.
Dances with Wolves brought Costner his two Oscars, as well as one of the biggest box office hits of his career - no small feat, considering the film is a western, a genre not exactly known for scoring huge box office numbers. That film was followed by three more hits: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, JFK and The Bodyguard. Commercially, this period would be the pinnacle of Costner's career, which would be followed by a long fallow period that, while it would have some critical/creative high points, would quickly chip away at Costner's star status. First up was the Clint Eastwood film A Perfect World, which was well-received by critics but failed to find an audience, followed by Wyatt Earp, which had the misfortune of being released a few months after the far more successful Wyatt Earp film Tombstone. But those were minor stumbles compared to the disaster that was about to occur in the form of Waterworld, one of the most notoriously troubled productions in recent movie history which went on to become one of the most notorious flops of all time. That film, in conjunction with Costner's second directorial effort The Postman (which shares a few thematic similarities with Waterworld) would prove to cast a long shadow over Costner's career.
In the 18 years since Waterworld, Costner has starred in the following films: For Love of the Game, a baseball film that couldn't reach the glory of Bull Durham or Field of Dreams; Thirteen Days, a historical drama about the Cuban missile crisis; 3000 Miles to Graceland, a crime film about Elvis impersonators; Dragonfly, which has the distinction of being one of Rotten Tomatoes 100 Worst Reviewed Films of All Time; Rumor Has It, the Jennifer Aniston starring take off on The Graduate; and Swing Vote, a political comedy. He also made a couple of films which are actually quite good even if they never found an audience, such as the Joan Allen vehicle The Upside of Anger, and the ensemble drama The Company Men, and Mr. Brooks, a psychological thriller which didn't light up the box office but which has since developed something of a cult following. He's had a few modest box office successes in the form of Tin Cup, Message in a Bottle, Open Range and The Guardian - and if you read that last title and thought "The What?" then exactly. When even one of your bigger hits of the last few years is a film most of us have completely forgotten about, there's a problem. Add in the recent bomb 3 Days to Kill, an attempt to restart his career in Liam Neeson fashion, and it's pretty clear that Costner's leading man days are behind him. Though his role in Man of Steel may suggest that he could find his niche playing supporting roles as the mentor figure to the hero, the reception for Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit would suggest otherwise.
So what happened to Costner's once golden career? No career is perfect and every actor and director takes a few missteps along the way, but one could argue that with the track record Costner had going into his Oscar wins, as well as the 2 year hot streak that carried on after those wins, his career should have been able to recover from a couple of films that were less than commercially successful, and even from a bomb the size of Waterworld. Instead his career basically entered free fall without ever recovering. Is it the Oscar curse? Maybe, but it could also be a question of personality. Track down Costner's appearance on "Inside the Actors Studio" and tell me he doesn't seem like an insufferable egomaniac (even more so than most actors). Hollywood loves underdogs, but only when the underdogs are themselves kind of lovable.