Does Kevin Costner’s Comeback Year Really Spell a Change For the Actor?

If in the past few weeks, you’ve gone to the movies, watched TV, surfed the internet, or tried to divine the future from a mug of tea leaves, you’ve probably seen Kevin Costner‘s face. That guy is everywhere. Seriously. Costner went from an infrequent film actor and a guy whose glory days seemed almost certainly behind him, to an actor with no less than five major films coming out in 2014 alone. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. 3 Days to Kill. Draft Day. Black and White. McFarland. Every one releases this year, and of the five, Jack Ryan is the only one where Costner isn’t in the lead role.

So if you’re seeing movies, you’re seeing Costner. If you’re watching TV, you’re watching ads for Costner. And if you’re online, you’ve no doubt come across at least one of these articles, all with the same general thesis:

“Are We in the Midst of a Kevin Costner Comeback?” (The Daily Beast)

“Maybe Call it a Comeback: Kevin Costner is in Every Movie in 2014” (E! Online)

“2014: The Year of Kevin Costner” (Hollywood.com)

“How Kevin Costner Got His Groove Back” (Newsday)

That last one is my personal favorite, as it implies Kevin Costner is struggling to balance his life as a working mother alongside his relationship with the dashing, unbelievably Jamaican-named Winston Shakespeare. But besides sultry island romance, the thought on everyone’s minds is the same: Kevin Costner is on a comeback roll.

And sadly, that’s an idea that should probably be dispelled. First, though, let’s take a look at what lead Costner to the supposed comeback trail he’s currently on.

The Costner of Yore

Costner is a standard sort of all-American leading man. A guy who’s handsome but not staggeringly so, roguish but not quite Harrison Ford roguish. He’s got the vague air of a father figure, and sticks to wholly American characters. Cowboy. Sports Guy. Hero who Vaguely Resembles Indiana Jones. In the early nineties, that meant wads upon wads of cash. Costner gathered up an armful of Oscars for Dances With Wolves, and followed that up with Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, JFK and The Bodyguard, all of which either crushed the box office or received hearty acclaim from the critics. Then in ’95, Waterworld did neither in spectacular fashion. Two years later, The Postman did the very same.

And then the world more or less gave up on Kevin Costner. He’d pop up about once a year, usually playing one of his standard archetypes and usually in a film that never gathered much attention or acclaim. And in the seventeen years since The Postman happened, people have been grasping at the Kevin Costner comeback on a regular basis. Here’s a grasp from 2011. One from 2006. And a lone grasp from something called “Cowboys and Indians Magazine,” all the way back in 1999.

Costner’s star finally re-rose about two years ago, when he lead the History Channel miniseries Hatfields & McCoys. That led to Pa Kent in Man of Steel, and that, in turn, led to the Costner-studded 2014 we see before us. And now we’re all caught up on Kevin Costner’s last two decades. Which leads us to this question:

What Is a Comeback, Really?

Obviously, a comeback is where an actor, having fallen out of the spotlight, crawls his or her way back into that sweet, searing hot light and regains the public’s affection. But there’s a secret caveat to the Hollywood comeback: if the general population grew tired of your usual shtick once, you won’t win them back with the same material. Pick a comeback, any comeback, from the last decade or two. The actors who’ve managed to reroute a career slump did so only through a massive overhaul of their public persona.

Take Neil Patrick Harris. For the first decade of his career, he was Doogie Howser, M.D. It was his only hit, the one lead role that had any recognition. A cloud of innocence and ’90s boy genius pheromones marked every performance that came afterward. And then he pulled a complete 180, popping up out of nowhere in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, in a fog of hookers and designer drugs and extreme disdain for anything resembling a quirky boy physician. That was a Neil Patrick Harris that audiences could get behind; a guy who understood that people knew him almost exclusively as a man-boy in an ill-fitting lab coat, and who wasn’t afraid to make fun of that image. And it was the newly bro-verhauled Harris that landed How I Met Your Mother, in very much the same party dude persona. From there, his new image was secured in place.

The same goes for every other comeback kid. Matthew McConaughey was a nude, conga-playing stoner who coasted through romantic comedy leads without ever doing much in the way of acting. He went for the 180, started working really, really hard at this whole acting thing, and now the name McConaughey is synonymous with gravitas, depth of emotion, and only occasional nude conga-ing. John Travolta was an all-singing, all-dancing, pretty boy- until that got him nowhere. Pulp Fiction saw him throw away his romantic lead persona to become the cool gangster type we know today. Liam Neeson ditched the serious acting to be a cheesy action star. Mickey Rourke ditched the cheesy acting to become a serious dramatic star (even if his particular star has begun fading once more). The formula works — and more importantly, it applies to nearly every star comeback in the past few decades.

Adam Bellotto is a freelancer writer from Virginia who moved to California because movies are super neat. His work can also be read at Perihelion Science Fiction and Starpulse, among other places.

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