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How Kevin Costner's Career Almost Died from Two Box Office Bombs

Kevin Costner is a well-known Hollywood A-list actor, with starring roles in versatile genre movies. After the older classics Field of Dreams (1989), Dances with Wolves (1990), Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), and The Bodyguard (1992), Costner experienced a bit of career turmoil thanks to two ’90s films. His career of hits then made a noticeable change to beginning-of-the-century films like Open Range (2003) and The Guardian (2006), and more recent ones like Man of Steel (2013), 3 Days to Kill (2014), and Black or White (2014), where there were some hits but a lack of opportunities and several big misses at the box office.

However, thanks to his January 2023 win for Best Actor in a Drama Golden Globe Award (for his role as John Dutton on the Yellowstone TV series), one could say Costner is finally back in the saddle. Only time will tell if his time in the spotlight will be enough to wipe two massive box office bombs from his career history.

Costner joined Yellowstone as actor and producer in the show’s first season, back in 2018. He was set to play John Dutton, a rancher and devoted father operating in a corrupt world, facing backlash and obstacles at every turn. At the time of joining the TV series, Costner recalls liking the story, but not expecting it to blow up as it did. For instance, the season five premiere of the show had a combined 12.5 million viewers on Paramount. But it took years of frustrating snubbing from the Golden Globes to finally get a nomination – and win. Costner won Best Actor over fellow nominees Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul), Jeff Bridges (The Old Man), Adam Scott (Severance), and Diego Luna (Andor).

Related: Yellowstone Explained: Why is it So Popular, and What Is It?

Although he couldn’t be present in person for the win — due to severe floods in Santa Barbara where he lives — the actor took to his Instagram page to thank fans and everyone involved. This was a major win for Yellowstone, touted as one of the most popular TV shows in the USA at the moment, but it was an even bigger win for Costner, who’s had a rather rough comeback from two massive box office bombs that nearly tanked his career.

Waterworld (1995) was touted as “Mad Max on water,” and was set to be a masterpiece of world building, storytelling, and action. In a dystopian world where most of the world is underwater, the Mariner (Kevin Costner), a half-fish, half-man, befriends two innocent companions, and ends up being their reluctant hero as they’re chased by the Smokers for an elusive piece of information about the mythical Dryland.

Unfortunately, the movie did horribly at the box office. Movie critics tore it apart, calling it “dreary,” “totally humorless,” and “without a soul.” The consensus was the slow pace, excessive world-building, and spiraling budget made for an overstuffed storyline that was too much for viewers to digest in a three-hour-long movie format. Despite its $175 million budget, the movie only brought in $264.2 million worldwide; once marketing and distribution costs were factored in, this meant that it was a disaster. The movie only later became profitable, mainly due to various game and post-cinema sales. Of course, as with everything, a reboot is in the works.

The flop was a blow to Costner both for his acting career and his producing career, given he’d co-produced the movie with Charles Gordon and John Davis. The film was rumored to have led to various creative disputes between Costner and Kevin Reynolds, the Waterworld director. Reynolds even quit the movie, citing differences of opinion with Costner, but was still credited as director.

The rumors and box office fiasco followed Costner into various roles he tried next, but it wasn’t until Postman that he tried his producing debut once more.

A 1997 action-adventure dystopian movie, produced and directed by Kevin Costner himself, ...man follows a nomadic traveler known as ...man (Kevin Costner), who wanders through the USA delivering old mail. In a world where life is bleak and people have lost faith in everything, ...man rekindles people’s faith in the US government, while at the same time finding romantic love and clashing with a dictatorial general.

Although The Postman ran on an $80 million budget, it only made $20.8 million at the box office worldwide, leading to another flop for Costner. Critics destroyed the movie, and also criticized Costner’s decision to cast himself as the lead in ...man. Though the movie didn’t win any sought-after awards, it did win five Golden Raspberry Awards, including a nomination for Worst Picture.

As with Waterworld, rumors followed that Costner had refused appeals by Warner Bros to cut down the movie. Another bloated, three-hour-long running time hurt the movie more than helped it. But despite all this, and the effect this second major box office bomb had on his career, Costner himself said in a recent interview that he looks fondly back on the movie.

After The Postman, Costner starred in a few smaller roles. He developed Air Force One, but gave the role to Harrison Ford. Then he starred in the actually underrated golf comedy Tin Cup (1996). In 2000, his role as Kenneth O’Donnell in Thirteen Days revived his career, prompting decent reviews from critics. In 2003, he directed and starred in the western Open Range, which was a quiet but surprising success. Costner seemed to have learned his lesson, drawing on a smaller budget ($22 million) and shorter runtime (139 minutes). However, its success was fairly mild (earning $66 million), and Costner wouldn’t direct again for 26 years.

Related: Kevin Costner’s 10 Best Performances, Ranked

Nonetheless, critics finally started getting on board with his acting again, praising his supporting role in The Upside of Anger (2005) as Denny Davies, a retired professional baseball player. Costner received a nomination for the role at the Broadcast Film Critics Association and won Best Supporting Actor at the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

Subsequent roles had him as Ben Randall, a highly successful rescue team leader, in The Guardian (2006) and Mr. Earl Brooks, a serial killer, in Mr. Brooks (2007). In 2010, The Company Men — where he co-starred with Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, and Tommy Lee Jones — debuted to good reviews at the Sundance Film Festival. However, it was clear that Costner’s stage had shrunk considerably from the grandiose epics of his ’90s films.

More notable appearances came even later, as Costner played Jonathan Kent in The Man of Steel Superman reboot. However, the most critically acclaimed performance of his since perhaps 1990 came with Hatfields & McCoys, a miniseries on the History Channel that covered the life of a family feud that nearly launched a war between Kentucky and West Virginia. This role earned Costner an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie (2012), a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Miniseries or Television movie (2013), and a Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Limited Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television (2013).

Costner acquired more high profile roles, but unfortunately nothing seemed to stand out, from Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) and 3 Days to Kill to Draft Day and Black or White. In McFarland, USA (2015), he played coach Jim White, then a NASA supervisor in Hidden Figures (2016), and finally starred with Jessica Chastain in Molly’s Game (2017), three actually good films which began to get him back in good graces with Hollywood and the critics. And then he hit the Yellowstone jackpot in 2018.

Since his somewhat failed attempts with Waterworld and ...man, Costner tried once more to return to the director’s chair. In 2011, he was supposed to direct A Little War of Our Own, and also to co-team with Kevin Reynolds again to direct Learning Italian. Neither project amounted to anything since their announcement.

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