This is one of the best films of 2015.
And so, all of a sudden, Kevin Costner is a schmo. The hero of last March, the smiling young man holding the golden Academy Awards, has overnight become the target of nearly unanimous critical pans because he dared to appear in a bad movie named "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves." The actor whose social conscience was applauded after "Dances with Wolves" has been transformed into a tiresome preacher. The man whose vision led to the Oscar for best picture of the year has now become, in the words of one critic, an actor who swings on a rope as if he's afraid he'll fall off.
I didn't admire "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," either. I thought it was dreary, murky, too violent and lacking in magic. I could not see the need for an attempted rape involving Maid Marian - especially not a rape with the camera right down there on the floor for the point-of-view shot when her legs are forced apart. I still do not quite understand how a legend so filled with enchantment and lighthearted heroism could be transformed into a movie only marginally more upbeat than "The Doors."
And yet that doesn't make Costner a bad guy. He is an actor in an unsuccessful movie, not a criminal, and some of the sarcasm leveled at this film seems almost personal, as if the critics had been forced to sit through dreck from Costner for years and years. Out in Hollywood, where Warner Brothers still thinks "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" has the potential to do well at the box office, executives claim that the movie "tested well"--that preview audiences loved it, and that the bad press is more of a backlash against Costner than a fair assessment of the movie.
It could be a little of both. "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" is not a good movie--it drags, it's photographed in such gloom we can hardly see it, and the performances of the actors hit such divergent notes we almost seem to be channel-surfing. Movie preview audiences notoriously have short memories, and most of them may never have seen the Errol Flynn "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938), let alone Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn in "Robin and Marian." I guess if they say they like the movie, they're telling the truth.
The nation's critics, on the other hand, have seldom been more unanimous in panning a film. Even the "good" reviews, like USA Today's 3-star rating, were filled with grumblings and complaints. Were the critics simply reporting the facts as they saw them? Or was there indeed some sort of backlash taking place, an impulse to put Costner back in his place, now that he's won his Oscar?
Many of the reviews said Costner's act was growing tiresome; the critics were referring to his liberalism, his sensitivity, his political correctness ("Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" contains a feminist Marion and a heroic black sidekick). They complained that he was too thoughtful and intellectual as Robin Hood, and didn't have enough fun with the role. He couldn't win. He was attacked for attempting a British accent, for abandoning it, and for talking in a voice which was too soft no matter which accent he used. And in the cruelest barb of all, his co-star, Alan Rickman, was credited with stealing the movie even while being blamed for acting in another style altogether.
Some of these criticisms are valid. But that doesn't mean Kevin Costner is a bad actor or a bad man, and indeed I think the failure of "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" can largely be attributed to two Hollywood practices that have victimized many actors: Miscasting, and rushing the production schedule.
First, miscasting: Kevin Costner is simply not the right actor to play Robin Hood. By all reports, that was his own opinion for a long time, and he turned down this movie repeatedly. What finally got him into it was the hiring of his friend Kevin Reynolds as the director--Reynolds, who directed him in "Fandango" when he was still getting established, and who did a virtuoso job with as the second unit director on the buffalo hunt sequence in "Dances with Wolves." Perhaps Costner thought that Reynolds, having transformed the buffalo scene, would perform similar magic in Sherwood Forest.
Why was Costner thought to be appropriate casting for "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves?" Maybe because his agent, like all agents, thought that by definition his client was right for any desirable role. Maybe because the screenplay was being slanted toward a "modern" point of view that reflected some of Costner's concerns. No doubt because after "The Untouchables," "Field of Dreams," "Bull Durham" and the buzz on "Dances with Wolves," he was seen as an authentic movie hero. Many of the reviews compared him with Gary Cooper, and maybe nobody stopped to consider that Cooper would have made a lousy Robin Hood.
In any event, Costner was seriously miscast. All of us are born with certain attributes and skills--with notes we can play and other notes we can't reach. Costner, who has had perfect pitch in many of his roles (who else could have pulled off "Field of Dreams?") simply does not have a swashbuckling, extroverted action hero in his repertory. A less subtle, more physical actor like Kurt Russell, Dennis Quaid or Patrick Swayze might have been more appropriate.
While pondering the mysteries of casting, consider the surprise cameo by Sean Connery in the movie. It gets a shout of joy from the audience--the most relaxed and sincere cheer in the whole film. Maybe that's because by his very presence Connery suggests the kind of acting note that is appropriate in any film with Robin Hood in its title. Connery is the kind of actor whose presence suggests he can get away with murder. Costner, by nature, is more of a Hamlet--a man at home with doubts and moral dilemmas.
If there had been more time to consider and prepare the movie, perhaps Costner or his advisors would have arrived at this realization themselves, and found a graceful way to exit. But "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" was engaged in a race to the box office with another Robin Hood project, and there was no time for second thoughts. Costner started shooting almost immediately after finishing "Dances with Wolves," with no rehearsal time, no time for screen-testing his look or listening to his accent, no time to try different approaches to the role. Given no time to prepare, Costner found himself playing Robin Hood as a character a great deal like Costner--modest, friendly, accommodating, sincere, and a little doubtful. Those are not qualities Robin Hood should have anything to do with.
Not along ago, in Hollywood, I was talking with an actor who told me, "Paramount wants me to do something in a couple of months." What, I asked? "They don't know. They say they'll come up with something." That is an attitude symptomatic of the second Hollywood practice that may have hurt "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves"--rushing the production schedule.
Was the screenplay ever really finished? Was it written to have a tone and a consistent approach, or was it cobbled to meet the demands of second-guessers? Were rewrites being done on a daily basis, and basic concepts being argued even as the movie was being shot? That's what has been reported. Everyone who has seen the movie--Costner included--has agreed that Alan Rickman, as the Sheriff of Nottingham, seems to be appearing in a different movie than anyone else in the cast. (To add to the irony, it is a more entertaining movie.) How did that happen? How did Costner get lines of stolid, plodding nobility, while Rickman was written as a hip, bitchy villain who would have been at home in "Batman?"
We've all heard the story of "Dances with Wolves," about how the screenplay was turned down by five major studios before one finally took a chance on it. The advantage to that process was that the screenplay was finished by the time it went into production: Everybody could read it and see what was there. With "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," the concept and the casting apparently blinded everyone to the truth that there was no movie there. No reason, even a crass commercial one, why this movie had to be made at this time.
And now the movie has been released and whether it sinks or swims, it will be marked down as a failure for Kevin Costner. The swan has been turned into an ugly duckling. There is a tendency to blame the most visible and highly-paid participant in any movie for whatever goes wrong with it, but in this case perhaps Costner was simply at the end of a chain of errors and miscalculations.
I do not think he has become a bad actor overnight. I have not grown tired of him. I still like what he does. Nothing in "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" diminishes my admiration for his talents. I gave the movie a negative review because it was a bad movie. That doesn't make Costner a bad guy.
Will Hollywood learn a lesson from this film? Will it stop rushing half-baked projects into production in order to meet deadlines with disaster? I doubt it. But I think it will be a long while before Kevin Costner allows himself to be bamboozled into another one of these flim-flams.
Matt Zoller Seitz reviews and reflects upon Jesse Eisenberg's New Yorker piece about film critics.
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