Welcome to Misleading Men, a regular feature where we look back at the actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment.
All of us have said things we wish we could take back. Maybe it keeps us up at night as we kick ourselves, thinking, “Why did I do that?” Well, take heart: Whatever dumb thing it was that came out of your mouth, it probably wasn’t as dopey as what Kevin Costner said to Madonna in 1990.
There was a period of time when Costner seemed like America’s most beloved movie star — not just popular but somehow embodying all that is good and just about this allegedly great land of ours. But like lots of aspiring actors, first he had to struggle. Born in January 1955, he’d started landing some small film roles in his early 20s, but over the next several years he couldn’t catch his big break. Then he was cast as the vibrant cowboy Jake in 1985’s Silverado, a Western that would become one of his most reliable genres. “Being awarded that part was just a total gift,” Costner said recently. “It was a career-making role, a scene-stealing role. It’s like, you always take what you have and you try to stay on focus. But [director and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan] wrote it so beautifully — along with his brother, Mark Kasdan — that the character was designed to just jump off the page.”
It was a happy ending after Lawrence Kasdan had cast him in his previous film — the Oscar-nominated The Big Chill, where he was to play the friend whose suicide reunites his old buddies — only to later decide to cut his part. (“It doesn’t matter [that the part was cut],” Costner later said. “I knew I was with the right circle of people.”) But after Silverado, Costner went on a roll, becoming a dependable Gary Cooper-type hero in The Untouchables and No Way Out, a solidly romantic leading man in Bull Durham and the master of the male weepie as a repentant son finally making peace with his father in Field of Dreams. If we tend to think of the 1980s as a time of muscle-bound action heroes like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Costner represented a countermeasure — a throwback to a more rugged, human-scaled masculinity on screen. His characters were decent, noble guy’s guys — the epitome of the regular dude you’d like to have a beer with. He wasn’t impossibly buff or overly actorly. He was just one of us.
“I actually kind of like that,” he said in 1987 when this “just one of us” idea was presented to him as the secret to his appeal. “I don’t like a lot of posturing, I don’t like a lot of intrigue. It’s tiring, and it’s hurtful. If I wanted someone to say something [about me], that’s kind of an interesting thing. It’s not very eccentric, it’s pretty even-steven down the road. I guess, maybe, that’s my deal.”
He’s the kind of guy who’d use “even-steven” in an interview.
Costner’s stardom would only increase from there. At the end of 1990, he released the Western Dances With Wolves, his directorial debut about a Civil War soldier who goes off to live with a Native American tribe, rejecting the cruelty and ignorance of the white man. “I wasn’t looking for this particular subject, for this particular movie,” he admitted to The New York Times around the film’s release. “It was just there.” The article commented on Costner’s “laid-back, folksy style,” and it was that aw-shucks genuineness that helped sell Dances With Wolves both to audiences and Academy members.
Unquestionably earnest and well-intentioned, the liberal-minded film won seven Oscars, including Best Picture, famously beating Goodfellas. The contrast between the two movies couldn’t have been starker. Martin Scorsese’s mobster drama was a dark, violent study of some very bad men. Dances With Wolves was made by a likable everyman espousing honorable ideas about respecting America’s indigenous people. Who says nice guys always finish last?
Costner’s Oscar triumph — he walked away with two Academy Awards himself — took place on March 25, 1991. He was 36 years old. A pretty enviable spot for any Hollywood actor or filmmaker, especially for someone who tried his best not to carry himself like a big shot. “I have the same problem with stardom that I have with royalty,” he said in a 1989 Time profile that hailed him as “a grownup hero with brains.” “They’re judged not by the quality of their ideas but by their birthright. I didn’t set out to be a star. If you do, you engage in manipulation. You do stuff to be liked. I didn’t want to be endorsed; I wanted to be listened to.”
A couple months after the Oscars, Madonna: Truth or Dare arrived in theaters. Born in August 1958, Madonna was then among the biggest pop stars in the world who, at that stage, already had nine No. 1 singles. Truth or Dare was a documentary that followed her along on her Blond Ambition tour of the previous year, chronicling her insecurities, love life (she was dating her Dick Tracy director Warren Beatty) and spectacular concerts. It also allowed for some incredibly candid moments, with one scene in particular quickly getting people’s attention. It was from a May 1990 show in L.A. in which Costner went backstage to congratulate her. This is what he said:
“I thought it was neat,” the grinning, amiable Costner tells her, and instantly it’s clear to everyone in the room that he’s the dorkiest dude on the planet. “No one’s ever described it quite that way,” Madonna sniffs in response, just aghast and wanting him gone. After Costner does leave — he’s smart enough to know he’d probably better slink away — we see Madonna put her fingers down her throat, indicating that his nicey-nice comment makes her want to gag. “Anybody who says my show is ‘neat’ has to go,” she later snarks to the camera. The implication of the moment was obvious: Artists like Madonna were envelope-pushing provocateurs, challenging America’s prudishness around sex and female liberation, while guys like Kevin Costner… well, they were normies before the term had even been coined.
Truth or Dare was critically acclaimed, and quickly “Neat-gate” became legendary. The scene served as the opening of Peter Travers’ Rolling Stone review, which mocked Costner for his “candy-assed adjective.” In 2016, when The New York Times celebrated the film’s 25th anniversary, the Costner comment led there as well. (Paper once called it “the best [Madonna] clip of all time.”) When Truth or Dare came out, Costner was as big a star as he’d ever be. But that moment in the movie, he was cut off at the knees. Sure, he was a beloved actor — “a grownup hero with brains,” remember? — but if you behaved like a genial dork in the presence of Madonna, any hope you had of being cool was gone. Kevin Costner was popular, but he wasn’t hip. And Madonna knew it. The meanness of her putdown had an unmistakable ring of truth to it: Who was this square?
The Truth or Dare scene was incredibly cringe-y, but it hardly dented Costner’s career. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves came out a couple months later and was the second-biggest movie of the year, just behind Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and that Christmas, he starred in JFK, brilliantly using his All-American persona to play New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison, who obsessively pursues a theory that President Kennedy’s assassination was a coup d’état. It was a big, Oscar-winning studio movie, featuring Hollywood’s modern-day Gary Cooper, that unabashedly told its audience that their government had lied to them about the death of their president. (Director Oliver Stone later admitted that his gutsy movie wouldn’t have happened without Costner: “Warner Bros. … very much wanted Kevin Costner, their leading star at the time, to be in the film.”) JFK was Costner at his most stirring and emotional — his character’s defiant, patriotic idealism was all of ours. It still might be the best thing he’s ever done.
Costner had one last big hit in him, The Bodyguard, in which he teamed up on screen with a different massive pop star, Whitney Houston. This time it was by choice, of course, but it’s funny that, looking back on the film, Costner seemed bewildered by the kind of fame the Whitneys and the Madonnas of the world commanded. “I know I have this level of celebrity, of fame, international, national, whatever you want to call it,” he said in 2012, “but it’s a pretty surreal thing to think sometimes that you’re in the middle of another famous person’s life and you think to yourself, ‘How the hell did I get famous? What is this some weird club that we’re in?’” (By the way, it’s worth mentioning that one of the fun rumors concerning Madonna’s takedown of Costner is that it stemmed, in part, from her supposedly being mad that she didn’t end up being considered for Houston’s role in The Bodyguard.)
Whether it was an affectation or genuine, Costner at the height of his celebrity always seemed a little too earnest — a little too thrown by the trappings of stardom — to really feel comfortable in that world. This is what made him so admired — he seemed to have a realness to him that wouldn’t put up with Hollywood bullshit — but it also probably ensured that he wouldn’t be on top that long. Male stars project lots of things — strength, sex appeal, masculinity, intensity — but earnestness is a tough one because it can get a little stale or snoozy. (Costner’s only contemporary in this regard might be Tom Hanks, but he’s always had a sense of humor, which gave his decency a little more of a sweetness and self-deprecation.) If Costner put out a movie that bombed, it would be a killer because it would puncture his aura of no-nonsense modesty.
Put another way, Waterworld could have happened to a lot of stars, but that it happened to Costner was especially damaging. An ambitious post-apocalyptic sci-fi action movie, directed by Prince of Thieves’ Kevin Reynolds, Waterworld was one of those infamous fiascos that’s actually not as terrible as its reputation suggests. But it is a movie in which he plays a character called the Mariner who’s a mutant with gills who drinks his own recycled piss because he’s living in a horrible future in which most of the planet has been flooded because of global warming. Costing around $170 million — an obscene amount of money for that time — Waterworld was a very silly wannabe blockbuster that seemed far afield from the noble, unassuming characters Costner usually played. (Even his wavering accent as Robin Hood wasn’t this absurd.) Waterworld punctured his aura. It made him look like a total dork.
In terms of industry clout, Costner was never the same afterward. He starred in and directed the 1997 bomb The Postman, another post-apocalyptic endeavor that was like Waterworld except on land and massively self-important. He’d rebound somewhat in films like Tin Cup, reuniting with Bull Durham filmmaker Ron Shelton, and each time he’d turn in a good performance afterward you’d have a crop of film journalists declaring it his comeback. And certainly he’s done lots of fine work since then — I’d single out Thirteen Days and The Upside of Anger, and also say he’s good gruff father figures in Man of Steel and Molly’s Game — but there was a shine that came off him after Waterworld. Twenty-five years later, he remains a star — currently, you can see him on Yellowstone — but the idea that he represented some sort of mythic, squared-jawed American ideal has long since past, even when he still tried to embody that in films like Hidden Figures, where his white NASA engineer repeatedly stands up against the racism that the film’s Black female mathematicians must endure.
There’s no shame in a star’s moment fading away — actors captivate their era, and then times change. But it’s worth noting that Costner’s humble, good-guy persona may not have painted a full picture of the man. As his stardom slipped, we started hearing stories about his megalomaniacal ways — how he’d supposedly lock his directors out of the editing room so that he could have the final word on his projects. Costner, of course, didn’t see it that way:
“Most of the people who write [about my films] don’t forensically know exactly what went on. If they did, they’d have a different opinion of me. What happens sometimes is that people get confused when they think you want to keep a scene because of vanity. A lot of times what I’m arguing for is a script that can’t speak for itself. … The success of a movie is: Will you take it off a shelf five years from now, 10 years from now? Will you revisit it with a sweetheart, a son or daughter, or because that was the movie where you got your first kiss in the theater? So those decisions you’re making are for its lifetime, not its opening weekend. And when they fall into the conventional wisdom of pace and timing, ratings even, that’s when the films suffer.”
Even in that defense, there was something strident and square about his response. He wasn’t a prima donna: He was the valiant protector of his movies’ noble intentions.
But where most would point to Waterworld or The Postman as his downfall, I keep returning to Truth or Dare. It’s not just the viciousness of Madonna’s sarcasm that gets me — it’s how Costner sincerely feels adrift in that environment, like he knows he doesn’t belong. We have this idea that movie stars are bigger than life, but in Truth or Dare, he shrinks before our eyes. Madonna eradicates him from view. She put him in his place. Most schmoozy star confabs are fawning affairs — everybody’s careful not to piss off anybody else because theirs is a small world of very connected, very powerful people — but Madonna didn’t mind letting the whole world know she thought Kevin Costner was lame.
“Generally, I tried to not just throw in arbitrary digs at people unless they were actually involved in an interaction with Madonna,” Truth or Dare director Alek Keshishian said in 2016 about that iconic moment, later adding, “The Kevin Costner thing says something about her when she puts the finger down the throat — about how she reacts to earnestness.” It’s the same reaction people generally have to sincerity. Maybe we admire it for a while, but eventually we tire of its wholesomeness — we love artists like Madonna who puncture such banality with wit and edge.
In 2007, Costner was asked about Neat-gate. “Yeah, I was embarrassed by it and kind of hurt by it,” he said. “I just went back there because I was asked to go back. And I found the best word that I could. I never called her on it or whatever.”
There was an all-hugs epilogue to the incident, though. In the early 2000s, Costner took his daughters to another Madonna concert. “I just thought this is somebody they should see,” he recalled in that 2007 interview. “I didn’t call anybody for tickets, I just got tickets and we went down. … And about the third song in, the lights were down, and she said, ‘I want to apologize to someone.’ And all of a sudden my face starts to get hot. And she says, ‘I want to apologize to Kevin Costner.’ She just said it very simply. Ninety-eight percent of that audience didn’t know what she was talking about. But I really respected that. … I never wrote her to say thank you, but I appreciate it from the bottom of my heart, and that meant more to me than you could ever know.” (Funny enough, People couched this story under the headline “Kevin Costner Forgives Madonna for Truth or Dare Diss,” as if she’d violated U.N. regulations by making a fellow star look nerdy in public in the first place.)
In the social media age, Costner’s “neat” comment has been immortalized as one of the great facepalm celebrity-documentary moments. Was Madonna being “mean”? Oh, maybe. (As music journalist Bill Wyman pointed out at the time in the Chicago Reader, “[T]hey’d both been participating in the usual big-star backstage scene, and Madonna, on her home turf, with her camera going, takes advantage of the situation.”) But of all the films in Costner’s oeuvre, it’s funny that, in some ways, a few minutes in Truth or Dare define him as well as his own work. He walked into Madonna’s dressing room as one of Hollywood’s leading men. He walked out knowing exactly where he ranked in the celebrity firmament.
Some actors are popular, some are cool, and some are both. For better or worse, Costner was destined to be in that first category. He’s always said he wasn’t entirely comfortable with being a star. In Truth or Dare, he said the wrong thing at the wrong time. He was never more just like the rest of us than in that moment.