With the openings of Draft Day and Joe this weekend we suddenly re-discover two Oscar winners from the ’90s who have found their groove again after years of cinematic disappointments. I can’t remember the last time either Kevin Costner and especially Nicolas Cage delivered performances worthy of their prime as Costner does in Summit’s Draft Day and Cage does in Roadside Attractions’ Joe. Both come from companies associated with Lionsgate and hopefully both will find some sort of audience this weekend as they reaffirm the power of great actors in the right role.
Costner, who won Oscars for directing and producing Dances With Wolves in 1990, is right in his wheelhouse playing the general manager who has the opportunity to turn a hapless Cleveland Browns football team around with a No. 1 draft pick of a hot Heisman Trophy winner. It’s reminiscent not only of Moneyball but more importantly, of the kind of sports-oriented movies like Bull Durham and Field Of Dreams that made him a star in the first place. And Cage, is playing a combustible ex-con who becomes a surrogate father figure to a troubled teen (Tye Sheridan) in the Southern-set drama Joe. Cage turns down his usual volume of late to deliver a performance of power and poignancy in a film that has much in common with last April’s surprise indie hit Mud (also from Roadside and also co-starring Sheridan) but even more akin to the 1953 George Stevens classic Shane. It is perhaps his best screen acting since winning the Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas almost 20 years ago. And from what I can tell, both these stars clearly know they have again hit their mark.
Costner, who had a bit of a turnaround on television in 2012 with an Emmy-winning performance in the massive History miniseries Hatfields & McCoys, played more low-key supporting turns in movies like The Company Men and The Upside Of Anger or disappointing larger roles in the likes of New Daughter, Swing Vote, Mr. Brooks and Rumor Has It in recent years. Last year he was good in a smaller supporting part in the overbearing Man Of Steel but that was just a warm-up for 2014 where he has five films. We’ve already seen his supporting work in January’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit as well as a lead in the minor Relativity release Three Days To Kill. Later this year he’s starring in Disney’s McFarland and the indie drama Black And White which he also produced and is still looking for a distributor as he told theatre owners last month when he accepted CinemaCon’s Cinema Icon Award at Caesars Palace. Summit also unveiled a complete screening of Draft Day for exhibitors, a move you don’t make at a convention like that unless you know you have the goods. In a nice acceptance speech where he talked eloquently about the “magic” of seeing movies in theaters he said, “It’s my hope Draft Day will take its place among Field Of Dreams, Bull Durham, Tin Cup, For Love Of The Game. I think (director ) Ivan Reitman, who has helped me get re-excited about the business, has made a classic movie. It was a pleasure to work with him.”
Costner turns 60 next January, and he seems to be using the upcoming milestone to reboot his movie career and create another act for himself. “Cinema Icon feels like it is one step away from assisted living,” he joked upon receiving the award from NATO. Draft Day — despite a mixed verdict so far for the film itself from critics at Rotten Tomatoes — should go a long way to keep him from a home any time soon.
Cage also recently celebrated a milestone birthday when he turned 50 at the beginning of the year. Hitting the half-century mark gave him a reason to re-evaluate the way his career has gone in the nearly two decades since winning that Oscar and the dozen years since his last nomination for Adaptation in 2002. Joe is a return to his roots and away from a long list of recent movies that barely made a dent (ie Frozen Ground, Stolen, Trespass, Seeking Justice, Drive Angry, Season Of The Witch, Knowing, Next, etc). And many actors might have used that Oscar to move into a series of prestige roles, but Cage seemed to concentrate more on being an action star in Jerry Bruckheimer movies (The Rock, Con Air, Gone In 60 Seconds, a couple of National Treasures). The talent has always been there to do edgier, riskier things, and Cage realized it as he told me this week during an American Cinematheque Q&A I moderated with him and Joe director David Gordon Green. “I took about a year off. I was going through a faze where I wanted to be extremely selective. I’d done what I wanted to do as sort of more operatic, baroque-style performances in other pictures and I wanted to take the wisdom of some of the life experiences I had in the last two years prior to Joe where I could, without giving too much detail, take the negative and turn it into a positive by filling the vessel of Joe with emotional content, not having to act, not having to think too much, and just be,” he said.
Cage says he wants to keep challenging himself from now on. “I never think of myself as a maestro. I think of myself as a student. I think that’s the right way to look at it so you’re learning something. When Joe came along I was also going through this kind of new concept for myself, a kind of Dogma approach to film performance where you have absolutely no fake tears, no outside influences using my voice only so it could be 100% natural… I was designing characters from the outside. Now I wanted to be as naked, as emotionally bare as possible without overthinking it or designing it,” he said — although don’t expect the man who may have delivered the most “over the top” recitation of the alphabet in movie history in 1989’s Vampire’s Kiss to completely change his stripes and go all internal on us. “I don’t believe in the words ‘over the top’. You show me where the ‘top’ is and I will tell you whether I am ‘over’ it,” he laughed.