LOS ANGELES – Kevin Costner looks good in cowboy boots — even when he’s being bad.
“Yellowstone,” a TV drama premiering Wednesday, seals the actor’s status as Hollywood’s most natural western star. He plays John Dutton, a modern-day rancher who bullies his children, blackmails a preacher and arranges trumped-up charges against an American Indian leader determined to burn down an empire the size of Rhode Island.
Despite Dutton’s shortcomings, you can’t help but root for a good ol’ boy so committed to preserving his land, even if he’s riding to the rescue in a helicopter.
“I’m always kind of haunted about how I might have fared in the West,” Costner said. “It’s a place of drama, random violence. There are winners and losers. You lived by your wits. And all of it set against this natural, raw beauty. I’ve always been drawn to it.”
Westerns have been key to his celebrated career, from 1985’s “Silverado” to “Dances With Wolves,” “Wyatt Earp,” “Open Range” and the 2012 miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys,” which became the No. 1 entertainment telecast of all time on basic cable, adding a Golden Globe and an Emmy to Costner’s two Oscars.
He might have been an even bigger star if he’d practiced his craft a few generations earlier.
Fifty years ago, seven of the top 10 shows on TV were western dramas, with “Gunsmoke” drawing a staggering 39 million viewers a week. John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper — actors who didn’t mind getting a little dust on their duds — were among the top box-office draws of the 1950s.
But Costner and others who want to saddle up these days can’t just strap on a six-gun and flirt with Miss Kitty. Making a western today, whether it’s set in the 19th century or modern times, means debunking the notion that the white man’s urge to go West was anything but noble.
On the small screen, HBO’s “Deadwood” stripped any romance from the genre with a protagonist, Al Swearengen, who would have made Shane pee his pants. Netflix’s “Godless” and HBO’s “Westworld” expose sexism in and out of the saloons. In AMC’s “Hell on Wheels,” the building of a transcontinental railroad exposes deep-seated racism after the Civil War.
“Films and TV shows used to take you back to another time when they weren’t as concerned about social issues as they were about survival, whether it was a bear attack or bad weather,” said Colorado native Harry Waters Jr., who teaches in the Theatre and Dance Department at Macalester College in St. Paul.
“But the problem was, are we supposed to root for the cowboys and think the Natives are bad? What makes westerns viable today is when you put another spin on it. You’ve got an excuse to go to the costume store and shoot in gorgeous locations, as long as you tell the story with a new lens.”
Taylor Sheridan, who wrote and directed all 10 episodes of “Yellowstone,” is turning out to be one of our more fascinating reconstructionists. His scripts for 2016’s “Hell or High Water” and 2017’s “Wind River” were lauded for presenting Native Americans as distinctive, three-dimensional characters.
In “Yellowstone,” Dutton’s most formidable — yet sympathetic — opponent is Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham), a politically savvy tribal leader who is trying to make up for centuries of injustice. Dutton’s most rambunctious son (Luke Grimes) is living on Rainwater’s reservation with his Native American wife and finds himself torn between the two warring factions.
“You really can’t explore the West or this nation’s history without looking very closely at the treatment of Native Americans and the consequence of that assimilation,” Sheridan said. “I think ignorance is the enemy of change. Educating, while in an entertaining form, brings very real issues to the forefront and then allows us to discuss them and hopefully find ways to solve them.
“I try very hard to destroy those stereotypes and those tropes and help highlight a world that’s ignored and give some truth to it.”
How the wealth was won
“Yellowstone,” the first dramatic series for the Paramount Network (formerly known as Spike TV), is trying to do for that basic cable network what “Hatfields & McCoys” did for the History Channel.
Costner’s character runs counter to the notion that the West was won — or is being won — by the drifter who steered cattle drives by day and played poker at night.
Dutton may break wild horses and occasionally sleep in the stable, but it’s his formidable fortune that keeps him tall in the saddle — while making him the target of real estate developers and government representatives who want part of his 30,000 acres designated as a national park.
“The myth is all about the rugged individual, the courageous cowboy. But it was really wealth that settled the West,” said Minnesota-based author Charlie Quimby, whose novels “Inhabited” and “Monument Road” are set in western Colorado. “I’ve only seen the trailers [for ‘Yellowstone’] but it looks like, in some ways, Costner’s character is not the typical western figure. But he is still all alone, far away from the sheriff’s office, up against bigger powers.”
Costner’s attraction to dogged underdogs — Robin Hood, FBI agent Eliot Ness in “The Untouchables,” District Attorney Jim Garrison in “JFK” — helps explain his attraction to Dutton and why he still feels at home on the range.
“This is a pretty complicated guy,” he said. “He’s half dinosaur, but I think he’s pretty proud of it.”