Kevin Costner is--to revive an old Hollywood phrase--box office poison. The megastar's last three movies--A Perfect World, Wyatt Earp, The War--took in, respectively, $31 million, $25 million, and $16.5 million. Or roughly half of what Waterworld, his new under-the-sea adventure, cost to make. And that's if you believe the low $150 million estimate on the film's exploding budget. The higher guesses on his profligacy have ranged up to $180 million, and counting--making Waterworld the most expensive movie ever by a wide margin. If you take into account that those last three flicks indicate a downward trend in interest, the question could now become, does anyone want to see Costner dance with waves? There's a clue in a February poll the Daily News took, in which nine high-profile New Yorkers--among them Rudy Giuliani, Al Sharpton, Ed Koch, Blaine Trump, and Todd Oldham--were asked whether they always, usually, or never see the films of the nine top-ranked actors. None of the respondents replied that they always see a Costner movie. (Arnold Schwarzenegger received the same humiliating score.) You could argue that these nine New Yorkers don't represent the moviegoing public, but then again, what if they do? Here's Universal ponying up millions for a costly Costner enterprise. Waterworld, nothing--What a World is more like it. There is, however, no reason to pick on Costner alone. If part of the definition of star is guaranteed power at the box office there are no stars. Remember, for instance, that Clint Eastwood was Costner's costar in A Perfect World. Remember that Wolf, with Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer, made $65 million, which, of course, is small potatoes these days. And that The Specialist with Sylvester Stallone and Sharon Stone was even smaller potatoes, at $57.2 million when 1994 ended. Or look at Variety's June 19-25 issue, where it's reported that Congo, which includes no actors' names on most of its ads, took more in its first week ($38,805,311) than Meg Ryan's French Kiss had by week six. And yet out in Hollywood, the high-salaried, tunnel-visioned studio executives are knocking themselves out to give Sylvester Stallone (whose Judge Dredd is doing next to nothing) a $20 million salary for a touted, though untitled, venture for Savoy Pictures. (Maybe they're banking on non-English speaking rentals.) They're paying Demi Moore $12.5 for Castle Rock's Strip Tease. But did you see Ghost, the 15th-highest grossing film of all time, solely because Moore was in it? Or A Few Good Men? Or even Disclosure? Did you see Far and Away because Tom Cruise was in it--or did you stay far and away? No. Costner, Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Stone, Moore, Eastwood, Cruise are all no-names if the movie doesn't connect. Much more often than not, movie audiences won't go to see a movie just because Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, you name 'em, are billed above the title in large type. Crowds may not even show all that eagerly at video stores. Wally Knief, Blockbuster's corporate communications manager, will gladly give you the top 15 stars on a recent company bestseller list. But ask if he thinks any video in which these luminaries appear will float off the shelf, and he replies, "I'd be disinclined to say that." Or ask John Krier, president of Exhibitor Relations, where box office statistics are compiled daily, and he'll tell you, "An actor is basically as good as his film." At one time or another, all stars are box office poison, fizzling after the opening weekend. So the term is badly in need of resuscitation (or in Hollywood terms, a remake) in these days of budgetary wrongheadedness. There was a time when it struck more fear into Southern Californian hearts than a Boris Karloff four-reeler. The phrase was coined in 1938 by Harry Brandt's Independent Theater Owners association. Why? Shortly after RKO's Bringing Up Baby with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn was sent off to an unprepared public and flopped, the independents had enough of fiascos foisted on them. The box-office poison publicity gimmick was their retaliation. Specific poisons included Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Fred Astaire, Mae West, Kay Francis, and Joan Crawford. Quickly gaining currency, the chilling term was still bandied about in the mid '40s, when it was again being pinned on, for one, Mommie Dearest. In his book, Walking the Tightrope, the famed press agent Henry Rogers wrote of his client, "She was considered 'box office poison'--a devastating indictment of a woman whose box office appeal had resulted in millions of dollars pouring into the coffers of MGM Studios and the very same theater owners who had now so branded her...I couldn't very well tell every studio executive, producer and director in the business that the nations' theaters owners didn't know what they were talking about. Joan Crawford's decline was due to the lousy parts she had gotten of late." Back then, being labeled box office poison was a cruel fate. Today it may act like a dose of reality. In other words, help put the dynamics of box office performance into perspective. Certainly, something is needed when, despite rareties like Dreamworks's penny-pinching Jeffrey Katzenberg, most studio powers that be--or that would be--simply flail around for some scrap of security in a business where there is none. Instead of recognizing that the script is somehow still the thing, they greenlight projects because Sharon Stone's P.R. people know how to parlay magazine covers or because Whoopi Goldberg's agent is a wheel-barrow closer. You're thinking, But what about Tom Hanks? Yes, his last three outings have been humongous successes. It certainly looks as if all the world will always clamor to see this half of the century's Jimmy Stewart. But Hanks himself debunks the fail-safe situation in his jovial interviews. And if you're not convinced, then listen to this list of Hanks's past misfires: The Money Pit, Volunteers, Punchline, Joe Versus the Volcaco, and Turner & Hooch. Or you may be flashing on Jim Carrey, the year's second $20 million recipient (for the impending Cable Man). Sure, he's been in an unbroken string of hits, but don't kid yourself. There's trouble in this high-paid fool's paradise. The Newsweek cover story had the skinny: "His managers are hunting for a transition picture--a picture that proves Carrey can actually act. Their strategy is to begin releasing dramas between the comedies so that if they bomb, they'll be bracketed by hits." They're right to worry, because--and remember you read it here first--Jim Carrey is box office poison.