August 25, 2003 12:00 PM

When you’re a 23-year-old actor you pay attention to Oscar-winning directors. On the set of Kevin Costner’s new cowboy flick Open Range, the first he has directed since 1997’s The Postman, Costner “gave me the best advice,” says Mexican heartthrob Diego Luna. Such as? “He said, ‘If you keep smoking, you’re going to be really ugly in a few years.’ I didn’t quit. But at least now I know I’m going to be ugly.”

Costner, 48, has carried that reputation for being plainspoken—in the business, he is alternately called arrogant and the closest thing to Gary Cooper—since he won Best Director and Picture for 1990’s Dances with Wolves. But if his famously exacting on-set presence has mellowed somewhat, it’s thanks to his fiancée. On June 26 Costner announced his engagement to his girlfriend of four years, Christine Baumgartner, 29. Now sporting a modest engagement ring from the 18th century, the handbag designer “really helped him” on the shoot, says one of the film’s actors, Abraham Benrubi. “When he got stressed, she reminded him, ‘It’s not brain surgery. You’re making a movie.’ ”

And now planning a wedding—probably next summer at Costner’s spread in Aspen, Colo. “He’s really excited,” says his close friend David Giammarco, a journalist. “He said he finally realized his love for Christine outweighed his fear of getting married again.” In 1994 Costner’s 16-year marriage to Cindy Silva—mother to their children Anne, a 19-year-old student at Brown University; Lily, 17; and Joe, 15—ended. In 1996 Bridget Rooney, of the family that owns the Pittsburgh Steelers, bore him another son, now 6. But things have changed since he began a new chapter with Baumgartner, who shares his homes in Aspen and the Hollywood Hills. “We met for about 20 minutes maybe about 10 years ago,” Costner told Larry King Live Aug. 9. “On a golf course. She was putting, and I was talking to her.” Five years later, “She walked up to me at a restaurant. And we exchanged numbers, and I told her that I would—did she mind if I called her in two weeks. I did not realize that was like an insult to a woman.” Nevertheless the two, who share a passion for fishing and golf (Baumgartner “totally can keep up” with Costner on the links, says pal Giammarco), were soon a couple. “I think it is pretty public that after his divorce he went out with lots of women,” notes Open Range executive producer Army an Bernstein, “but Christine was the first woman he introduced to his children and said, ‘This is serious.’ ”

Their romance weathered a brief split last year; Baumgartner didn’t expect to get involved in a relationship with a ready-made family, a friend said at the time. But they reunited for the better, and on a recent stay in the Hamptons with Costner’s advertising consultant buddy Bob Felner, Baumgartner (who is so put-together, she wore high heels on a muddy Hawaiian location for 2002’s Dragonfly) chatted happily about the upcoming wedding. “He and Christine had a walk on the beach, hand in hand. It was very sweet,” says Felner.

The two often spend time with Costner’s kids at his 165-acre Aspen ranch. “He’s most comfortable on his tractor out there moving dirt around, planting trees and landscaping and fly-fishing,” says Giammarco. Costner also lets sick children use the property as a summer camp run by the Silver Lining Foundation, headed by former tennis champ Andrea Jaeger. “Kevin comes and helps out,” says Jaeger. “He has even leveled off some of his property so we would have more room for the picnic tables for the kids.”

He won’t treat the movie audience like children, though; slow and steady remain the bywords of his latest 139-minute opus. He was so dedicated to it that he finished it under intense abdominal pain—”He finally went to the hospital, and they found out his appendix had burst weeks earlier,” says Giammarco. Adds Open Range costar Robert Duvall: “He’s an individual. He’s pretty serious. Kind of a law unto himself.” When Felner first discovered the film would be yet another Western (Costner’s fifth), “I said to him, ‘God, you sure aren’t looking for public acclaim, are you?’ ” Felner recalls. “And he said to me, ‘Obviously I’m not looking to be popular, am I?’ ”

Kyle Smith

Natasha Stoynoff in New York City, Rachel Biermann and Dana Meltzer in Los Angeles and Vickie Bane in Aspen

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