Late singer showed dignity and vulnerability in films like 'The Bodyguard' and 'Waiting to Exhale.'
By Ryan J. Downey
Whitney Houston will be remembered for her voice, her hit songs, her charismatic presence. As someone who has spent my life sharing equal passion for music and movies, it's particularly noteworthy to me that the biggest hit I associate Houston with is intrinsically tied to a film. Judging by the number of "Whitney, I will always love you" tweets from celebrities and fans on Saturday, I'd say I'm not alone in thinking of her big voice mostly in "I Will Always Love You," which is inseparable from "The Bodyguard."
My late mother was a huge fan of Dolly Parton, who originally wrote and recorded the song that would become a huge hit for Houston on the soundtrack to "The Bodyguard," in which she starred (years before people ran around saying "meta"!) as a pop singer. The stepmother who came into my life when I was a teenager passed away herself a couple of years ago. The first Christmas present I ever bought for her growing up was a copy of one of Whitney's albums on cassette, so I experienced a variety of emotions and memories about important women in my life as my Twitter feed blew up with reports of the troubled star's untimely passing.
Nobody knew Houston could act (a bit part on an episode of the corny sitcom "Gimme a Break!" was certainly no barometer) when director Mick Jackson cast her to play Rachel Marron, a singer in need of protection from a stalker, in "The Bodyguard." Big marquee name Kevin Costner played the title role of an ex-Secret Service agent turned private protector. The two characters, against the odds and against the rule, become more than co-workers as the story unfolds. The movie is cornball, sure, but Houston was quite fun.
Lawrence Kasdan, who put his stamp all over my childhood as a writer on "The Empire Strikes Back," "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Return of the Jedi," reportedly conceived the script in the '70s as a vehicle for the legendary Steve McQueen and Diana Ross. I was actually at the Grammy Special Merit Awards watching Ross accept a Lifetime Achievement Award when I saw the guy in front of me show his girlfriend a tweet about Whitney Houston's death, which is how I first learned the news. Perhaps in some roundabout way you could call that my Six Degrees of Kevin Costner with this story. It's not unusual to look for "signs" and coincidences when we try to process death around us, whether it's a loved one, acquaintance or a public personality we never knew.
"The Bodyguard" had action, romance and behind-the-scenes drama involving the entertainment industry, all of which are some touchtone topics that have followed me in life. I worked part-time in a record store when the movie came out and I vividly remember handling copies of the soundtrack on CD and cassette (remember those?) as patron after patron brought up a copy for me to ring up. The movie, the songs ("I Have Nothing" was no slouch!) and the CD were all intertwined, intermingled, wrapped up together to me.
Houston's performance displayed a certain tenderness combined with an elegant toughness that recalled screen sirens from mid-century. True, she was drawing from some life experience by playing someone so close to her comfort zone. But in 1995, she did it all over again in "Waiting to Exhale" and this time opposite acting heavyweight Angela Bassett (and directed by Forrest Whitaker!). "Exhale" shot straight to #1 at the box office, while Houston's single from the movie did the same thing on Billboard. Last spring, Bassett did an interview in which she talked about a sequel reuniting the director and stars. Of course, that couldn't happen now.
Too many pop stars, rock idols and rappers trying their hand at acting have made the whole concept a joke to some people. And granted, not every musician who switches gears turns out to have chops (and vice versa in the actors-turned-musician department). But Penny Marshall certainly wouldn't have put Houston next to Denzel Washington and Gregory Hines in "The Preacher's Wife" if she'd watched "The Bodyguard" and "Waiting to Exhale" and thought the singer hadn't pulled off the jobs. The remake of the 1947 film "The Bishop's Wife" may have included some hokey fantasy elements, but it still became the best-reviewed movie Houston made.
Sure, both "Bodyguard" and "Exhale" are "rotten" according to Rotten Tomatoes, which aggregates reviews from major film critics. I'm not going to try to pass either of them off as particularly great films. But "The Bodyguard," my favorite of the two, is an inoffensive confection that rises above the phrase "guilty pleasure" ever so slightly even after repeated viewings and even after all of this time.
There's no denying Houston's likability and watchability in all three of her major film roles. She was dignified, strong and yet vulnerable in the sort of way that made you want to sweep her up like Kevin Costner on the movie poster.
Houston's final film, "Sparkle," is set to be released in August, and indeed, there is nothing the specter of addiction can do to erase her sparkle on the silver screen. We'll miss you, Whitney.
MTV News' Sway and James Montgomery will be live from the Grammys red carpet this Sunday, February 12 starting at 5 p.m. ET to get reactions from music's biggest stars on the death of Whitney Houston. Watch Reactions and Remembrances at MTV.com.
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