“The Bodyguard” (1992)
“THERE’S A BIG difference between wanting to die and having no fear of death.” That’s Kevin Costner teaching the late Whitney Houston (1963-2012) a thing or two in the romantic thriller, “The Bodyguard” (1992). The love-birds have just seen a samurai film, one that Costner’s character has seen sixty-two times, and strolling along the sidewalk toward dinner, Houston asks: “And because he had no fear of death, he was invincible?” “What do you think?” queries Costner. “Well,” she smiles, “he sure creamed them all in the end.” We all know where dinner and a movie typically lead. Back in his basement, Costner dramatically unwraps Houston’s scarf, tosses it in the air, only to let it fall and separate on his samurai sword. Paging Dr. Freud!
Two decades on, the plot of “The Bodyguard” is not only familiar but simple: before the supremacy of J.Lo and J.T. there was the fictional Rachel Marron, that “triple-threat” of actress-singer-dancer aptly embodied by Houston herself. She enlists the protection of Frank Farmer, a former Secret Service Agent who rues the day he didn’t do enough to protect Reagan from his assassin John Hinkley Jr. who, in 1981, thought killing the President would win over his obsession, Jodie Foster. (Speaking of the obsessive re-watching of films, Hinkley saw “Taxi Driver” at least fifteen times.) Originally, Lawrence (“The Big Chill”) Kasdan wrote the script for “The Bodyguard” in the 1970s for Steve McQueen and Diana Ross.
Still far from her own untimely end at the age of 48, Houston’s big-screen debut in “The Bodyguard” was just the beginning of her movie career. She made two more films – “Waiting to Exhale” and “The Preacher’s Wife” – before returning to the studio in 1998. At her zenith, Houston’s vocals spanned an astounding three octaves and she showed, with her Super Bowl performance of 1991, that “The Star Spangled Banner” was about as easy to sing as “Happy Birthday.” At the time of her death in Beverly Hills one month ago, she was reportedly proud of her comeback performance in a remake of the 1976 film “Sparkle.” We’ll get the chance to see the mezzo soprano sparkle one last time this summer with the film’s posthumous release.
Looking back, much of “The Bodyguard” feels flat and dated: the slow-motion assassination attempt on stage at the Oscars, that nifty James-Bond karate chop that can knock a man out with just one jab to the neck, the weepy epilogue in which Frank and Rachel bid their adieus on the tarmac before Rachel changes her mind, ordering her pilot to “Wait!” and running back into Farmer’s arms. Of course, “The Bodyguard” the film is less memorable than “The Bodyguard” the soundtrack, which grossed over 400 million dollars worldwide and went platinum 17 times over. Its crown jewel, “I Will Always Love You” spent an unprecedented 14 weeks at No. 1 in America (at one point, moving a million copies a week.) It was actually Costner that suggested she cover Dolly Parton’s 1974 country ballad. (He and Houston fought the record company to add the 45-second a cappella introduction.) In the film, hearing it in the bar Farmer takes her to, she asks: “This is a cowboy song, huh?” “Yeah,” Farmer replies. She laughs into his shoulder, and confesses: “I mean, it’s so depressing. Have you ever listened to the words?” The two laugh. “It’s one of those someone-is-always-leaving-somebody songs.”
In terms of the art-life overlap, it’s striking that though Houston, as Rachel, is surrounded by handlers, publicists, choreographers, family members, and, of course, her bodyguard, she’s still so vulnerable, her life imperiled. “I’m here to keep you alive,” Farmer tells her. One of the ironies of Houston’s turn in “The Bodyguard” is that, on-screen as well as off, she was in desperate need of a better protector and guardian angel. In the end, I guess Houston’s biggest film has become one of those someone-is-always-leaving-somebody kind of movies.