Since the sad and untimely death of Whitney Houston, it has been difficult to turn on the television and not hear a few seconds of her mighty and majestic rendition of “I Will Always Love You”. It’s considered her signature song for reasons made obvious by even a distracted listening to the song, and reasons well-scrutinized by the wall to wall coverage of her life that followed her death. With the acapella opening, Houston was able to demonstrate the subtlety of her phrasing, the soulfulness of her delivery, and the emotive power contained in even the slightest suggestion of her voice. The song’s stirring conclusion allowed Whitney to demonstrate the other side of her voice – a power so overwhelming that it is nearly impossible to find peer or precedent.
During the beautiful eulogy given by her Bodyguard costar, Kevin Costner, the actor explained that “I Will Always Love You”, almost wasn’t. The original choice, “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted”, became unworkable when Paul Young scored a big hit with it during the pre-production of the film. Costner suggested the Dolly Parton country song, and everyone, from the studio executives at Warner Brothers, to the soundtrack producer, David Foster, fought him. They were convinced that a country song, especially one that began so slowly, would never do well on radio.
Then Whitney Houston sang it, and destroyed all doubt. The song that became the most enduring part of the movie is actually representative of the fight for the entire project’s existence.
Lawrence Kasdan, screenwriter of Raiders of The Lost Ark, Body Heat, and Grand Canyon, wrote The Bodyguard in the ‘70s, and originally sold it to a studio set to cast Steve McQueen and Diana Ross in starring roles. McQueen’s death brought the project to a halt, and Kasdan was unable to sell the screenplay throughout the ‘80s. Costner befriended Kasdan, read the script, and in the early ‘90s, at the peak of his powers, was able to get The Bodyguard the backing it deserved. He also worked as executive producer of the movie.
The bell rang for the next round of fighting when Costner insisted that Houston play the role of Rachael Marron – the diva that hires bodyguard Frank Farmer to protect her. Warner Brothers immediately raised two objections. Houston had never acted before, and she was black. What if she couldn’t deliver and what if audiences reacted bitterly to an interracial romance?
Costner and Kasdan won the argument, and when Houston swept the studio executives off their feet during her screen test, the fighting seemed to end. Anxiety and antagonism returned, however, when the studio executives, still nervous and reticent about the casting of Houston, suggested to Costner and Kasdan that the movie now include scenes that directly address the black-white dynamic of the relationship. Both the screenwriter and leading man thought the idea ridiculous. Costner later explained in an ABC News interview, “I said ‘absolutely not.’ This is not race. This is a man and a woman. This is chemistry, romance. That’s what that kiss (the kiss that takes place in the final scene of the movie) was all about. It was two people thanking each other. I kissed her once for all of America, and I kissed her once for myself.”
All of America did fall in love with Houston, before the release of The Bodyguard, and again in the darkness of the theater, while her beauty melted the big screen. Although she didn’t have the acting ability and range that Diana Ross showed in Mahogany and Lady Sings the Blues, or that Cher showed in Moonstruck and Mask, Houston did possess a natural charm and charisma to accompany her gorgeousness that was delightful to watch and perfect for a romance, like The Bodyguard, in which the female lead seduces the male lead. She was wonderful in the feel good, Christmas movie, The Preacher’s Wife, and gave a solid performance in Waiting to Exhale. Both of those movies scored soundtrack hits, most especially The Preacher’s Wife – the soundtrack is still the highest selling Gospel record of all time.
It’s her role in The Bodyguard, however, that fans and followers will most remember when they consider Houston as an actress. The movie endures not only because of its stunning soundtrack, but because it represents a style of blockbuster entertainment that’s different from what is currently fashionable. Twenty years after its theatrical release, it’s able to provide an alternative to the teenage idiocy (the Twilight series, Valentine’s Day), macho ignorance (the Hangover series, Hall Pass, The Expendables), and special effect silliness (the Transformer series, seemingly endless superhero sequels).
The Bodyguard had thrills and action, but it was not an action movie. It had great music, but the music did not overshadow the story. It was a romance of adulthood. It had the maturity and sophistication that gives adult romance the contradiction of cross-pollinated pain and joy. It’s the cross-pollination of pain and joy that gives the movie its lasting life, and gives “I Will Always Love You,” its steadfast power.
“If I should stay I will only be in your way” is how the highest selling single of all time begins, and that line later leads into the promise and conviction that gives the song its memorable title. Frank Farmer and Rachel Marron are two strong, smart, and self-confident individuals, secure in their identities and dedicated to their seemingly opposite vocations. They enter each others’ lives under the auspices of a business arrangement, but soon find that the protection they are able to give each other extends far beyond Farmer’s ability to detect and vanquish physical threats. She protected him from the loneliness and isolation that threatened to overwhelm him after the loss of his wife, and he protected her from the threat that fame and image obsessed branding posed to her true self. Their protection became affection, and he gave her the gift of seeing her and loving her as Rachel Marron, not the superstar, but the human being. She gave him the gift of intimacy, reminding him of its importance and its inspiration.
The personalities of the characters, as emotively and effectively delineated by Houston and Costner, showcased exactly what they needed and what they were able to provide. She was spontaneous, improvisational, and deferent to the wild spirit of the artist. He was thorough, assiduously detailed, and reliant upon a complicated system of internal checks and balances. Her passion was the perfect anecdote for his cautiousness, while his discipline was the perfect formula for the chaos of her life.
Lawrence Kasdan is a suave, sophisticated, but also sincere screenwriter. He has a particular gift for symbolism. Symbolism is a difficult tightrope to balance upon. If the writer leans too far to the left, the symbol is too subtle to have any meaning. A tilt too far rightward and the symbol is laughably obvious, forever castigated as camp. In Body Heat, characters played by William Hurt and Kathleen Turner murder the Turner character’s husband. The disappearance of the victim’s glasses becomes a pivotal part of the plot that ruins both Hurt’s fortunes and secures Turner’s place in the gallery of film’s femme fatales. The inability to find eye glasses also comes to represent the deceptive and seductive woman’s power to blind the men in her life. Grand Canyon, perhaps Kasdan’s best work, uses the natural wonder as a symbol, in ways both obvious and surprising, to present a challenging narrative of discovery and inquiry about race, social division, and the mysterious encounters that possess the power to change lives.
The first kiss in The Bodyguard comes subsequent to the smoldering of the screen by Houston’s deep stare into Costner’s intense concentration. She is waving around a model of a samurai sword that Farmer keeps on his wall. He stands up, and with the blade pressed against his chest, establishing a dangerous barrier between lovers, he grabs Rachel’s silk scarf, tosses it into the air without shifting focus from her face, and lets it fall onto the sword. They watch it softly slice in half. Farmer grabs the sword by the handle, removing the barrier, and kisses her. Romance is risky. It invites pain, but it also invites passion, promise, and potential for joy, love, and growth.
The next morning, the barrier is back. A fatal blade might as well be pressed against Farmer’s chest as he stands over Rachel while she lies in bed. He tells her that the previous night was a mistake, because he “cannot protect her like this.” She tells him he is good at making people “feel like shit”, and treats him with contempt at a benefit show that night.
Rachel and Frank kiss again in the movie. They flirt, hold hands, and steal smiling glances from across the room. Their bodies, however, are never pressed against each other. Even when they kiss the night after the death of Rachel’s sister, they remain distant. Farmer sits at Rachel’s side and leans toward her mouth. She meets him halfway, but they’ve barricaded their bodies. They are no longer able to give of themselves. They cannot surrender to their passion, because they realize that their lives, and their personalities and priorities, are irreconcilably different. They cannot bypass the blade of doubt, because due to the conditions and circumstances of their lives, doubt has decimated faith.
Their romance is destined for a quick and painful ending. Its short life span does not limit its transformative power. As Bob Dylan sang, “There’s some people that you can’t forget even if you’ve only seen them one time or two.” At the end of The Bodyguard, the viewers understand that Rachel and Frank will never forget each other. They will always love each other. It all comes down to that kiss – that act of passion, drama, and intimacy that Costner explained as a gesture of gratitude. The movie ends not happily, not depressingly, but with the full conflict of the bittersweet sweep of unrealized love.
The Bodyguard is not a masterpiece. There are a couple of scenes that push the limits of believability, and the climactic action sequence near the movie’s conclusion feels underwhelming. As a blockbuster, its strength, both commercially and artistically, comes from its romance, and the songs are products and servants of that romance. Whitney Houston, with whom it was impossible not to fall in love, and Kevin Costner, who because of late ‘90s flops is terribly underrated as an actor and leading man, were its perfect conduits.
The legacy of the blockbuster, beyond the greatness of Whitney, the vision of Kasdan, and the wisdom of Costner, is that it is possible to please the public and produce profit on a massive scale by intelligently presenting the complexities of adult love. The movie was written and performed by serious adults, and it was intended for serious adults. It was also socially sophisticated and racially progressive, depicting a romance between a white man and a black woman as natural and normal, rather than as pathological or peculiar.
If any good can come out of the tragic loss of Houston, perhaps it can be a revisit of The Bodyguard and a return to blockbusters of mature filmmaking and storytelling.
// Notes from the Road
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