The Nostalgia Fact-Check is a recurring Vulture feature in which we revisit a seminal movie, TV show, or album that reflexively evinces an “Oh my God, that was the best ever!” response by a certain demographic, owing to it having been imprinted on them early. Now, years later, we’ll take a look at these classics in a more objective, unforgiving adult light: Are they really the best ever? How do they hold up now? We’ve already reconsidered a number of once-beloved entertainments, but this week’s is different, as we consider Whitney Houston’s biggest film, The Bodyguard. A go-to rental for fans mourning Houston’s recent death, is the movie more prescient than we thought?
Background: Though she was known primarily as a singer, Whitney Houston starred in four movies before her death, and for her film debut, she picked a whopper. The Bodyguard was initially conceived in 1976 as a vehicle for Diana Ross and Steve McQueen, but Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay kept floating around in Hollywood until 1992, when Houston and Kevin Costner signed on to star as, respectively, a famous singer turned actress and the bodyguard who tries to protect her from an obsessed stalker. The movie was an enormous hit, pulling in $410.9 million worldwide (which made it bigger that year than Home Alone 2, Basic Instinct, and Batman Returns) and spawning a juggernaut soundtrack that is still one of the biggest-selling albums of all-time, spurred by what would come to be Houston’s signature song, “I Will Always Love You.”
Nostalgia Demographic: Anyone who was alive and conscious in 1992, when the movie and the soundtrack were an utter phenomenon. Even if you were one of the few who didn’t see The Bodyguard, you couldn’t fight the omnipresence of Houston’s songs from the film.
Nostalgia Fact-Check: Nearly twenty years after its release, The Bodyguard is back in the headlines. Kevin Costner spent much of Houston’s funeral reminiscing about their time on the film, though if his speech prompted you to boot up Netflix and stream The Bodyguard, you’d be out of luck: The movie’s not available there, and many news outlets erroneously reported that it had been pulled from the service so that Warner Bros. could cash in on Houston’s death. (In fact, Netflix’s agreement to stream the movie had lapsed in January.) Meanwhile, the first draft for a remake of The Bodyguard was delivered to WB last week, and in the wake of renewed interest in the property, it’s possible the new version could become a high-profile priority for the studio.
When that remake was announced, fans cried foul, and indeed, there’s something that will be hard to recapture about Houston in that role and the power of that soundtrack. But if you go back and watch the movie, you’ll see that it’s actually a prime candidate for an update: Despite all the music videos that came out of it, The Bodyguard is the furthest thing from music-video filmmaking, a languidly paced two hours that almost goes out of its way to mute big moments and muzzle any unnecessary flash. (Director Mick Jackson came out of documentaries and TV dramas, not videos.) The unusual chemistry between Houston and Costner doesn’t get milked as much as it could, and the movie dissolves awfully quickly from their first kiss into the next scene, giving us little time to actually appreciate their initial romantic clinch. The director also ducks every opportunity for an action scene or suspenseful set piece until the second hour. In fact, the movie’s very first scene is an action sequence that’s already concluded before the fade-in, with Costner already having shot his gun and taken out an assailant (and you’d better believe that the remake will give us all the action moments that came before that beat).
But let’s be real: What you really want to know is “How’s Whitney?” Honestly, pretty good! There’s plenty of evidence here that she’s a neophyte at acting — she has a tendency to rush through her lines, and when her character gets both a creepy note and a creepy call from her stalker, the scenes cut before we even get to see Houston’s reaction — but she’s naturally charismatic and intriguing. Unlike other singers who come off as stiff on the big screen, like Madonna and Beyoncé, Houston is loose and spirited, and though plenty of critics at the time said that she failed to strike sparks with Costner, the two actually have an appealing rapport: He underplays everything and avoids eye contact, while she acts out and plays the diva to try to win his gaze.
And in those diva moments, we see a flash of the Whitney to come. The Bodyguard wasn’t the only major life event in 1992 for Whitney Houston: Months before, she had married Bobby Brown, and her transition from carefully controlled pop star to candid, messy Saturday Night Live punch line was in the offing. If The Bodyguard was ostensibly a behind-the-scenes look at a singing superstar at the height of her powers, Being Bobby Brown would come along thirteen years later to pull back the curtain on that same woman, her powers now sadly diminished. It’s hard to watch The Bodyguard now without acknowledging what will come, and though the movie surrounds Houston’s character with enabling sycophants so that we suspect each of them could be the stalker, it plays altogether differently in 2012: Now we see the entourage around Houston as way more dangerous than any crank writing creepy notes, and the way they initially try to close ranks around Houston to thwart Costner reads like a cabal of hangers-on protecting their meal ticket.
The movie’s most famous scene plays differently, too. In it, Houston flirts with Costner by unsheathing a samurai sword, wielding it like a phallic weapon and even pushing it against his abdomen to see if he’ll flinch. (You can see that scene in this video, though the audio is a little un-synched.)
It’s a sexy character moment, but more than that, it’s now an example of a pop star testing the boundaries of what she can get away with: If I do something dangerous, will you let me? Rihanna and Chris Brown have been called the modern-day Whitney and Bobby, and when Rihanna recorded her two recent remixes with the man who famously beat her, it felt like another example of a pop star with everything searching for the boldest way to transgress. She’s pushing her middle finger into your stomach and daring you to respond.
“I’ll do what I want, when I want,” Houston tells Costner in The Bodyguard, but she wants to know he’s capable of a little danger, too. When she pokes him with that sword, he responds by pulling off her scarf and letting it float onto the blade, where it’s swiftly severed in two. Turned on and more than a little dazed from it, she immediately goes in for the first kiss.
Other random observations:
The Nostalgia Fact-Check: Does The Bodyguard Hold Up?
- Houston’s character first hears a country version of “I Will Always Love You” while out at a bar with Costner (though it’s not Dolly Parton’s original). “It’s so depressing!” she cries. “Have you listened to the words?” Later, Houston’s own rendition would zap the depression right out of the tune: Who could listen to the words when we were listening to that voice?
- Kind of weird that this film about a famous singer would culminate with her appearance at the Oscars. Why not the Grammys? Also, Robert Wuhl hosted this film’s fantasy Oscars, which is suuuper random.
- The final kiss between Houston and Costner is romantic, but not hot at all. She hops off her departing plane for one last buss, and then they have an ultraimpassioned, ultrachaste close-mouthed face nuzzler.
- What happened to director Mick Jackson, who had made Steve Martin’s L.A. Story the year before? He’s now a fixture behind the camera in television, and his last credit was the Claire Danes vehicle Temple Grandin.
- After acting the diva to Costner for the umpteenth time, Houston says plaintively, “Don’t you wanna know why I behave that way?” “I know why,” he answers, because anything else would have been too complicated.