Whitney Houston didn’t originally want to be in The Bodyguard. Co-star Kevin Costner, then one of the most bankable male leads in Hollywood, stalled production for over two years in order to convince her to star as superstar Rachel Marron in the romantic drama. (In fact, the script had originally been written for Diana Ross and Steve McQueen back in the mid-1970s.) The 1992 movie marked Houston’s screen debut, and she was nervous. “I thought, ‘I’ll just get this little part somewhere, and I’ll work my way up,’” she told Rolling Stone in 1993. “And all of a sudden I get this script, and I said: ‘I don’t know. This is kind of . . . big.’ So I was scared.”
She needn’t have been. The movie was a blockbuster hit, grossing $411 million worldwide on a $25 million budget, the second highest-earning film of 1992. And that’s not even counting the overwhelming success of the soundtrack, which remains one of the most popular movie albums of all time. Houston’s cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” dominated the No. 1 spot for 14 straight weeks, and the soundtrack went on to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year.
In hindsight, it’s almost hilarious to imagine Houston taking up a small part of anything. By the time she was cast in The Bodyguard, she was already a superstar with three hit albums, Whitney Houston (1985), Whitney (1987), and I‘m Your Baby Tonight (1990), and two Grammys. But beyond fame, her mere presence as a performer is so magnetic, so charismatic, that she would automatically steal the show in anything she did.
In fact, without Houston, The Bodyguard would surely have been forgotten. (No offense to Costner, but that grit-your-teeth as you grumble endearments masculinity can remain firmly in the ‘90s.) Directed by Mick Jackson from a screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, the plot is fairly straightforward: Frank Farmer (Costner), a former secret service agent with a chip on his shoulder, is reluctantly hired to protect Rachel Marron (Houston), a mega-star singer and Oscar-nominated actress plagued with death threats from a murderous stalker. She balks at his advice, he seethes at her stubbornness, and of course, they fall in love. In many ways, it’s the anti-A Star Is Born: Rather than a woman being plucked from obscurity by a far more famous man, Rachel — and by extension Houston — is the undeniable center of attention in every scene she’s in.
The Bodyguard was the perfect vehicle for her star appeal. Rachel’s success mirrored her own, often in disturbing ways. Houston admitted in the aftermath of the film that she too, had received death threats, and of course, the narrative of a star battling the dire and harmful consequences of fame would later become an indelible part of her tragic story. The filming itself was fraught for the star, who told Barbra Walters she miscarried her first pregnancy due to the stress of production.
But while there are a million ways to tie Houston’s eventual downfall to the movie, that’s not what this particular piece is for. No, as we gear up for a rewatch of The Bodyguard for R29 Movie Club, it’s time to celebrate what makes the movie a cult classic.
The Bodyguard was an undeniable cultural milestone, not only for Houston’s career, but also more generally as a Hollywood phenomenon. Critics may have panned the movie, but no one missed the significance of an interracial on-screen romance — and more importantly, one that was not the central conflict of the movie — between two of the world’s most A-list stars. "The film is about a relationship between two people, and it would have been a failure if it became a film about interracial relationships,” Costner told Ebony in 1993. “Some of my choices are real simple, and it’s very easy to fall in love with Whitney."
So, about that romance...say what you will about the so-so chemistry and the sometimes absurdly clunky dialogue, but The Bodyguard is a blast. Its melodramatic plot points and cheesy encounters, lambasted by critics, are the very qualities that now make it so memorable and rewatchable. The way Frank literally runs after a threatening-looking car! The fact that he takes Rachel on a date that features not only Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (which translated from Japanese, literally means “bodyguard”), but also swaying to country music at his favorite dive bar. The dramatic Oscars finale! And let’s not forget the costumes: From Rachel’s glorious suit of armor — complete with a headdress — during her club performance of “Queen of the Night,” to Frank’s enviable cabin core knitwear, it covers an entire spectrum of fantasy attire.
Still, that’s not to say there’s no real feeling here. Want to shed every tear you have left? Play “Jesus Loves Me,” the soaring gospel duet between Rachel and her jealous sister Nikki (Michele Lamar Richards), and just listen. Less obvious than “I Will Always Love You,” it’s a moment that carries the true emotional weight of the film. And Houston’s face, as she loses herself in the melody out there on a quiet porch in the woods, is a reminder of all she gave to this role, and this movie — and why it’s always worth rewatching.
Tune into The Bodyguard at 6pm ET on Thursday, August 20 and tweet along with the hashtag #R29Movie Club!