Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Bodyguard (Warner Bros., 1992)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

In acknowledgment of Whitney Houston on her recent death — yet another voice that I remember from my early years “out” as a Gay man that has now been stilled forever — I would like to share my thoughts on her film The Bodyguard, which Charles and I watched together in 2005. My disappointment in the movie had little to do with Whitney’s talents — whatever her limitations as an actress, she was a great singer with an unforgettable voice that combined crystalline purity and deep soul — though, like a lot of other more recent divas that have been pushed along a similar career path, she didn’t always get the quality of material she deserved. By far the best part of The Bodyguard was her extraordinary rendition of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” under the closing credits, and we can only regret the film did not allow us to see as well as hear her do that great song!

We ran a video movie that had long been one of my bits of unfinished business: The Bodyguard, the 1992 film by Mick Jackson starring Whitney Houston as a temperamental pop diva beset with death threats and top-billed (and co-producer) Kevin Costner as the ex-Secret Service bodyguard she — or rather her manager, Bill Devaney (Bill Cobbs), hires to protect her. This was a bit of unfinished business because in 1994, when John Gallagher and I were having our mini-relationship, I had bought the tape at Suncoast Video (the fact that it took over a year for the video to become available at regular for-sale price is an indication of how dramatically the advent of the DVD has changed the movie market: today the “window” between theatrical release and in-store availability is down to two months and shrinking still further) and planned to watch it with him — only he screened it without me and took the tape with him when we broke up. So when I saw it sale-priced in the Columbia House DVD Club catalog I decided to grab it and see this film at long last.

It would be nice to report that The Bodyguard was worth the wait, but it wasn’t; it’s really just another movie, a mediocre film that wastes both a spectacular premise and two charismatic stars. I’d always imagined The Bodyguard as sort of a modern-dress version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover that would highlight the class differences between the two principals and present a sort of taming-of-the-shrew quality to their affair. Instead it’s a quirky, inconsistent melodrama beset by one star who was pretty blatantly miscast for his part and another who wasn’t given a chance either to play a coherent character or to become a good enough dramatic actress to make sense out of the script she was given. The Web site says the male lead in The Bodyguard was specifically written for Costner, but that’s wrong; writer Lawrence Kasdan originally drafted the piece in the late 1970’s as a follow-up to the Barbra Streisand version of A Star Is Born and intended the leads for Streisand and Steve McQueen, who was then her partner in the First Artists production company, releasing through Warners.

Imagining what The Bodyguard might have been with Streisand and McQueen offers a pretty good index to what’s wrong with it as it stands. Kasdan’s script creates a remote, taciturn male lead that would have perfectly suited an actor with the kind of magnetic presence as McQueen or the 1970’s Clint Eastwood (who at the time this film was made was playing an active-duty Secret Service agent in In the Line of Fire, also not a good movie but certainly better than this one!). Costner is simply wrong for the part, as much as he tries to channel the spirit of McQueen by playing most of his scenes standing with rod-like erectness and glowering at the camera, barely opening his mouth enough to get his lines out. Costner is the sort of actor who needs us to warm up to him — even in Waterworld, where he was not only figuratively but literally playing an alien, his performance (and the movie as a whole) gets stronger the more he interacts with the people around him and shows warmth. As for Houston, Kasdan put her at sea by failing to decide whether her character should be a basically sympathetic victim or a bitchy prima donna — so he wrote her as both, and Houston as an actress showed promise but couldn’t do the switchbacks well enough to persuade us that this particular person could be both. (Streisand, with far more movie acting experience, would have had less trouble meshing the two incompatible sides of this character into a coherent whole.)

The Bodyguard is also not helped by a convoluted plot that at times utterly defies sense — we’re supposed to believe that Academy Award-nominated singer-actress Rachel “Rach” Marron (Houston) is receiving death threats carefully compiled by a deranged fan out of words clipped from newspapers (sufficiently well done that he leaves no trace of fingerprints or forensic evidence of any kind; there’s an extreme closeup of him piecing together one of these missives with an X-Acto knife, a product placement the X-Acto company would probably just as soon have done without) and, in a totally unrelated development, her sister Nicki (Michele Lamar Richards, who looks younger than Houston even though the script describes her as older), jealous of her success, has hired a hit man to knock her off — or by Jackson’s direction and the editing by Donn Cambern and Richard A. Harris, which at times is so confusing that during the big action sequences it’s often virtually impossible to tell what is supposed to be going on or who is doing what to whom. The film lurches to its dramatic climax at the Academy Awards ceremony, where the killer — who, in a plot twist we get about three reels before the characters do, is Greg Portman (Tomas Arana), a fellow ex-Secret Service agent and former best friend of Frank Farmer (Costner) — intends to assassinate the heroine in front of a TV audience approaching one billion. As Jackson futzes around with this sequence and gives us his usual Cuisinart editing style one can only think — regretfully — of what Alfred Hitchcock could have done with the situation of a killer intending to murder a celebrity in the middle of the Academy Awards.

What’s even more inexplicable about the way this film was directed is that, though the female star is a major hit-making pop singer who did the movie at the height of her vocal career, at no time during the movie does Jackson allow us to see and hear Whitney Houston sing an entire song, start to finish. Indeed, it’s not until she performs “I Will Always Love You” on her leave-taking from Costner at the end that we even get to hear her sing an entire song (no wonder this piece, actually a cover of a country hit by Dolly Parton, became the big hit from this film). And those expecting a steamy romance between the two leads were also disappointed; they make it to bed together exactly once — and it’s the result of a peremptory order from Rachel, who in a stroke worthy of an Ayn Rand character essentially commands Frank to take her out (where on their way to his place they stop in at a country bar and hear a male — ex-X-man John Doe — sing “I Will Always Love You,” thereby planting it as “their song”) and ultimately fuck her, following which there’s a major chill in their relationship as it’s broken his macho “code” to have sex with a client. (At least the film is refreshingly nonchalant about the interracial aspect of the coupling — though one quirk of American racism is that a Black woman and a white man seems far less intimidating than the other way around.)

It would be unfair to describe The Bodyguard as a movie in which nothing works right, but it’s so numbingly synthetic, one of those movies that has clearly taken its inspiration from other movies rather than from anything resembling real life, and misses out on so many of the opportunities its basic theme would seem to present, that it’s really a mediocre, forgettable film whose only distinction was that it gave Whitney Houston a hit record (and Dolly Parton the frustration usually felt in the 1950’s in the other racial direction — seeing someone else grab her song and become identified with it). — 11/13/05