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In this ongoing series, we revisit some of our favorite music movies—from artist docs and concert films to biopics and fictional music flicks—that are available to stream or rent. Our selections this month will focus on musician-actors finding their perfect roles.
It seemed an odd choice that Whitney Houston’s face, that face, was obscured in the key art for her acting debut. By the time of The Bodyguard’s release in late 1992, Houston’s was a face millions of people around the world could easily call up. If they hadn’t glimpsed her as a young model, they may have seen her narrowed gaze on the cover of her eponymous 1985 album, her electric smile in the hit video for “How Will I Know,” and her sky-scraping cheekbones all over award shows like the Grammys. They had very likely watched her emote at the Super Bowl in 1991, when she reinvented the national anthem and sent it to the summit of the charts for the first and only time.
Yet on the film’s poster, Houston is all body, head buried into the neck of co-star Kevin Costner. The action shot appropriately evokes the mood of The Bodyguard; Costner carries her like a fireman rescuing a kitten from a burning building. It’s how his character, the stone-faced security expert Frank Farmer, relates to hers, the vulnerable pop star Rachel Marron. But Houston’s absence was conspicuous. According to one persistent rumor, studio executives ordered her face concealed; they feared the prospect of unleashing a high-profile interracial romance onto an America that wasn’t ready for it.
Anyway, Costner recently revealed that the shot featured a body double. It turns out just the hint of Houston was enough. While The Bodyguard was widely panned by critics, and Houston and Costner were both nominated for Golden Razzies, the movie was a massive hit at the box office, grossing over $400 million globally and outpacing even the studio’s expectations. Its record-breaking soundtrack, led by Houston’s career-defining cover of “I Will Always Love You,” elevated her from pop idol to undeniable diva.
Decades on, the film still embodies a strange liminal status, somewhere between cringe and iconic. It’s saddled by awkward writing, jumpy editing, and a melodramatic tone that at times makes it feel more like a horror movie than a romantic thriller. Unbeknownst to her, Rachel is the target of a crazed stalker. Concerned for her safety, her manager convinces Frank to sign on to protect her. As an unlikely romance develops between the pair, Frank discovers, and thwarts, a second threat: someone close to Rachel has hired a hitman to make assassination attempt after assassination attempt until she is dead. It’s a plot that relies on outdated gender tropes while ignoring the racial dynamic the public was clearly attuned to at this time. Had we ever seen a Black woman in need of protection? Had such protection ever come in the form of a man like Frank Farmer, an extension of the state? The filmmakers (director Mick Jackson and writer Lawrence Kasdan) did not seem to care.
But for its obvious flaws, The Bodyguard is incredibly compelling in its prediction of some of the pressing cultural norms and social anxieties that would shape the 1990s and beyond, from the onscreen evolution of the pop star figure, to the tension of a celebrity-first media culture, and the rise of surveillance paranoia. In this current era of cash-grab reboots, it’s almost surprising that a contemporary version starring, say, Rihanna and Henry Golding isn’t already in the works.
Houston, who was advised against taking acting classes for the role, is bewitching as Rachel Marron. Her performance is built on emotion she wrests out of her eyes, transforming her face from coy in a scene with romantic tension to horrified when she learns the extent of the plot against her. Houston explained that she brought her own intuition and experience to the character, transforming her from the script’s original steely hard-ass to a warmer version. She excavates both the insecurities and playfulness within Rachel, in contrast to the well-armored star that most of the world sees (one of her most notable stage costumes could be described as King Arthur couture). It’s an entirely believable performance; one can imagine Houston, too, switching between her public and private selves.
In a slightly meta twist, the role imagines Houston’s future as both a singer and an actor. With The Bodyguard, she helped to cement, maybe even demand, in the public imagination the possibility of a pop star who found a footing across industries, joining the likes of Barbra Streisand, Cher, and Diana Ross. Unlike Ross, whose acting career began and ended with all-Black films produced within the Motown universe (and who almost played Rachel when The Bodyguard was first shopped in the ’70s), Houston emerged out of a new generation, one in which evolving media formats and cultural trends meant the possibility of a large, multicultural audience. Soon, it would become almost an expectation that a rising singer would bank movie or TV roles and soundtrack singles, maximizing potential earnings and visibility.
Today, that visibility extends well beyond the star herself. The man who guards Beyoncé, for instance, is famous enough to have a minor following of his own. Off the top of my head, I know that Julius de Boer is Dutch, a longtime professional security expert, and that he is inordinately good at his job. In recent years, he has protected Beyoncé in parking lots, on stages, and in the sea, earning her loyalty and the Hive’s respect. There are other recognizable bodyguards, too: Beliebers know Kenny Hamilton, Chubbs is always at Drake’s side, and Kylie Jenner’s “hot bodyguard” regularly made headlines. This is an obvious side effect of changes in media and technology: whoever is with you gets photographed. Whoever wants to can see that.
That wasn’t quite yet the case when The Bodyguard was made. There had been some infamous security apparatuses—from Jackie O’s secret service detail to the all-women team that protected the late Muammar Gaddafi—but until recently, the most effective bodyguards were largely anonymous. So were the inner workings of the celebrity machine. Entourages may have figured into gossip rags, but much was obscured from public view. The Bodyguard cut through that veil, centering the dynamics of Rachel’s team to build skepticism about the entire enterprise. Her manager, publicist, sister-turned-personal assistant, and driver figure prominently in her day-to-day, each portrayed as having a controlling stake in her life and career. (Her publicist, a weaselly man named Sy, is the most cynical of the bunch, prioritizing career gains over his client’s safety.) That Rachel is in enough danger to even need her security arrangements overhauled is withheld from her until Frank’s arrival.
By 1992, celebrity culture had run riot, and The Bodyguard exposes it as a farce; not ironically, much of Frank’s internal motivation comes from a failure to have prevented an assassination attempt on a previous charge, President Reagan, himself an emblem of sorts for the dangers of fame. One of the film’s most effective devices is the way the camera stalks Rachel, evoking a creeping paranoia. That she is constantly surveilled, by known and unknown entities, is part of the terror she must live with, and which Frank wishes to shield her from.
But watching in 2021, from a society where we’re conscripted to facilitate our own surveillance and the line between public and private is more of an ellipsis, what once felt hokey, maybe even fabulist, in The Bodyguard hits different. Park yourself in the Twitter mentions or Instagram DMs of any woman with a sliver of visibility and you are bound to encounter the kind of gendered menaces and anonymous threats that necessitated for Rachel the protection of a bodyguard. Which is perhaps why The Bodyguard’s ultimate lesson, clunky as it is, is almost comforting: the real danger wasn’t a crazed stranger lurking in the bushes. It was coming from inside the house all along.
$4.00, Amazon (Rental)
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork