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Whitney Houston’s Legacy of Breaking Down Barriers in the Entertainment Industry

on June 11, 2020, 5:00pm

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“After the second album [Whitney], I started thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll do a movie someday,'” Whitney Houston told MTV in 1992 when asked how she had first caught the acting bug. It had taken nearly five years after that initial notion for the R&B and pop superstar to take on the big screen in The Bodyguard alongside Hollywood everyman Kevin Costner. In that time, she was rumored to have turned down working with Robert De Niro, Quincy Jones, and even Spike Lee. Houston could afford to be patient, though. It’s not as though the young diva needed Hollywood. Her first three albums had sold more than 50 million copies around the globe, she had broken down genre barriers between R&B and pop music, and all agreed that she was the greatest singing talent to have emerged since Aretha Franklin. As it turned out, however, the untrained, novice actress would be exactly what Hollywood needed.


While critics almost uniformly panned The Bodyguard, the movie-going public fell in love with the film. Costner, one of the biggest stars in the world at the time, called it a “perfect date movie,” the kind of option that he liked to see in the paper on a Friday when looking to go out to a movie. As it turned out, more than just couples came out to see Costner’s all-American appeal on screen alongside the world’s most popular singer in her first-ever role outside of music videos. The movie went on to gross $411 million worldwide ($751 million in 2020 dollars), which was enough to secure its place as the second-highest-grossing film of 1992 (trailing only Disney’s Aladdin). At the time, The Bodyguard could also be counted among the 10 biggest box-office hits of all time. Clearly, something about the movie had caught the world’s attention.

Then, of course, there’s the music. It’s one thing to be asked to contribute to a soundtrack. That’s not what Houston did here, though. As co-executive producer of The Bodyguard’s soundtrack, she recorded six songs to use in the film. More importantly, she was creating something integral to Rachel Marron’s character as a star singer: hit songs. Throughout the film, the audience hears and watches Marron performing the songs that have made her a sensation. To make both her character and the film believable, Houston needed to provide Marron with a back catalog worthy of a superstar. That wouldn’t be a problem. Houston’s contributions would lead to three top-five singles, a slew of chart/sales records too long to list here, three Grammy awards (including Album of the Year), and more than 45 million copies sold worldwide, making it the best-selling movie soundtrack ever. Those contributions also included what would become Houston’s signature performance: her indelible cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”.

It would be accurate praise to say that Houston helped turn The Bodyguard into one of the most successful films and original soundtracks of all time. It would also be no mean compliment to say that her music largely carried the film, that her performance established her as a capable actress in Hollywood, and that “I Will Always Love You” became a classic of the American songbook in her hands. All of this is well and good, but it neglects what Houston’s work on the film meant not only to her own career but in terms of breaking down barriers in Hollywood, particularly for black actresses and producers. Just as her success as an R&B and pop star had secured more airtime for black artists, especially women, on MTV, Houston’s success with The Bodyguard would also pave the way for others to follow in the film industry.

Like any pioneer, Houston’s path was rife with obstacles. Despite the fact that screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark) had originally written the script with white actor Steve McQueen and black singer Diana Ross of Supremes fame in mind as the leads — not to mention the film had been about to start production in 1978 with white actor Ryan O’Neal in the bodyguard role before Ross opted to leave the project — Warner Bros. was still extremely uneasy about having an interracial couple appear on screen in the early ’90s. Even though Costner, a co-producer on the film, had handpicked Houston for the role, she was still put through a rigorous screen-test process and even had to teach the crew, not used to working with black actresses, how to light her properly. There have also been rumors that certain love scenes were cut and early promotional materials remained ambiguous about casting, all due to the fear that audiences would find the interracial couple taboo. Moviegoers soon proved that they didn’t care, and one of the great achievements of the film is that we think of the two main characters, Frank Farmer and Rachel Marron, as bodyguard and singer and eventually lovers but never as white and black.

As The Bodyguard stole hearts around the world and its soundtrack permeated global airwaves, Houston gained power in Hollywood. Her next major project became 1995’s Waiting to Exhale, a black ensemble comedy and romance about sisterhood that could only get greenlit once Houston agreed to play one of the film’s main friends. The Forest Whitaker-directed film starring talents like Angela Bassett and Gregory Hines alongside Houston went on to become a generational favorite and a prelude to more movies featuring primarily black casts.

As she had for The Bodyguard, Houston also contributed original music for Waiting to Exhale, appearing on three songs (including No. 1 hit “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)”) on a soundtrack produced by Babyface and featuring a who’s who of black female artists, including Aretha Franklin, Mary J. Blige, and a young Brandy among others. The soundtrack went platinum seven times over on the strength of Houston’s lead. The overall success of the project sent a significant message to the entertainment industry that movies and music produced by and starring black talent could appeal to mainstream audiences.

Naturally, Houston wasn’t one to squander these new levels of success. The following year, she would star alongside Denzel Washington in Penny Marshall’s The Preacher’s Wife, another black ensemble film that saw the return of many of her Waiting to Exhale co-stars. While the movie didn’t make quite the same cultural impact as The Bodyguard or Waiting to Exhale, the gospel-oriented soundtrack, starring and co-executive produced by Houston, went on to sell six million copies and earn multiple Grammy nominations. It’s still the highest-selling gospel album of all time.

Perhaps, more importantly, Houston had been paid $10 million to star in The Preacher’s Wife, a landmark fee for an African American actress that opened doors for other successful actresses, both black and white, to start earning more like their male counterparts. Houston would use that clout the following year to executive-produce and co-star as the Fairy Godmother in a television remake of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella alongside Brandy and a refreshingly diverse cast of name actors and actresses. The production would receive several Emmy nods and earn ABC its highest ratings in nearly two decades as 60 million viewers tuned in.

Fans of Whitney Houston can point to a number of defining moments in the late diva’s career; however, maybe it’s most fitting that one of her last great roles was as a fairy godmother. Thanks to her talent, determination, and success at a time when black women were rarely seen as leading ladies or producers, an entire generation of black and female artists have been granted new opportunities and possibilities. It’s a legacy that will never turn back into a pumpkin.

 

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