The Paranoid Prescience of The Bodyguard

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In the moment, the 1992 romantic thriller was Whitney Houston’s movie star moment. Looking back, the film seems to glimpse the all-access future of fame and the rise of surveillance culture. 

Graphic by Drew Litowitz, photo by Fotos International/Getty Images

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 teen 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.

 

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