Episode 92: The Bodyguard (1992)

Film chosen and introduced by Matt

I’ve watched The Bodyguard perhaps as many times as Frank Farmer’s watched Yojimbo. Alright, maybe not that much. But I’ve seen it a lot… I’ve seen it a lot. Due to that, this was an effortless first encounter to trace, as I have pristine memories of the summer surrounding my initial viewing back in August of ’93. To explain, my cool expat bachelor uncle—wearer of Natural Born Killers and controversial Janet Jackson tees, and purchaser of my first (and last) air rifle, was an ankle-holstered, triad-battling (with confirmed kills, I believe), detective inspector in the Hong Kong police force and we visited fairly often for family holidays. We stayed at his Kowloon apartment, close to Kai Tak Airport (famously used on UK Saturday night telly’s The Krypton Factor as their go-to flight simulator strip for landing aircraft) where the descending planes flew so close overhead, it felt like we had to duck to avoid them.

Hong Kong held many key cinematic memories for me over the years. August of 1988 was the month my dad, and a 6-year-old me, were glued, beginning to end, to Steven Spielberg’s Duel, in the Cantonese restaurant of a country club, on a little portable telly, while my sloshed family and their friends sang karaoke in the next room.

“If something scared him, he’d just keep doing it until the fear went away.”

Herb Farmer, The Bodyguard

Our first family holiday to Hong Kong was soundtracked almost entirely by Whitney Houston’s 1987 album, Whitney, featuring the track, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me),” and countless other smash singles. My mum bought it as soon as we returned to the UK, and subsequently looped it constantly in the car every single day. I knew it backwards and forwards.

This neatly foreshadowed our ’93 trip, where as a twelve-year-old, I had got hold of a luminous water pistol with a removable, detachable clip, and I’d Frank Farmer my way around my uncle’s house, shoulder pressed to the wall, mimicking my favourite film actor. Kevin Costner was firmly in my consciousness following Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and I even had a magazine pull-out poster of Kev in Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World Blu Tacked on my bedroom wall before even seeing the film—the image of the shade-wearing, paternal Costner and the kid beside him was enough.

It was one of the happiest times in my life—pre-adolescent growth spurts and prior to spots, never-ending summer games of heads and volleys, the commencement of Year 7 at secondary school, but with no real homework or weighty academic pressures to speak of, school disco slow dances, and a prolific era with the “ladies”—we were all only twelve, but writing postcards to my many “girlfriends” (friends who were girls) was clearly a priority back in ’93—in fact, one of my school friends, Zoë, kindly sent me a picture of her Hong Kong postcard recently, which she’d sweetly kept all these years. You’ll be relieved to know, I have since learned to spell “restaurants” correctly and am less excited about watching True Lies.

In ’95, Hong Kong memorably subjected us to the coldest cinema ever created, for a showing of Casper, where my nana was so frozen under the air con, we had to wrap her in a shawl. But it’s still our August ’93 summer holiday that remains my favourite, with landmark life bookmarks such as being snuck my first taste of a Jack and Coke (“this Coke’s gone bad”), visiting the incredible water park, Water World (not that one, Kev), ordering chips with ketchup and necking endless Shirley Temples by the pool, seeing my mum wheeled around an underground car park in a shopping trolley by a mad, sozzled Australian man like a deleted scene from Jackass, nighttime showings of Timecop, True Lies, The Good Son, and The River Wild were dotted throughout, and the bragging rights of seeing certain films before they were even in cinemas back in the UK—as back then, Hong Kong was on the same schedule as the States in terms of theatrical releases and video rentals. I suspect that’s why TRUE LIES! was written in all caps, and has an exclamation mark after it in my postcard to Zoë.

Alongside buying nudie lady pens for the lads at school, and paper hand fans for the lasses, and between my taste-of-home video marathons of ‘Allo ‘Allo! and Only Fools and Horses under the air con, my uncle would take me to the local convenience store, where I’d load up on gallons of Schweppes cream soda, Milka Alpine Milk bars (for the fridge—a sense-memory technique I still practice to this day to combat the chocolate-melting Korean summers and remind me of those happy days gone by), and most exciting of all, with his approval, I’d shoulder the responsibility of picking a VHS rental or three to keep us all (my parents and grandparents) entertained at night (my 3-year-old sister was wisely tucked up in bed away from the explosions and violence). Whether it was Lethal Weapon 3, Blown Away, or In the Line of Fire, we’d screen my selected movie that evening as a family on his living room telly. Although I’m sure everyone was humouring me, it was my first crack at film curation, but I really only had two selfish criteria—do I want to see this, and can I get away with picking it up, or coyly pointing it out on the unreachable top shelf?

The Bodyguard‘s cruder lines like, “Someone broke in and masturbated on the bed” and, “But I can’t fuck you,” surely sailed over my head back then, but the overall impact of the story and film remained. In fact, I have a theory that I was somehow cunningly distracted at key adult moments in these movies by a vigilant guardian during scenes such as Miss July ’89, Erika Eleniak’s eye-popping topless cake dance in Under Siege, as I have absolutely no recollection of witnessing them—I mean, that, or feeling painfully embarrassed in front of the entire family, and something tells me I wouldn’t forget seeing them—I mean, it. Bodyguard baddie, Portman’s head (and TV camera) exploding wildly on the other hand, remains as vivid as can be.

“Tuesday morning brunch? Where’d you get this guy, Bill?”

Sy Spector, The Bodyguard

Pipped to the top spot of the US box office by Disney’s Aladdin, The Bodyguard raked in $411 million worldwide, opening to mixed reviews, and sold 45 million copies of its smash hit soundtrack, which also snagged three Grammys, and still rules supreme as the best-selling movie soundtrack of all time. In spite of being rejected by studios 67 times in just two years, The Bodyguard was, in fact, Lawrence Kasdan’s (The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Body Heat) first “really good” screenplay—even if he says so himself, and was inspired by an idea to reimagine Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 samurai film, Yojimbo (Bodyguard) with Toshirô Mifune, and cast Steve McQueen as the lead—a visual cue that eventually led to Costner’s shortly cropped hairdo, which became one of the more shallow yet revealing topics of controversy in 1992, in the sense that the public would fuss so much over a Hollywood actor cutting his hair for a role.

For the unproduced, seventies incarnation of The Bodyguard, soul songstress, Diana Ross, and unstoppable lothario, Ryan O’Neal, were set to feature as the pop starlet and her protector, however, following a real-life love-in between the leads, the project fell by the wayside. After meeting and discussing the seemingly lost film on the set of Kasdan’s sophomore effort and Big Chill follow up, Silverado, Costner showed keen interest in playing the titular character, and as his star rose to prominence in Hollywood, Kasdan reignited the embers of The Bodyguard with Costner’s clout ensuring an immediate green light. His 1987-’91 run of movies, from The Untouchables to JFK, had solidified him as the leading man to beat, branching out with the multiple Academy Award-winning Dances with Wolves (including best director), and popcorn-blockbusting his way to MTV Movie Award stardom with Rewind fave, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. By ’92, Kev was calling the shots. The Bodyguard is really Costner’s project. He revived it from development hell, it was his bright idea to cast Houston, and insisted they wait the three years necessary to secure her in the role, he cast the director, and he, for all intents and purposes, cast himself. The biggest movie star, and the biggest music star were to be united.

“You can be as you choose to be.”

Frank Farmer, The Bodyguard

In Hong Kong, I stealthily moved around the house, toy gun in hand, with my back to the wall like Farmer, I still use his reply, “I’m fine, how about yourself?” far more often than I need to, I quoted Frank’s father’s line about his son handling fear to my first girlfriend, in a vain attempt to appear cool, and I used to drink vodka and orange juice like him (although in more conservative measures). These were my idiosyncratic reference points. As a man—especially a young man, to calibrate your masculinity, and pitch it just right, can be a minefield. When I think of masculinity, I often refer back to Steve McQueen and Paul Newman as the mainstays—the mentors. As a boy, Harrison Ford and Kevin Costner seemed like the modern equivalent (to a degree) screen examples of modern masculinity, and I often imagined, what would these guys do in this situation?

I looked up to Costner in his roles. The stoicism, cool detachment, and brute bursts of physical threat made him a rival to my go-to action lead, Harrison Ford. Factoring in Robin Hood’s selfless fight for good, there may have been more humanity to Costner than his ’70s counterparts, but it’s hard to simultaneously be insouciant and emotive. The critiques aimed at him were, I think, largely unfair, because to me, he was attempting something demanding—to deepen his male characters, humanise the McQueens of the past, and engage ’90s audiences with more heart—often his stoicism was misread as dead-eyed and drab. He was doing detached, but adding a layer of internal conflict. As this is less operatic than an all-out dramatic leap, it failed to register with so many. It was subtle, but I always saw it. It registered with me in The Bodyguard. I saw it in Prince of Thieves, I saw it in the poster for A Perfect World—I even saw it in Waterworld.

What saved Kev from falling into the one-note acting trap of certain doom here, at least for me—at least as a kid, was the waveform pattern of Frank Farmer. There is a fluctuation to his performance, demeanor, and volume (as simplistic as that sounds), certainly lacking in Waterworld, and in spite of being a terrific movie, one could argue, Robin Hood also. But every now and then, Costner reveals that other colour—a blunt moment of anger. His “Save it, Devaney!” and “I didn’t tell you to fuck everyone in the hotel!” outbursts are enough to periodically counter and compliment his strong silences, and pensive pauses.

There was, of course, in Costner’s mind, only one woman who could portray Rachel Marron—Whitney Houston. Singing counterparts such as Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl, The Way We Were, What’s Up, Doc?), Cher (Moonstruck, Mermaids, The Witches of Eastwick), Debbie Harry (Videodrome, Hairspray, New York Stories), and Madonna (Dick Tracy, A League of Their Own, and in both the following year’s titillating turkey, Body of Evidence, and Abel Ferrara’s Dangerous Game) had already paved the way and diversified their careers by adding lead actress to their list of accolades—but in ’92, a frosty encounter with Kev, during Madge’s revealing docu, Madonna: Truth or Dare, ruled her out of any casting meetings. It was instead, Ms Houston’s chance to shine on the silver screen.

“I’m here to keep you alive, not help you shop.”

Frank Farmer, The Bodyguard

We discussed the nature of morbid fascination in light of actors’ passings in more depth on our Rewind episodes for both The Misfits, and The Crow, but this recent viewing was my first Bodyguard revisit since Houston’s death at just 48, which similarly colours the film quite darkly in retrospect. Whitney looks radiant, sings like a bird, and as a debut performance, it’s strong—with the qualifier that she’s not a thespian; merely a singer trying to crack a new market. What helps, albeit in a fairly morbid manner, is that The Bodyguard exudes melancholy throughout, now we’re aware of Houston’s approaching fate with personal demons, big drugs, and bad Bobby Brown.

Whitney has this uncanny ability to hit a note flawlessly, and after a few seconds of holding, it dissipates into an indescribable vibrato—we can hear it clearly and most famously here on stage, whilst performing her final, monumental, (Costner-requested) a cappella rendition of Dolly Parton’s sad country ballad, “I Will Always Love You.” As powerful as it is delicate; it’s not just an incredible voice—the intricacy and detail of her delivery and enunciation are technically perfect, but also expressive. She’s untouchable in that no one else sings quite like her. Yeah, Mariah had a fair crack at it with her own glass-smashing, supersonic falsetto—but Whitney‘s calculated, yet innate singing style was so unique. It was clearly a natural gift she’s managed to hone and perfect.

Her casting is the master stroke of The Bodyguard. I’m unsure anyone else could’ve played Rachel even half-decently. For a film debut, it’s fine but flawed. The fact she’s portraying a pampered diva pop princess-turned actress certainly helps matters. Real-life death threats, kooky fans camped out at her concerts, pop star problems, should I cancel the gig, etc. It was all worryingly meta, and as a result, there’s a lot of Whitney Houston in Rachel Marron. Mick Jackson was shrewd in his direction, in that he forbade her from attending any acting lessons, and urged Houston to approach every scene like her musical performances—to identify the underlying emotion, and articulate it.

In The Bodyguard, it’s hardly love at first sight between Frank and Rachel, but they do share a moment. She sees he’s not just some buff lunkhead; some big goon—he’s a potential partner. Rachel immediately challenges his masculinity with her,”I don’t know, maybe a tough guy?” dismissal of his physical appearance, but he smartly replies, “This is my disguise.” I like his drawl; his laconic, almost-Buddhist lack of engagement—no ties, no long term commitments, and zero effort to impress. He doesn’t need to impress anyone in that room with boastful comebacks. The problem arises when he fails to impress audiences. So when Frank parcels out quips and pleasantries to Rachel, Fletcher, and “the cocky black chauffeur,” it is charming, but perhaps unavoidably, some filmgoers find Costner cold, and understated to the degree of being dull—a humbling flip-side to his “zero fucks given” approach to many of his characters.

How often is a pop culture icon immortalised flawlessly on screen? I’m thinking James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause or Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot levels of iconography. For me, Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard is, at the very least, in that same conversation—maybe even approaching that league. She’s 29 here, and arguably the best she ever looked. For all the imperfections in performance; all the lack of experience as an actress, The Bodyguard serves as a record of her talent, beauty, and spirit. How important it must be, for everyone who loved her, to retain an everlasting document of that person. Who else could have played it back then? Who could play it now? That question alone makes The Bodyguard a worthy revisit. “So why don’t you go back there and keep watching?”

“This guy knows nothing about showbusiness.”

Sy Spector, The Bodyguard

Given the lack of discussion around the film beyond its dual stars, we can assume no one’s writing home about its technical prowess. However, from the cold, almost silent, classy opening, with Farmer’s, “Stay down” line, and a slow-paced, craned back oner, Mick Jackson sold me hook, line, and sinker on The Bodyguard. It’s a bold start, filled with intrigue, and boasts a darkness absent from typical romantic dramas.

Jackson skillfully employs a vital creedo, that whatever a character is up to when we first meet them should reveal something about themselves. This is key in effective, coherent filmmaking—Fletcher’s sailing his remote controlled boat around the swimming pool, and it ever so subtly and subconsciously, plants future imagery in the mind of the audience. So when his curiosity gets the better of him later on, and he attempts to take the boat out onto the lake alone, we are somehow more accepting of the act, as the film has visually foreshadowed the character’s fate. I also always appreciate films that cut when they want to—not when they need to. It proves proficiency, structure, and forethought through economy of camera coverage and editing. Jackson cleanly bookends The Bodyguard with two of these measured, confident shots.

Does Costner have sexual charisma? Does he have any charisma at all? Is she even attracted to him initially? It sure seems so in that silent swap of looks, but where’s the real romantic meet cute? It’s absent here. A flirtatious, teasing, verbal tussle fizzles quickly and switches to an authoritarian stance where Rachel lays down the law. For me, Whitney does enough to compensate. In Prince of Thieves, Mary Elisabeth Mastrantonio was very PG. Costner was cheeky and handsome as Robin, but never overtly sexual. Here he’s dark, brooding, and intense as “fierce Frank,” and terrified of just one thing—not being there. Farmer’s professionalism and initial standoffishness is the role. I don’t want a smoldering performance in that scene. His mind is on the job and nothing else. Who knows, perhaps his absence of starstruck sycophancy is what actually attracts Rachel to Frank.

A deleted scene (unless you’ve watched the US TV version) featuring Farmer silently and sympathetically removing Rachel’s boots, stockings, and Cleopatra meets Metropolis robo-corset, after her ill-fated “Queen of the Night” club appearance, offers a mere glimpse of what could have been in terms of sensuality. It unfolds so subtly. It’s not an on the nose romance at this point. They each have to drop their facades to connect, and this scene is the earliest instance of that. She’s almost catatonic—drained of all her usual bravado. This sensuous, but caring and considerate moment holds so much tension, I wondered if excising it could’ve been a real mistake. It’s completely wordless; entirely visual, lasts almost 2½ minutes, and, if reinstated, would maybe rank among my favourite scenes. No words, just actions. The potential for a sex scene is there, but Frank would never capitalize on a moment like that, when Rachel is so traumatized, in spite of there clearly being a moment of electricity between them.

This scene could have been one of the most iconic in the movie, yet only the television audience were privy to it. It adds another dimension; another window into their relationship. It shows her burgeoning, implicit trust of him. She’s totally traumatized, but doesn’t stop Frank from undressing her. It’s only when he starts to remove her top where their eyes meet and address the moment, but in spite of the overt chemistry, he has nothing but protective, gentlemanly intentions. The care and attention in which he undresses Rachel runs parallel to the methodical way he approaches his job, and it highlights how it would be so easy for someone to fall in love with their bodyguard; the person protecting them from any outward threat, yet through that professionalism, denies themselves the pleasures of love. Rachel knows, especially after Frank’s hardly inconspicuous “Run to You” MTV session, that he’s interested. She knows she can seduce him, but she also appreciates that he won’t make a move on her. In fact, he will kick back against any feelings he has in order to protect her, and there’s a rare purity in that, which she values. It also makes much more sense that Rachel would make a move on Frank the following day. It’s a logical progression lacking in the theatrical cut. The way she shyly asks him on a date, and stumbles over her words is due more to her embarrassed acceptance of their shared moment the night before.

So what happened to the fabled, suspiciously absent Costner-Houston roll in the hay? Was it ever shot? Could it have been surreptitiously excised the way Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts’ screen tryst was a year later? Was it sadly a case of the central romance being a political hot potato, even as late as ’92? Did they bottle it? Was race a factor? Was this Bobby Brown putting his “possessive,” “jealous,” spousal foot down? Yes, Rachel’s got her midriff out. She flirts with him and asks him out, and her bedroom eyes and, “Do you want me to beg?” shtick goes a long way in the moment, but there’s nothing even approaching nudity. That’s about as much as we get. I can only picture the faces on these prudes when they heard what Sharon Stone was up to over at TriStar. This was, of course, 1992—the year Hollywood sex scenes went full frontal with Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct. An easier explanation is that Houston flat out refused any nudity. However, other reports stated she called the scenes that were shot, and ultimately removed, “tasteful,” and yet another disclosed that she used a body double for them all anyway, so it remains a mystery.

Look how the virtually unrelated BBC TV show, Bodyguard, dealt with love scenes. Keeley Hawes and Richard Madden’s bedroom shenanigans ranged from prolonged, blurry, out of focus, abstract kissing, to full on, blunt but underwhelming intercourse, and was described as cliched, tasteless, mechanical, and distracting. Perhaps it’s best unseen after all. If The Bodyguard had explicit scenes like this, perhaps it would have been ridiculed like Body of Evidence, as opposed to just dismissed as a somewhat middling and mediocre romantic drama. Do we want to witness how Rachel’s lingerie got wrapped around the samurai sword? The logistics of that particular manoeuvre could be dangerous, humorous, or alternatively, elicit Showgirls levels of cringe. Is it another case of being careful what we wish for? This isn’t a movie anchored around a handful of nude scenes, using filler to pad out the remaining runtime. If a love scene doesn’t further the story or tell us more about the characters, then it’s superfluous, and likely gratuitous. Having said that, I’m still torn. A Tony Scott-esque, silhouetted, blue-hued moonlight rendezvous writes itself, surely? Just picture it. It’s a no-brainer, and potentially an all-time iconic movie sex scene.

There’s an argument the sizzling chemistry—by some vague accounts anyway, bothered studio executive suits, and both interestingly and allegedly, Whitney’s bad boy beau, new jack swing pioneer, Bobby Brown, who were concerned about the interracial aspects of the love story impacting the commercial prospects of the movie, and the explicit intimacy of his wife with another powerful male star respectively. There’s also a tabloid conspiracy case, fuelled partly by Costner’s heartfelt eulogy, that perhaps the two leads did get together in real life, and the filmmakers, led by Kev, were masking that forbidden tryst by cutting any overt steaminess, or explicit nudity out, and locking it away in a Warner Brothers vault so forbidden, that even the 30th anniversary of The Bodyguard couldn’t break it out. Again, this is all speculation, but why would Costner cut scenes because they were “passionate?” Is that not the entire point?

“I spent a lot of time learning not to react to things like other people do, it’s my job. It doesn’t always work.”

Frank Farmer, The Bodyguard

By many accounts, the makers of The Bodyguard were, at the very least, concerned about the interracial aspects of the love story, and its impact on the salability, public acceptance, and overall commercial clout of the movie. Even Costner let one slip with his, “Risks aside, we went with Whitney” quote, so there was evidently a controversy factor behind the scenes, and in the media coverage at the time. The online Bobbie Wygant interview archive is exhaustive, and it seems every podcast we record; every film I research, she’s got a chat with the director or stars on YouTube. I’ve begun to despise this phony old crone. She’s so haughty and conceited—tarted up in sequins and earrings, spewing provocative, passive-aggressive leading questions Whitney’s way, like, “How do you think African American men will feel about it?” referring to the interracial romance, and “Did your husband, Bobby Brown, want you to do the film?”

Whitney can be entertainment for these hypocrites, but she’s somehow unworthy of playing the object of Kevin Costner‘s desire. It reminded me of a scene from the Louis and the Nazis documentary, where the unapologetic racists’ record collections were jam-packed with people of colour, whilst they simultaneously spew abhorrent beliefs surrounding all non-whites. The lack of a love scene in The Bodyguard somehow highlights the underlying, unspoken prejudice in Hollywood that was shockingly still prevalent in the nineties, and I’m sure reverberates throughout the acting world and beyond to this day.

“When your time’s up, it’s up. Right, Frank?”

Rachel Marron, The Bodyguard

I’m hesitant to build The Bodyguard up any more than I already have, as it’s more often than not, brushed off as a throwaway—even by its own filmmakers as, “A movie you take your sweetheart to, and make out a little bit.” To me, it’s worth a little more than that. Farmer‘s ability to remain level-headed and professional (except when he’s lashing out and double-handed ear-clapping Hispanic blokes in kitchens) serves as a close to the bone metaphor for the protective, occasionally overbearing nature of a man in love. Yes, it’s just a romantic drama, and heightened to the point of daftness at times, but it’s also a solid suspense thriller with looming, ominous moments, tied inherently to themes of jealousy, envy, protection, and revenge.

It’s a peculiar premise, in the sense that our couple presumably—even evidently, with Frank’s closing scene depicting his continued work in the profession, go their separate ways. It’s not to be, and they’re old enough, and experienced enough to know that. They have no choice but to accept it. “I Will Always Love You” expresses that exact sentiment, too. You’re in love, but it’s not the right relationship—you know it, and she knows it, too. They’re too different. They’re from different worlds. It burns out, and the 360-degree screen kiss we witness at the conclusion is the pinnacle of their doomed romance. As Sandra Bullock wisely taught us in Speed, “Relationships that start under intense circumstances never last,” and by Speed 2: Cruise Control, her character of Annie had ditched Keanu for Jason Patric, so the saying is obviously, unequivocally true. This is a forbidden love story, and that fleeting, shooting star is what makes Costner and Houston’s shared screen-time in The Bodyguard so special.

luv RID! 😉

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