The Media Zone

How the media make sense and nonsense of the world.

Whitney Houston: The Song, the Movie, the Death

Drugs are a chemical vampire; you party, then they kill you.

I cry easily when I watch films. Hell, I cried at the dramas laid out in sentimental, 30-second commercials about parents, children, love.  Remember AT&T's reach out commercials and Kodak "moments"? You name it, I cried — except at ones depicting parents giving kids McDonalds or KFC, as if fast food equals parental love. I do draw the line at dumb love!

whitney bodyguard
It was no surprise then that I wept unabashed tears during Jennifer Hudson's hastily rehearsed Grammy tribute rendition of Whitney Houston's I Will Always Love You; or that I reprised the tears when Glee's Mercedes (Amber Riley) belted out a beautiful tribute version of the song, which was, coincidentally planned and taped before Whitney's death. At Houston's funeral when, at the closing and while guests proceeded out of the church, I caved again. The song guided the tear-stained mourners to their destinations and the TV audiences to their reflections on the woman, her triumphs, her talents, her struggles, and her death.

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There's a curious history there for me, though, when it comes to this song. In 1992, I went to a Foreign Press screening of Houston's breakout film,The Bodyguard at the Bruin Theater in the Westwood section of L. A. I sat with some entertainment reporters from German Television News who, at the time, covered Hollywood. 

At the end of the screening, almost to a person, there was the general feeling that the film was an embarrassing bomb, a cliché-ridden, formulaic mess and most predictions were that the film would flop at the box-office. Whitney Houston, they grudgingly agreed, was okay as an actress and might even have a career in film. But, they added, she really over-worked, over-massaged every note, every vowel and was generally overwrought in her singing, especially of I Will Always Love You. Even I agreed she was a note molester.

Houston appeared in only two more theatrical films, The Preacher's Wife and Waiting To Exhale. Poor advice and her battle with drugs and alcohol are considered partly to blame because the talent and screen presence were clearly there. Hollywood had misgivings.

But what does the record, not the foreign press reviews and prophecies, say about the song and the movie?

The Bodyguard received two Academy Awards nominations. Not for writing, directing or acting, but for two songs sung by Houston, "Run to You" and "I Have Nothing."

Critically, the film received mixed reviews. According to Rotten Tomatoes, it holds a 39% film critics rating (a rotten tomato — bad). It also received six Golden Raspberry Award nominations, including Worst Picture.

But on Rotten Tomatoes, again, the film received an audience rating of 61% (a fresh tomato — good).

The film's Final Film Box Office tally was $410,945,720, worldwide, making it the seventh highest-grossing film of 1992 in North America, and the second highest-grossing film of 1992, worldwide. At the time, the film became one of the 100 all-time highest grossing films worldwide.

So much for critics reading the minds and hearts of the public.

But Wait, there's more. The Bodyguard: Original Soundtrack Album became the best-selling soundtrack of all time with sales of over 42 million copies. In addition, Houston's single of I Will Always Love You sold 12 million units worldwide.

So, why wasn't the song also nominated for an Oscar for Best Song?

Because it wasn't original with the movie. Dolly Parton, who penned the song and recorded it several times in the 70's, also sang it in the 1982 movie version of the Broadway musical, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. This disqualified it from Oscar nomination in The Bodyguard.

In the end, ironically, Houston's huge hit and signature song in life and in death has and will continue to make Dolly Parton substantial sums of royalty money.  Every time somebody buys Whitney's version, Dolly makes more money. Moreover, as a result of Houston's death, those royalty figures will most certainly rise. In fact, The Bodyguard is showing on several cable networks today and tonight (Sunday, Feb. 19th, 2012).

So, how will the song, the movie and the woman be remembered? We all possess an autobiographic  songbook of our lives, marking events, cities, moments, even decades and eras. Hearing the first few bars  of a favorite song years later unleashes a frenzy of remembrances, emotions, and associations.

In my songbook, I hear The Beach Boys' Good Vibration, my mind goes to my years in California, I hear Glen Miller's In the Mood, I think the 40s and the war years. Dylan's The Times They Are A-Changin',  I'm in a 60's reverie, Sinatra's Chicago, Bennett's San Francisco, Gershwin's Paris, and the audiocassette recording of Gary Puckett and the Union Gap's Young Girl (get out of my mind), which accompanied me on my first trip to London, in 1972. It's the cities. It's the feelings. And it's the good times.

My guess is that "I Will Always Love You"  will be part of many people's songbook. It will be more the emotional trigger, the flash memory of Whitney Houston, than will the movie, The Bodyguard. What it won't trigger are her drug and alcohol-hazed final days. Isn't that how it should be?

But, wait a minute! Maybe what I just wrote is simply pietistic, feel good, nice, nice bullshit? Maybe it just absolves our pop culture gods of their really bad choices, immersing themselves in really bad relationships, and listening to really bad counsel. And maybe it absolves fans and groupies and hangers-on of being enablers.

When I think about Whitney's absurdly insane, totally unnecessary death I'm reminded that, for some terrible, perverse reason, the ravages of substance abuse in the world of performance, especially in the fields of music, film and television, seem to leave no cautionary footprint for those who follow their great talents into the talent-celebrity crucible. Consider the heady rise and deadly falls of Houston, Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Judy Garland... my God, the list is sadly endless.

Success is a high wire act. Stress and performance demands spawn doubts and fears. Dancing with drugs and booze can momentarily quiet the doubts and unleash the muses. But like a vampire you invite in, its a party with a price—your life.

But substance-abuse needn't come with the territory of success. Real friends, loving fans and good managers can make the celebrity catwalk less precarious. Perhaps we should try to remember a bit more — and romanticize and blindly imitate a bit less — this treacherous triumvirate of talent, stress and substance abuse. If, as fans and consumers,  we did reach out to touch them with a sober glance, maybe these gigantic talents, these producers of the songbooks of our lives, would not add to our list of fallen idols.

Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., is Senior Editor of the Journal of Media Psychology and Emeritus Professor of Media Psychology at Cal State, Los Angeles.

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