Ebony - December 1996

Ebony, Vol. 52, December 1996
Whitney talks about 'The Preacher's Wife,' Denzel and the attacks on Bobby
by Lynn Norment

JULIA, the lead character in The Preacher's Wife, is described as "a loving wife and Mom who sings like an angel." Whitney Houston chuckles and smiles when she hears this description, for nobody can deny there are distinct similarities between the superstar singer and the character she portrays in the Touchstone Pictures movie.

"Julia and I are alike like that," Houston says in an interview at her home during a break from finalizing the movie soundtrack. "Julia and I clicked light away. But she's more than just a loving Mom and a wife. She cares about family values. She tries very, very hard to give back to the community. But she also gets angry. She gets ticked off. She's human. She has normal feelings, but she has to hold back because they [she and the preacher] must set standards."

Julia, the preacher's wife and director of the church choir; is a role with which Houston feels very comfortable; it is a character that she says "inspires" fuel: And it is a natural. The real-life songbird grew up singing in a Baptist church in New Jersey. "I know the preacher's wife," she says, referring to various relatives and family friends. "I've watched one for years. I have watched my aunts and my mother; who was director of music [at New Hope Baptist Church]. You know, it's about standards."

The Preacher's Wife may well set a new standard for remaking classic films with a contemporary touch. Houston co-stars with Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington, who portrays an angel, and Courtney B. Vance, who is the preacher. Also appearing in the movie are Jennifer Lewis as Julia's mother, 6-year old Justin Pierre Edmund as her son, Lionel Richie as a nightclub owner, and Gregory Hines as a wealthy real estate developer.

The movie, directed by Penny Marshall, is a "romantic fable" based on the 1947 classic, The Bishop's Wife, which starred Cary Grant and Loretta Young. In addition to having an African-American cast, the updated version differs from the original in that it is set in a Black neighborhood in a New York town. The workaholic preacher, the Rev. Henry Biggs, has lost faith in himself. His church members are poor, his church building is falling apart, and he is unable to help his troubled congregation.

To make matters worse, his beautiful and talented wife, Julia, is frustrated because she feels the romance is gone from their marriage, and her husband is preoccupied with church matters. However, the Lord answers the preacher's prayers for help by sending an angel in the form of the charming and handsome Dudley, portrayed by Denzel Washington.

"The Preacher's Wife is different [from the original version] in that it's a little more down, a little more gritty," says Houston. "You know, it's set in the neighborhood."

The Preacher's Wife is a timeless story of love and hope that is punctuated with lively gospel music performed by Houston. There are also scenes depicting her singing in a jazz club. Houston says her background of singing in the church made recording the music for the soundtrack (which includes gospel and Christmas classics as well as a few pop selections) very natural for her. "Yes, you understand what the music is all about," she explains. "You understand what it takes to sing gospel and to live it as best you can. And it's not easy. You've got to come from that place to know what it's all about."

Houston says working with Washington was like working with an "older brother" because she felt so familiar with "his flavor and character" from watching his many movies. "He's a gentleman, very funny, silly like me. . . ," she says. "He was very easy to work with. He's an old pro." She tells of how Washington, who also has experience in the church as the son of a minister, often "switched up lines" and improvised which would throw her off. "Lionel [Richie] and I would say, `Could you just repeat the lines the same way each time so we can get our parts right?"

It was the first time that Houston and Washington have worked together though they met several times over the years. "I walked into a restaurant and he and Pauletta [his wife] were just sitting there, and they both looked at me and said, `Whitney!' We just started talking, and I think that was the moment we became friends," she says.

After the restaurant encounter a few years ago, Houston says Washington asked her about getting involved in The Preacher's Wife project. "Denzel started talking to me about this movie and how much he wanted me to do it," she says. "I said that I heard that Julia Roberts was slated to do it. But Denzel said no.

"I didn't think that would have worked either," adds Houston. "Denzel said that you need someone who knows about church. He called me and we started talking about different things--working together, how good it would be because there is so much strife and stress and tribulation in the world, how spiritual it was, how the movie really hits home."

When asked whether Whitney thinks Denzel is the "most handsome man alive," as he has been described in the media, without hesitation she quietly says no..

"I've got the most handsome man. I've got the sexiest man alive," she says, referring to her husband, hip-hop recording artist Bobby Brown. "Praise God, things are going well," she says of their marriage. "He's healthy and strong. I'm healthy and strong. We're both working. Bobbi Kristina is growing up. My baby is great. She will be 4 years old in March, but she's trying to act like an adult."

Whitney often has said she would like to have another child, but she says she is not pregnant "at the moment." She adds, with a laugh: "But we're working on it. That's the best part."

When asked if the ongoing controversial media coverage Brown continues to attract has affected their marriage, she says: "No, it hasn't put a strain on our marriage. If they haven't broken us up [by] now, they aren't gonna do it.. What God has put together, let no man put asunder. See, they think it's a joke. They try to make our lives into a soap opera, but it's net. It's for real.

"But it's not easy. It's hard; it's hard," she quietly says of dealing with the constant barrage of media scrutiny. "I have a child to think about. And I wish people would consider that. I have a child. It's not fair .... But it ain't working. We are still together."

The media barrage reached a new level with the release of a new book that focuses on Whitney's life. The book, which Houston describes as "a collection of lies," was written by Kevin Ammons, whom she says she met at one time because he dated her former publicist. "It's trash [the book]. It's just a bunch of crap," she says. Houston stresses that Ammons never worked for her and was not her bodyguard ("No, definitely not!"), as has been reported. "I know him, but I had haven't had any contact with him at all," she says. "We didn't how talk, so much could he know about me? I just hope he gets his money because when you do ugly, it will come back to haunt you."

The singer/actress, who also has a collection of Grammy Awards, says her father, John Houston, and her mother, singer Cissy Houston (who also appears in the movie), are both very upset by the book. "But I know that what goes around comes around," she says.

Houston made her recording debut about 12 years ago, and she quickly escalated to the position as the No. 1 pop diva in the world. To date she has sold more than 88 million worldwide. She made her acting debut opposite Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard in 1992. The film was enormously successful, and the soundtrack has sold more than 32 million copies. The Bodyguard was followed by a lead role in the blockbuster movie Waiting To Exhale, in December 1995 and based on the best-selling novel by Terry McMillan. Exhale has made more than $81 million at the box office, and the soundtrack has sold almost 9 million copies.

When asked how filming The Preacher's Wife differed Exhale, Whitney laughs and says: "Well, we had more budget. We had a lot more budget for me to work with on Preacher's Wife. But Exhale was a really unique film. It stands by itself.... The movies are completely different in their themes, but the friendship, the love that the characters share, the relationships are all the same."

Houston goes on to say that she feels that as an actress she has "progressed by leaps and bounds" since her acting debut, but she acknowledges that working with stellar veterans of the craft such as Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker and Loretta Devine in Exhale and Denzel Washington and Courtney Vance in The Preacher's Wife has enhanced her success in films.

In 1995 Houston's production company acquired the motion picture rights to Donald Bogle's book about Dorothy Dandridge, the beautiful, sultry actress who in 1954 became the first African-American female to receive an Oscar nomination for best actress (Carmen Jones). Houston says herself will portray Dandridge and doubts that the movie will go into production before 1998.

She adds that she and husband Bobby Brown are developing scripts and working with Quincy Jones to produce a pilot for a television sitcom tentatively titled Glamour Girls. While she will be involved in the project behind the scenes, Whitney says she will not be one of the girls. "No, I'm not that short," she says.

Whitney says that after she finishes work on the movie, she plans to take a long break and spend time with her family. "I want to try to work on this baby," she says. "I want a son. Bobby wants a son. Bobbi Kristina wants a sibling. That's the next project."



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