I was fortunate enough to meet Whitney Houston at her career peak. It was late 1996, and she was promoting her forthcoming movie, "The Preacher's Wife." No one knew at the time that she was at her zenith, that her first tastes of failure were soon to follow, and that she was at the end of her glory years and at the beginning of a long, slow, sad decline from which she would never fully recover. When I interviewed her, there were only a few hints of the downward spiral she had already embarked upon.
Years later, we would learn that she was already using drugs daily at this time, but I saw no sign of her dependency. The Houston I met lived up to her image as pop's serene, supreme majesty. She was regal and elegant. She sported a diamond ring the size of an ice rink. She hinted at past traumas but indicated that she was perfectly happy with the choices she'd made, both personal (marrying bad boy R&B singer Bobby Brown four years earlier) and professional (conquering movies almost by accident, and returning at last to her gospel roots with the "Preacher" soundtrack).
Not that everything had gone according to plan for her. "It kind of just happened," she said of her film career. "After 'The Bodyguard,' I think Hollywood saw me as they did Streisand, when Streisand was first coming out: 'We can hire her for the movie, but we need her to sing.' I didn't plan it. Like doing '[Waiting to] Exhale,' I didn't want to sing at all. I just wanted to act. And then 'Face [producer Babyface] and I got together, and we go like this [here, she crossed her fingers], and it just started developing into something else, and he said, 'Well, all right, I've got this song for you I want you to sing.' What I plan to do doesn't always work out that way, but the music and movies seem to go hand in hand."
So it was with "Preacher's Wife," which generated the gospel album she'd always said she would make. "I thought I'd do a gospel album on my own when I was ready." But "Preacher" co-star Denzel Washington persuaded her that it was her duty, as an African-American role model, to do a more spiritually-minded project. "Denzel, in his convincing voice, said to me, 'We have to do this movie. It has to be done. It is essential that African-American actors play these roles of people who have a life, people who care, people who give, people who believe, people who have faith in the community and stick with that. Because a lot of that has been drained out of the urban communities. Children don't have fear anymore. They don't have any hope. They don't respect their parents.' And we just talked, he and I and his wife, about what was happening to our youth and how important it was to concentrate on that. And after he talked to me for about an hour or two, he cornered me and said, 'We've got to do this!'"
Even so, she was aware of the potential of alienating gospel fans with the soundtrack's mix of the sacred and the secular. "I know how to make records," she said. "But this film was not making a record. It was telling a story. Each song had to go hand in hand with the scene. Even the secular stuff, the contemporary music, I had to be very careful with it. You can't mix gospel and contemporary and expect it to really come out straight. And then you have a Christian community looking at you, saying, 'Well, you can't put the devil's music and God's music together.' So I had to be very careful. It's a fine line."
Still, Houston said she trusted director Penny Marshall and her team to play the film's depiction of issues of faith straight, without the irony or condescension that often mark Hollywood's treatment of religion. "I don't think anybody was concerned about that, for some reason," she said. "Today's time and place is crying for this kind of movie. We didn't think about whether or not it would be accepted as far as talking about God and faith and church and singing the gospel and praises to God and all that stuff." (As it turned out, she needn't have worried about pleasing gospel fans, who made the soundtrack the top-selling gospel album of all time. The film, however, was tepidly received. It earned $48 million, making it the lowest-grossing of her three features to date.)
Asked her own religious affiliation, Houston said, "I'm a human." She elaborated, "I was raised as a Baptist. I'm still a Baptist. But I just totally depend on God. I just have faith."
"The Preacher's Wife" -- "I Love the Lord"
In the film, Houston got to sass her own mother, Cissy Houston, who played a choir director. "Oh, man, we laughed about that," the younger Houston said. "She would say, 'You like doing this, don't you?' It was just a role reversal. But obviously, to me in the movie, what was so cool was that Mrs. Havergal was learned enough for Julia [Whitney's character] to ask her, 'What do you think about what I'm doing?' And she goes and accepts it and moves on. But that's my mother. I've played both of those roles. I'd say, 'Mom, can I suggest something?' I'd be in the choir and say, 'This part should go so-and-so,' And she'd say, 'We'll try it.'"
Music and mother-daughter relations are at the heart of "Sparkle," the remake of the 1976 cult hit about a Supremes-like vocal group that is Houston's only completed feature film since "Preacher's Wife" 16 years ago. (Despite her death on Saturday, Sony is still reportedly planning to release it in August 2012, as scheduled.) A movie Houston had been trying to produce for a decade, "Sparkle" stars Houston as a retired R&B singer who mentors a singing group featuring her daughters; the one named Sparkle is played by "American Idol" winner Jordin Sparks.
By all accounts, Houston was in top form on the "Sparkle" set, seemingly free of past demons. The mother-daughter drama of the plot seemed to mirror an off-screen passing of the torch. As Sparks said of Houston, "I sang her songs into a hairbrush when I was little. Now she's acting as my mom and scolding me. It was a dream come true."
With Houston's passing, "Sparkle" is as close as well ever get to the Motown movie once being developed by Bobby Brown, in which he'd have played Marvin Gaye to Houston's Tammi Terrell. Curiously, Houston told me in 1996 that Brown had never discussed the project with her. "But he and I are developing other scripts together," she said. "He's working very hard."
Sadly, the only time we got to see them perform onscreen together was in "Being Bobby Brown," the Bravo reality series that chronicled their tumultuous marriage shortly before it dissolved in 2007. A lot of things halted her movie career after "Preacher's Wife" -- not just drugs and divorce, but also her own reluctance to challenge her own limits as an actress. That was something she was aware of even in 1996. "I think I've just been basically scared to do things that I couldn't take a bite out of, because I didn't want it that bad," she told me. "It just happened to me. And I guess, because God gave me this voice, and it all kind of went hand in hand, it worked. I wanted to be a singer. The movie star stuff I wasn't crazy about. I'd already had a career, a full one. So getting into movies was just like another plateau in entertainment for me. I had no idea that it would go like this."
After spending her teen and young adult years hard at work, she admitted to me that she was having some difficulty adjusting to life as a wife to Brown and mother to their toddler, Bobbi Kristina. "I'm growing. I'm learning," she said. "I've had a career for the last 13 years. That part I've got down-pat. But now there's certain things that my daughter will do or say, and I'll go, 'OK, let me think about it for a minute.' The other night, she did something, and I got angry, and she looked at me like, 'Huh?' And I had to just turn around and say, 'I'm sorry. I'm a little under the weather here, and I'm not feeling the same, so I understand it's not your fault. It's mine.' So she respects me for that, and I respect her for it. When she does something off-the-wall, she'll say, 'Mom, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to do it.' So I'm learning. Even with my husband, I'm learning."
She also admitted that the pressures of constant scrutiny from the press and the public had almost made her quit show business. In what reads now as an eerily prescient anecdote, she recalled an incident in London during her 1988-89 concert tour. "One day, I just woke up and was completely crying, crying," she said to me. "My mother was with me at the time, and she went to my room and said to me, 'I know it's hard, but God is good, and you have to hold onto that.' And she held me by my hand for, like, 17 hours. I'll never forget it because I was exhausted. Really, I was at my wit's end. And she just talked to me, and she prayed with me, and she prayed over me. I could hear my mother in my sleep, praying for me. And when I woke up, she was still sitting in that same position, with her hand in my hand. That time, it was rough. Now everything's cool. You never know from day to day what life can bring you. I'm happy. I'm grateful. I have no complaints."
Who knows if she was feeling similar pressure in another hotel room, in Beverly Hills, a quarter-century later? Or what would have happened if her mother had been there to hold her hand? Or if "Sparkle" could have turned her into a role model once again instead of a cautionary tale?