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Tales from Development Hell: The Bodyguard

By Ryan Fleming



Inevitably, it was also made into a Musical. Bodyguards don't normally burst into song. Trust me on that.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.



There are many measures by which the success of a film can be graded. Probably the most important to those that control the production of films is getting a return on the budget they put up. It is why they are more willing to bet money on something that is likely to be a success than take a risk on something completely new. In modern times, this is usually looking at intellectual properties that have been successful in the past and redoing them over and over again. In years gone by, when bankable names were real people rather than fictional characters, the safe bet was on movie stars. Scripts were often commissioned or developed based on the people who would star in the eventual film. Such were the origins of The Bodyguard (1992), written by Lawrence Kasdan and starring Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston. However, Kasdan had originally written the script almost two decades before, and for two completely different stars.


Lawrence Kadan wrote The Bodyguard in 1975 while working as an advertising copywriter and trying to break into the film industry. It was actually his fifth spec script, but it was on its strength that he was finally able to get an agent. He also took an advertising job in California to be closer to the centre of the US film industry. Despite having an agent, it took two years before any studio was willing to option The Bodyguard. During that period, it was rejected a total of 67 times. His agent has said that for those early years they could not even get Kasdan a job writing for Starsky and Hutch.


Warner Bros bought the script in 1977 for $20,000. At that time, Kevin Costner was yet to make his film debut and Whitney Houston had yet to make her public singing debut outside of a church. Kasdan had an actor in mind for the titular role when he wrote the script: Steve McQueen. The “King of Cool” had become the highest-paid actor in the world in 1974 with The Towering Inferno and had not acted in a film since. Kasdan had also been inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo (1961) in the idea of a man that would be willing to die in earning his salary. Around this time, McQueen turned down the lead roles in both Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Sorcerer (both 1977).



First call for the titular role: Steve McQueen.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.



1978 saw McQueen develop a persistent cough, which worsened despite his giving up cigarettes. It transpired he had developed a form of inoperable cancer. He would appear in three further films: An Enemy of the People (1978), Tom Horn, and The Hunter (both 1980, the year of McQueen’s death).


The Bodyguard had already passed to another actor: Ryan O’Neal. O’Neal’s star was fading after successfully breaking from television to film in the early 1970s. The Bodyguard might have seemed an enticing prospect for his career to regain some momentum. It was from O’Neal that the firm name associated with the film’s female lead was suggested: Diana Ross.



Option two: Ryan O'Neal.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


O’Neal and Ross engaged in a brief romance following her divorce from first husband Robert Ellis Siberstein. The legendary singer was no stranger to film. Her turn as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues (1972) had netted a slew of nominations from the Academy Awards, BAFTAs, Golden Globes. She actually won a Golden Globe for New Star, as well as the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Acress, for the performance. At the time O’Neal offered her The Bodyguard, her most recent film appearance had been The Wiz (1978) alongside Michael Jackson. It was far less positively received, but Ross at least earned a Saturn Award nomination, which is surely at the very bottom of her long list of accolades.


Ross was put off by the nude scene for her character included in the first draft of the script. O’Neal made every effort to entice her into doing the film, including going through multiple versions of the script. O’Neal’s efforts stretched out until August 1979 when Ross rendered a firm no. Her biographers claim that the nudity was just one part of her aversion to the script, along with the violence, the singing, and even its title. O’Neal places the blame entirely on Ross in his own autobiography, playing off her reputation as a diva and claiming their disagreements over the film soured their relationship.



Diana Ross said: "No."

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


Kasdan, when not working on developing The Bodyguard with proposed director John Boorman, had written another spec script by the name of Continental Divide. It was a romantic comedy in the vein of the old Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn pictures. His agent took the script to one of Hollywood’s leading lights: Steven Spielberg. Spielberg used his pull to have Universal buy Continental Divide for $150,000, beating out three competing studios in the process. Spielberg took a shine to Kasdan, despite his never having had a script filmed, and chose him to write his upcoming collaboration with George Lucas. That collaboration was Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and the introduction to Lucas led Kasdan doing the first rewrite of Leigh Brackett’s script for The Empire Strikes Back (1980). The same period saw Lucas act as an uncredited producer on Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981), a steamy neo-noir erotic thriller which Kasdan also directed, and Lucas could not be credited to retain his family-friendly reputation. Continental Divide made it to screens in 1981, starring John Belushi and Blair Brown, and Kasdan would go on to write three further Star Wars films from 1983 to 2018.


What of The Bodyguard? Following Ross pulling out of the project and the idea of an O’Neal vehicle seemingly being off the cards without her, it went back into development hell. Kasdan himself was actually offered the opportunity to direct it himself following the success of Body Heat but turned it down. All the effort in attempting to get it made during the 1970s seemingly had burned him out on the project. He would instead make the comedy The Big Chill (1983) and then the western Silverado (1985). One actor that performed in both films was Kevin Costner, whose scenes were ultimately cut from The Big Chill and was cast in Silverado to make up for it.


Silverado would prove to be a breakout role for Costner, whose status as a bona fide star was confirmed when he starred in both The Untouchables and No Way Out. It was around this time that the trade press began speculating about The Bodyguard once more, and a 1986 edition of Billboard Magazine would be the first time Whitney Houston would be linked to the project. At the time the magazine reported that she would make her film debut with Clint Eastwood in the title role. Eastwood was perhaps an example of the script coming full circle, given his breakout film role was in an unofficial western set remake of Yojimbo: Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars.



Option 3: Clint Eastwood.

Picture Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.



The Houston/Eastwood version remained just press speculation, but the singer would remain the preferred choice of the figure most pushing to make the film. Kevin Costner had wanted to make The Bodyguard since he had first read the script on the set of Silverado. The success of the actor and singer seemed almost in synch: the year Costner broke out with Silverado, Houston’s self-titled debut album reached the top of the Billboard 200; the year he solidified his movie star status, her follow-up, Whitney, went multi-platinum. The female lead had always been intended as a superstar singer, so Houston also met with the approval of Kasdan.


There were just two obstacles facing Costner in securing Houston for the lead role. The first was Houston herself. The singer was hesitant in accepting the role. The nudity had been removed by the time the script was again being developed in the late 80s, but Houston had other reasons to be hesitant. She desired to start out in smaller roles and progress to starring; playing the lead in her debut stoked fears that she would be out of her depth. Costner, also producing, assured Houston he would help her and not let her fail in her debut. It took a year of persuasion, during which Costner happily shelved the production than move it ahead with another lead, but eventually Houston agreed to do the picture.



And finally ... Kevin Costner.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.



The other obstacle in securing Whitney Houston in the female lead was from studio executives. There was some speculation in the early 1990s that her success may have plateaued and they would prefer a more bankable familiar film star in the role. Costner argued that the role called for a singer and should be cast with a singer.


There were also those behind the scenes who felt they had to let Costner know that Whitney Houston was black. They were worried that an interracial romance would cause controversy. Costner, Houston, and Kasdan all refused to pander to those who were worried that a film about an interracial romance would spark controversy.



"Kevin, did you know Whitney Houston was black?"

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.



The Bodyguard finally reached cinemas in 1992. It grossed $411 million from a $25 million budget. Keep in mind that the script had been sold in 1975 for $20,000. It was the second highest grossing film of 1992 after Disney’s Aladdin. At the time of its release, it was the tenth highest grossing film of all time. It failed to draw much praise from critics, but even then, was classed as one of the “100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made” by John Wilson in The Official Razzie Movie Guide. That was 12 years after Wilson’s Golden Raspberry Awards nominated for seven of the ‘prizes’, including Worst New Star for Costner’s crew cut. Houston proved to be essential to the film’s success. She made the film’s soundtrack the best-selling soundtrack of all time, the best-selling album by a woman in music history, and the best-selling album of the 1990s. Two songs from the album were released as singles and both were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song: I Have Nothing and Run to You. The film’s most famous song remains Houston’s cover of Dolly Parton’s 1973 song: I Will Always Love You, becoming one of Houston’s signature songs in the process.


What if it had not taken fifteen years from Warner Bros buying the script in 1977 and The Bodyguard being released? Likely no Whitney Houston, who was only linked to the film from 1986 onward. Likely no Kevin Costner either, who had only broken out as an actor from 1985. A lot depends on which actors star in the film, which depends on when the film gets made. Let’s consider the one version we do have knowledge of stars and even director. The mooted 1978/79 attempt that would have starred Ryan O’Neal and Diana Ross and been directed by John Boorman.


As mentioned Whitney Houston played an integral part in the success of The Bodyguard. Her reluctance in taking the role was one of lacking self-confidence in her acting abilities and she committed as much to the film’s music as she did her performance. Diana Ross already had her accolades as both an actor and as a singer. Ross’s reluctance in taking the role was far more a general opposition to the film in terms of content and even conception. The nude scene will likely go very early, but Ross’s participation in the film would still come only after much cajoling from Ryan O’Neal. However, it might not prove the boon to his career he might have hoped. Any 1979 version of the film might be more infamous for any difficulties between him and Ross on the set than famous for its success or quality. Historically, his relationship with Ross fizzled out after her refusal to star in the film. If the film had actually entered production, it could have ended far more dramatically during production. It would be of special interest to the tabloids if O’Neal still winds up in a relationship with Farrah Fawcett soon afterwards.


Two unhappy stars, for very different reasons, in the shape of Diana Ross and Ryan O’Neal might damage any quality that Boorman might have given Kasdan’s script. Coming off not only an unhappy production in the shape of The Bodyguard but also in the reviled Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), Boorman probably still returns to the United Kingdom as he did historically, though whether he still makes Excalibur (1981) is a different matter. If his experiences on The Bodyguard put him off Hollywood for good, then he might not take the initiative of giving out free VHS copies of his later film The Emerald Forest (1985) to members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences during award season. Such practices are now standard even from the largest movie studios, but Boorman was the first to do it.


Perhaps the person whose career might be most impacted by The Bodyguard going into production during the late 1970s would be Kasdan himself. Though its production would come after Continental Divide had caught the attention of Steven Spielberg, he may not be free to write Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Empire Strikes Back. Both Lucas and Spielberg’s spin on James Bond and the sequel to Star Wars will go ahead without Kasdan, but they might wind up being very different films than the ones we are used written by him. That also might prevent Kasdan from directing Body Heat or Silverado. The former launched the career of Kathleen Turner and, as mentioned, the career of Kevin Costner was made by the latter.


An earlier version of The Bodyguard would probably not have the direct impact on popular culture that the 1992 version with Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston did. It may become more infamous than famous for being a star vehicle for two people in the midst of a short-lived romance. It might alter the career of its writer who historically went on to write some of the most famous and successful films of all time when its production stalled in the late 1970s. Would anyone be willing to trade the versions of The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Return of the Jedi in exchange for The Bodyguard starring Ryan O’Neal and Diana Ross?


The tale of The Bodyguard’s development hell does not end with the success of the 1992 film. Kevin Costner was prepared to move ahead with a sequel following its success. It made it as far as a script that was delivered to its mooted star. Said star was also a personal choice of Costner, being a personal friend. The script for the sequel was delivered to Diana, former Princess of Wales, the day before her death in August 1997. The script has never been released in any form, so any speculation as to its contents remains just that. The tabloid interest in The Bodyguard that might have happened for the O’Neal/Ross production would have been magnified a thousandfold if that sequel had gone ahead.



Considered for a role in the sequel.

Seriously.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.



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Ryan Fleming is the author of the SLP book Reid in Braid.




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