Earlier today, we learned that Penny Marshall, filmmaker and actress, passed away at the age of 75 due to complications from diabetes. Since the news dropped, there’s been an outpouring of appreciation for all of her projects, from those well-known (A League of Their Own, Big, and Laverne and Shirley), to those forgotten but no less loved (her cameo in Hocus Pocus).
I’d like to take this moment to appreciate a favorite from her body of work: The Preacher’s Wife — the film that put Whitney Houston in a Gospel choir, and gave us heaven on Earth, in the form of Denzel Washington in a great suit.
The 1996 movie is a gospel update of the 1947 Cary Grant film The Bishop’s Wife. In Marshall’s version, Houston plays Julia, the beautiful, neglected songbird wife of a hardworking but distracted preacher, Henry Biggs (Courtney B. Vance in some wire rim spectacles). Reverend Biggs, realizing he’s lost touch with his community, congregation, and wife, asks an angel for help. And lo, God sends Angel Dudley (Denzel Washington wearing a fedora; the only acceptable fedora in the history of fedoras). At first, Julia falls for Archangel Dudley, but all is set right in the end, because it’s a rom-com where God is watching.
Honestly, who the fuck cares that this holiday classic has a 58 percent on Rotten Tomatoes? The Academy Award–nominated soundtrack is a legendary moment for gospel music. Houston and Washington’s will-they-won’t-they ice-skating moment, set to R&B, is a rom-com gem. Houston singing “I Believe in Miracles,” in a black velvet dress, on a jazz club stage, while Washington grins at her like he’s never heard music before, gives chills. We have Penny Marshall to thank for this film, which has a place in both the Black Holiday Movie Canon and my heart.
To be honest, I was surprised to discover (or maybe rediscover) that this was a Penny Marshall movie. A white woman is responsible for a movie that lets Houston give us the gospel singing like that? This afternoon, I watched a few behind-the-scenes clips of Marshall directing the movie, and it’s true. It’s her. There she is, in a puffy coat on the ice, giving Washington notes; in a neon green sweatshirt in a Newark church, running into the pews getting the congregation to holler, telling the gospel choir when to raise their hands and when to clap, and snapping her fingers while Houston sings. She’s a beat or two behind the rhythm, but she’s so enthusiastic my mom and grandma would welcome her into a church service any Sunday.
In an ET segment about the movie from 1995, there’s a super-cut of Houston, Vance, and Washington, calling her a “sweet lady,” while trying to imitate her thick, nasal, New York accent and the way she constantly complained about how cold it was. Marshall does complain about the Nor’easter a lot in the segment, but she also demonstrates the care she took — as a white director hired to make a Gospel-centric remake of a movie, starring the biggest black stars of the day — to understand what was so special about the film. She just got it, and knew when to let the magic happen.
“They sang for like half an hour to lift the spirits of all the extras who were sitting there, and everyone there, and it just lifts your spirit,” Marshall says of the choir, which kept singing even after she’d yelled “cut” several times. “Because I mean it’s a grind, you’re working every day, getting up every morning, working late every night, and sometimes you need the distraction.”
Marshall got the vision, even if she couldn’t quite catch the beat.