Female Filmmaker Friday: The Preacher’s Wife, 1996 (dir. Penny Marshall)

I’m not sure if I saw this first or the first film adaptation of Robert Nathan’s book, 1947’s The Bishop’s Wife (with one of my favorite Cary Grant performances!), but I did watch this movie A LOT in the late-90s when it was on TV all the time (I think TBS?) I did, however, have no idea that Penny Marshall directed it until I noticed it was on Netflix last week. I decided it was time I revisited this film (not the least of which because Denzel Washington is so goddamn charming as Dudley!)


I don’t know if I ever realized just how dour this film is (or maybe it felt colder and darker because when I rewatched it last night, the wind was howling and my apartment was frozen), but it’s a pretty cold film til the very end. In this version of the story, the preacher Rev. Henry Biggs (Courtney B. Vance) and his wife Julia (Whitney Huston) live in a neighborhood that is falling apart due to gentrification happening else where, as those who make it rich leave the neighborhood in shambles. In looking at the production history, apparently this film was developed by Washington’s production company (presumably he’s a big fan of the original and wanted to play Dudley, so he secured the rights), but other than Washington, it appears all of the development was done by white people. That’s always a little hinky. Although, the subplot about one of the parishioner’s sons being mistaken for a robber solely because he’s black and in the wrong place at the wrong time feels particularly timeless given all that’s gone down in 2014.


But that’s enough of that, let’s get to Washington. He’s great as Dudley. He’s great in pretty much all of his movies in the 90s. If you weren’t in love with him in the 90s, you weren’t alive in the 90s. After being sent to Earth for the first time in decades (he’s supposed to help Henry in his time of need), Dudley gets to try things he hasn’t had in a long time (like pizza! and hot dogs! and dancing!). Washington is a delight to watch in this role.


The film is narrated from the point of view of Henry and Julia’s young son Jeremiah (Justin Pierre Edmund), whose best friend Hakim is about to go into state custody (one week before Christmas!) The best I can say for the narration is it’s not the worst child narration ever in cinema. Also, I love this kid’s bedroom (and not just because of his Lion King sheets!)


Gregory Hines plays the film’s “villain”, a land developer that is trying to woo the neighborhood’s business owners and Henry, to his new neighborhood he’s developing – instead of putting his money into resurrecting the old neighborhood. Hines is another actor that is always charming, and he manages to make the man seem like an opportunist, but not in a cartoony way.


Courtney B. Vance is good as Henry, though his performance is much darker than that of David Niven in the earlier film. Every once in a while, we get a peek at what Henry was like before his mind became so burdened with the neighborhood’s problems, and we see why such a vivacious woman as Julia would have married him. Their marriage strife is the undercurrent of the whole film, and it really, really works.


Back to Dudley. Just look at that smile! Ugh, I love Denzel Washington. Love, love, love.


Julia’s mother Marguerite (Jenifer Lewis) is visiting for the holidays and is doing her best to counsel her daughter through her tough marriage times. She’s honest with her daughter any time she tries to idealize her father (and the parish’s previous pastor), breaking down the perfect image she had of him without villainizing him. I always like movies that have mothers and daughters having realistic conversations. In this case, the two of them find time to talk while cooking dinner, cleaning up after breakfast, etc. It never feels realistic when two women are just sitting and chatting.


Two things. One: Lionel Richie made his acting debut as the owner of a jazz club where Julia and Henry used to come during happier times. He’s a little stilted, but fun to watch regardless. Two: apparently Huston didn’t want to play this part. She read the script two times before she accepted (even though it was developed from the beginning with her in mind), and only took it after they offered her $10mil (which, I believe, was 1/4 of the film’s budget!) She’s wonderful in this film. You really buy her as a wife, mother, choir director, compassionate woman of faith, but because it’s Whitney Huston, you also see a glimpse (especially when she sings at the jazz club) of the verve underneath it all, the fire of a woman who could have gone on to bigger things, but chose a different path.


You can’t have this movie without having the iconic ice skating scene. These two are so cute and their chemistry is so great. They’re such a joy to watch. Also, I really love the costume design here. It’s very reminiscent of Loretta Young’s outfit in the earlier film, but still feels modern (at least for the mid-90s).


At one point, Dudley and Julia come home and find Marguerite crying in front of Miracle on 34th Street. This is a nice cheeky touch. But also, who doesn’t cry when they watch those old mid-century Christmas movies? Such magic!


I deliberately didn’t cover most of the film’s plot, because it’s very simple and I don’t want to spoil the whole film. It’s really about the characters and how they interact and how they all help and change each other, how hope and faith in each other is just as important as faith in a divine being. That’s what Dudley shows everyone. Like the earlier film, before he leaves, Dudley decorates their Christmas tree. In this version, the angel on top looks just like Dudley (including his overcoat and grey hat!). It’s delightful.


This film is really about the importance of family, faith in others, hope for the future and selfless acts of love and compassion. While it is a lot darker than the original film, it reflects the time in which it was made very well and still holds up today.


About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on December 12, 2014, in Female Filmmaker Friday and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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