The Preacher’s Wife (1996)


USA. 1996.


Director – Penny Marshall, Screenplay – Nat Maudlin & Allan Scott, Based on the 1947 film The Bishop’s Wife Written by Leonardo Bercovici & Robert E. Sherwood, Producer – Samuel Goldwyn Jr, Photography – Miroslav Ondricek, Music – Hans Zimmer, Music Supervisor – Mervyn Warren, Special Effects Supervisor – Connie Brink, Production Design – Bill Groom. Production Company – Touchstone/The Samuel Goldwyn Co/Parkway Productions/Mundy Lane Entertainment


Denzel Washington (Dudley), Whitney Houston (Julia Biggs), Courtney B. Vance (Reverend Henry Biggs), Jenifer Lewis (Margeurite Coleman), Justin Pierre Drummond (Jeremiah Biggs), Gregory Hines (Joe Hamilton), Loretta Devine (Beverly), Paul Bates (Saul)


Depressed about dealing with the social problems of his parish and concerned about his church’s dwindling income, Reverend Henry Biggs prays for help. He is then visited by an angel Dudley, although Henry refuses to believe that Dudley is an angel. Dudley settles in to help out and spends time with Henry’s neglected wife Julia – only to find the two of them are becoming attracted to one another.

As the title change from bishop to preacher suggests, this is a more ecumenical version of the old Cary Grant-David Niven light fantasy The Bishop’s Wife (1947), having ditched the original’s Catholic setting for a Gospel background. The Bishop’s Wife was not a particularly good film and to no particular surprise, The Preacher’s Wife is not either. It has much that seems initially promising – with names like Denzel Washington and the talentedly up-and-coming Courtney B. Vance attached, while is directed by Penny Marshall who showed a more than estimable adeptness with the fantasy genre in Big (1988).

Mostly, The Preacher’s Wife has been construed as a star vehicle for singer Whitney Houston. Houston broke through into acting with The Bodyguard (1992) which, even if it never had anybody singing her praises as an actress, was a big hit and spun off a No 1 hit single for her. Whitney Houston comes from a Gospel background – her award acceptance speeches comes with as much in the way of thanks to the Lord for her success as it does to her family. So a vehicle like The Preacher’s Wife that has her belting out the music that she grew up on is one of the most apt star vehicles imaginable.

Unfortunately, none of this comes off at all. The script stretches the original’s 70 minutes out to two hours but not a great deal happens during that time. These sort of light fantasies are ones that usually hang on profound character transformations but the remake only grinds on to its dreary finish without ever going anywhere emotionally. For the angelic fantasy it is sold as, the film almost entirely eschews any displays of the fantastic at all.

Unfortunately, Whitney Houston’s screeching is the most alive thing there is in the film. On screen, she comes across with a feisty forwardness and an egotism of someone born to the limelight – but there is also the feeling that these qualities have been quashed by the dowdy role the film casts her in. She seems perpetually on the verge of wanting to open up and take centre stage but is never granted the opportunity bar a couple of tiresome song numbers.

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