Her voice is so missed.
1995–97: Waiting to Exhale, The Preacher’s Wife, and Cinderella
In 1995, Houston starred alongside Angela Bassett, Loretta Devine, and Lela Rochon in her second film, Waiting to Exhale, a motion picture about four African-American women struggling with relationships. Houston played the lead character Savannah Jackson, a TV producer in love with a married man. She chose the role because she saw the film as “a breakthrough for the image of black women because it presents them both as professionals and as caring mothers”. After opening at number one and grossing $67 million in the US at the box office and $81 million worldwide, it proved that a movie primarily targeting a black audience can cross over to success, while paving the way for other all-black movies such as How Stella Got Her Groove Back and the Tyler Perry movies that became popular in the 2000s. The film is also notable for its portrayal of black women as strong middle class citizens rather than as stereotypes. The reviews were mainly positive for the ensemble cast. The New York Times said: “Ms. Houston has shed the defensive hauteur that made her portrayal of a pop star in ‘The Bodyguard’ seem so distant.” Houston was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for “Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture”, but lost to her co-star Bassett.
The film’s accompanying soundtrack, Waiting to Exhale: Original Soundtrack Album, was produced by Houston and Babyface. Though Babyface originally wanted Houston to record the entire album, she declined. Instead, she “wanted it to be an album of women with vocal distinction”, and thus gathered several African-American female artists for the soundtrack, to go along with the film’s message about strong women. Consequently, the album featured a range of contemporary R&B female recording artists along with Houston, such as Mary J. Blige, Brandy, Toni Braxton, Aretha Franklin, and Patti LaBelle. Houston’s “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” peaked at No. 1, and then spent a record eleven weeks at the No. 2 spot and eight weeks on top of the R&B Charts. “Count On Me”, a duet with CeCe Winans, hit the US Top 10; and Houston’s third contribution, “Why Does It Hurt So Bad”, made the Top 30. The album debuted at No. 1, and was certified 7× Platinum in the United States, denoting shipments of seven million copies. The soundtrack received strong reviews; as Entertainment Weekly stated: “the album goes down easy, just as you’d expect from a package framed by Whitney Houston tracks… the soundtrack waits to exhale, hovering in sensuous suspense” and has since ranked it as one of the 100 Best Movie Soundtracks. Later that year, Houston’s children’s charity organization was awarded a VH1 Honor for all the charitable work.
In 1996, Houston starred in the holiday comedy The Preacher’s Wife, with Denzel Washington. She plays a gospel-singing wife of a pastor (Courtney B. Vance). It was largely an updated remake of the film “The Bishop’s Wife” (1948 in film|1948), which starred Loretta Young, David Niven, and Cary Grant. Houston earned $10 million for the role, making her one of the highest-paid actresses in Hollywood at the time and the highest earning African-American actress in Hollywood. The movie, with its all African-American cast, was a moderate success, earning approximately $50 million at the U.S. box offices. The movie gave Houston her strongest reviews so far. The San Francisco Chronicle said Houston “is rather angelic herself, displaying a divine talent for being virtuous and flirtatious at the same time”, and she “exudes gentle yet spirited warmth, especially when praising the Lord in her gorgeous singing voice”. Houston was again nominated for an NAACP Image Award and won for Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture.
Houston recorded and co-produced, with Mervyn Warren, the film’s accompanying gospel soundtrack. The Preacher’s Wife: Original Soundtrack Album included six gospel songs with Georgia Mass Choir that were recorded at the Great Star Rising Baptist Church in Atlanta. Houston also duetted with gospel legend Shirley Caesar. The album sold six million copies worldwide and scored hit singles with “I Believe in You and Me” and “Step by Step”, becoming the largest selling gospel album of all time. The album received mainly positive reviews. Some critics, such as that of USA Today, noted the presence of her emotional depth, while The Times said, “To hear Houston going at full throttle with the 35 piece Georgia Mass Choir struggling to keep up is to realise what her phenomenal voice was made for”.
In 1997, Houston’s production company changed its name to BrownHouse Productions and was joined by Debra Martin Chase. Their goal was “to show aspects of the lives of African-Americans that have not been brought to the screen before” while improving how African-Americans are portrayed in film and television. Their first project was a made-for-television remake of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella. In addition to co-producing, Houston starred in the movie as the Fairy Godmother along with Brandy, Jason Alexander, Whoopi Goldberg, and Bernadette Peters. Houston was initially offered the role of Cinderella in 1993, but other projects intervened. The film is notable for its multi-racial cast and nonstereotypical message. An estimated 60 million viewers tuned into the special giving ABC its highest TV ratings in 16 years. The movie received seven Emmy nominations including Outstanding Variety, Musical or Comedy, while winning Outstanding Art Direction in a Variety, Musical or Comedy Special.
Houston and Chase then obtained the rights to the story of Dorothy Dandridge. Houston was to play Dandridge, who was the first African American actress to be nominated for an Oscar. Houston wanted the story told with dignity and honor. However, Halle Berry also had rights to the project and got her version going first. Later that year, Houston paid tribute to her idols, such as Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, and Dionne Warwick, by performing their hits during the three-night HBO Concert Classic Whitney Live from Washington, D.C.. The special raised over $300,000 for the Children’s Defense Fund. Houston received the Quincy Jones Award for outstanding career achievements in the field of entertainment at the 12th Soul Train Music Awards.
1998–2000: My Love Is Your Love and Whitney: The Greatest Hits
After spending much of the early and mid-1990s working on motion pictures and their soundtrack albums, Houston’s first studio album in eight years, the critically acclaimed My Love Is Your Love, was released in November 1998. Though originally slated to be a greatest hits album with a handful of new songs, recording sessions were so fruitful that a new full-length studio album was released. Recorded and mixed in only six weeks, it featured production from Rodney Jerkins, Wyclef Jean and Missy Elliott. The album debuted at number thirteen, its peak position, on the Billboard 200 chart. It had a funkier and edgier sound than past releases and saw Houston handling urban dance, hip hop, mid-tempo R&B, reggae, torch songs, and ballads all with great dexterity.
From late 1998 to early 2000, the album spawned several hit singles: “When You Believe” (US No. 15, UK No. 4), a duet with Mariah Carey for 1998’s The Prince of Egypt soundtrack, which also became an international hit as it peaked in the Top 10 in several countries and won an Academy Award for Best Original Song; “Heartbreak Hotel” (US No. 2, UK No. 25) featured Faith Evans and Kelly Price, received a 1999 MTV VMA nomination for Best R&B Video, and number one on the US R&B chart for seven weeks; “It’s Not Right but It’s Okay” (US No. 4, UK No. 3) won Houston her sixth Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance; “My Love Is Your Love” (US No. 4, UK No. 2) with 3 million copies sold worldwide; and “I Learned from the Best” (US No. 27, UK No. 19). These singles became international hits as well, and all the singles, except “When You Believe”, became number one hits on the Billboard Hot Dance/Club Play chart. The album sold four million copies in America, making it certified 4× platinum, and a total of eleven million copies worldwide.
The album gave Houston some of her strongest reviews ever. Rolling Stone said Houston was singing “with a bite in her voice” and The Village Voice called it “Whitney’s sharpest and most satisfying so far”. In 1999, Houston participated in VH-1’s Divas Live ’99, alongside Brandy, Mary J. Blige, Tina Turner, and Cher. The same year, Houston hit the road with her 70 date My Love Is Your Love World Tour. The European leg of the tour was Europe’s highest grossing arena tour of the year. In November 1999, Houston was named Top-selling R&B Female Artist of the Century with certified US sales of 51 million copies at the time and The Bodyguard Soundtrack was named the Top-selling Soundtrack Album of the Century by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). She also won The Artist of the Decade, Female award for extraordinary artistic contributions during the 1990s at the 14th Soul Train Music Awards, and an MTV Europe Music Award for Best R&B.
In May 2000, Whitney: The Greatest Hits was released worldwide. The double disc set peaked at number five in the United States, reaching number one in the United Kingdom. In addition, the album reached the Top 10 in many other countries. While ballad songs were left unchanged, the album features house/club remixes of many of Houston’s up-tempo hits. Included on the album were four new songs: “Could I Have This Kiss Forever” (a duet with Enrique Iglesias), “Same Script, Different Cast” (a duet with Deborah Cox), “If I Told You That” (a duet with George Michael), and “Fine”, and three hits that had never appeared on a Houston album: “One Moment in Time”, “The Star Spangled Banner”, and “If You Say My Eyes Are Beautiful”, a duet with Jermaine Jackson from his 1986 Precious Moments album. Along with the album, an accompanying VHS and DVD was released featuring the music videos to Houston’s greatest hits, as well as several hard-to-find live performances including her 1983 debut on The Merv Griffin Show, and interviews. The greatest hits album was certified 3× platinum in the US, with worldwide sales of 10 million.