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Filming On A Wing And A Prayer

Fri., Dec. 27, 1996

When they start selling side orders of wings at the concession stand, then you’ll know this thing the movies have for angels has gotten out of hand.

For now, they’re content to settle for just two angel movies at once. The near-simultaneous arrival of “The Preacher’s Wife” and “Michael” is more a coincidence than a fad.

The interest is nothing new. “The Preacher’s Wife,” starring Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston, is Penny Marshall’s jazzed-up remake of a chestnut from the 1940s, “The Bishop’s Wife.” And the title character played by John Travolta in Nora Ephron’s “Michael” is none less than the archangel bearing that good name - protector of Daniel in the lions’ den, Joan of Arc on the battlefield and, according to the Vatican, all policemen under siege.

In fact, director Ephron says “Michael” represents a cultural tidal pull far greater than just the “personal angel” craze of recent years. It is this newer sort of popular, self-congratulatory belief in mundane miracles - benevolent angels helping people find convenient parking spaces and such - that had provoked the backlash of a recent horror melodrama, “Prophecy,” with its tale of a bloodthirsty holy war brought down from heaven to Earth.

“But an earthbound angel, full of power and passionate feeling - that’s ripe stuff for the movies, as the movies have proved, long since,” says Ephron, alluding to such pacesetters as Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) and the heaven-themed wartime picture “A Guy Named Joe” (1944).

But carrying on a tradition doesn’t mean much unless you add something to it in the process. Ephron said she found such an innovation in the original screenplay for “Michael,” written by newspaper veterans Jim Quinlan and Pete Dexter.

“I’d never seen anything quite like this,” she said, describing the tale of cynical journalists seeking to debunk sightings of an angel in small-town America. “It was clearly a subject tinged with everyday magic,” she added. John Travolta stars as the angel, with William Hurt and Andie MacDowell among the team of doubtful reporters.

Travolta, while shooting “Michael” last spring on locations near Austin, Texas, described his character: “Michael really has two missions: One is to give these hardened characters their hearts back, which is what he came to Earth to do. But while he’s here, he is also planning to enjoy himself. And he likes to get into fights, like any good archangel.”

Denzel Washington takes a noticeably more suave and lighthearted approach to his heavenly visitor in “The Preacher’s Wife.” Although popular opinion polls have suggested that as many as 68 percent of Americans believe in the existence of angels, no angels seem to have presented themselves as models for Hollywood’s portrayals.

“People have always told me that I’m a closet comedian,” Washington says, “and I must say I never had so much fun as doing this film.”

“The Preacher’s Wife” is thematically identical to “The Bishop’s Wife” (1947), where Cary Grant plays the heavenly visitor who both helps and complicates the lives of a church couple.

The new version, however, takes a folksier approach, with its AfricanAmerican neighborhood setting and its emphasis on gospel music. Here, the preacher (Courtney B. Vance) is finding himself lacking both on the job and at home; his church-singer wife (Whitney Houston) has a “scandalous” past as a hard-partying jazz singer; and the very church is under threat of demolition.


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