Oscar winner Kevin McDonald’s shocking and elucidating new documentary about singer Whitney Houston reveals the horrible truth behind her pain and suffering: Whitney was abused as a child by her late cousin, DeeDee Warwick, sister of Dionne Warwick. Whitney told a lifelong family friend and her assistant, Mary Jones, who tells the story on camera to Mcdonald in Whitney, which debuted tonight in Cannes.
It’s a heartbreaking revelation. I’ve confirmed that neither Dionne Warwick nor Whitney’s mother, Cissy Houston, knew this until McDonald interviewed Jones. As someone who knew Whitney and Dee Dee, it’s just devastating. Whitney suffered so, and DeeDee– who was an alcoholic and battled drugs– must have suffered as well.
Believe me, as kind of an amateur expert on this family over the last three or four decades, I was stunned but not totally surprised. Something had to have plagued Whitney into the grave. Her descent into drugs and madness never made sense. She was wholly self-destructive. And now this revelation maybe makes some sense of it all, of her death, and the death of her daughter Bobbi Kristina.
McDonald’s movie, playing at midnight out of competition, is quite different than what you expect. Clive Davis, for example, makes just a fleeting appearance at the beginning. Instead, McDonald zooms in on Whitney’s struggles with her sexual identity and her growing dependence on drugs.
Her ex husband, Bobby Brown, is not depicted as a villain (although he is shown to be other things). Brown won’t discuss drugs with McDonald, but others talk about his upside down life with Whitney. More importantly, Michael Houston– Whitney’s brother– admits he turned her onto drugs with increasing danger starting when she was just 16. To some extent, this lets Bobby off the hook.
To make his case, McDonald skips over a lot. But his omissions are answered in other films and books and articles– they don’t matter here. He went on a mission to discover what the source of Whitney’s immense pain was– and he found it. Once the Dee Dee Warwick story is revealed, it’s like a gut punch. It explains so much and leaves so many questions that probably can’t be answered. For example, Dee Dee Warwick was no monster. She was a gentle soul who was also in deep pain. What happened to her in her childhood? We may never know.
As a film, “Whitney” excels in many other areas- home movies, rare footage, interviews with family friend “Aunt Bae,” who raised Bobbi Kristina from til age 8 in her home (a wise woman), sincere friends like former sister in law Donna Houston (one of the heroes of this story), and a lot of people who, like Whitney’s fans, have grappled with the mystery of her demise. Even her brother Gary, a long time drug addict, comes off as sympathetic. Until the child abuse is revealed, you see a lot of people in pain trying to figure out what happened in their lives to this amazing singer, beautiful young girl who seemed like she had everything– and it call came crashing down.
A lot of people will ask about Whitney’s sexuality and her relationship with former assistant and best friend Robyn Crawford. I’m happy to say McDonald handles all that with aplomb and grace, doesn’t make any proclamations, and treats Crawford, a fine person, with respect.
On balance, “Whitney” achieves something rare– it treads a thin line between our tabloid desires and the seriousness of a life that became famous. You can’t ask for anything more.