Terry McMillan’s blockbuster novel Waiting to Exhale struck a nerve with its female audience, who related to the four characters and their trials with men. The book is compulsively filmable, which is why the film is so successful. The need for a film like this cannot be understimated – how many other major studio releases feature an all-Black female cast? Featuring pop singer Whitney Houston (The Bodyguard) and Oscar nominee Angela Bassett (What’s Love Got to Do with It) the film was a big boxoffice hit at the time — not a classic film, by any stretch, it does highlight a woefully underrepresented demographic and criminally ignored characters.
The story is similar to First Wives Club, in that the women find a bond together in their misery about men. Unlike Wives, the women in Exhale are treated pretty badly. Angela Bassett stars as Bernadine “Bernie” Harris, the dutiful wife of buppie John Harris, Sr (Michael Beach). Despite giving him a home, a family and supporting him through his career, she still loses her cad of a husband to co-worker (adding insult to injury, the other woman’s White). Not only is he leaving her, but Michael is also trying to stiff her financially, insisting they sell her home.
Whitney Houston is Savannah Jackson, a successful television producer who moves to Phoenix and reunites with her best friend, Bernie. Like Bernie, she also has major issues with men, specifically Kenneth Dawkins, an old flame, who ends up being married.
Lela Rochon is the brainy sexpot, Robin Stokes, woman who dumps her married lover only to find herself drawn to him, despite her repeated attempts at moving on with a rotund coworker.
Lorette Devine plays Gloria Matthews, a single mother and beautyshop owner, who must contend with an ex who’s gay, while raising an independent, though kindhearted, son. She catches the eye of her hunky neighbor, Marvin King (Gregory Hines), but like the other three women, has had such atrocious luck with men, that she has reservations about allowing him into her life.
The women of Waiting to Exhale are wonderful characters, and each actress has a moment to shine. Unlike First Wives Club, the women never descend into sexist stereotypes. The book is faithfully and loving transferred onto film, and it goes by breezily. The Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds-helmed soundtrack also moves things along, adding a lush romantic proceedings to the love scenes, while punctuating the ache in the heartbreak moments.
Oscar-winning actor Forrest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland) does a solid job directing his theatrical film debut. He moves things at a brisk pace, employing standard, conservative shots. He also shoots his stars attractively, making sure each looks like a million bucks.
The performance of Bassett is predictably the strongest. Her portrayal is reminiscent of her acclaimed turn as Tina Turner. The most famous sequence of the film is the memorable scene where Bernie piles all of her husband’s possessions in a car and sets it on fire. Bassett’s quieter moments are equally potent — just watch her scene with Wesley Snipes in a wonderful cameo as a charmer in a bar; the two stars share a superb chemistry and the script is insightful and sensitive.
Devine is almost Bassett’s equal as the jovial Gloria. The film is careful not to take potshots at her weight, even though it’s mentioned. She has a wonderful comic sensibility and is humane. Rochon is also impressive, capable of showing joy and sadness. Houston is the least impressive, though she isn’t bad, just a little stiff. She moves through her scenes as if she were wearing a back brace, but in the humorous scenes, she shows a potential comic persona.
Waiting to Exhale was released over a decade ago. Unfortunately, the state of Black actresses in Hollywood hasn’t improved much. The four actresses have struggled to maintain their profiles in film (even the tabloid-favorite Houston who got more press for her drug and marrital woes, than for any work she’s done). Waiting to Exhale is a great example of what Hollywood can accomplish when it really reflects reality.