For the Ladies (Special Whitney Edition) – Waiting to Exhale
With the passing of Whitney Houston, I thought we could journey back to 1995 and discuss a more modern women’s film, Waiting to Exhale. I tend to focus on women’s pictures of earlier decades simply because the films marketed towards women during the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s were generally more interesting and complex than the tepid romantic comedies that are made now. Released almost twenty years ago, Waiting to Exhale is notable not only for being about women, but for its mostly black cast, including a pre-trainwreck Houston. For our younger readers, there was a time when Whitney was not a reality television joke; she used to be considered a pretty classy lady. I was too punk rock at the time to listen to her music, but I could respect the artist. I could respect the DIVA.
Waiting to Exhale tells the story of four Arizona women who are struggling to reconcile the realities of their romantic lives with the dreams and hopes they have always held onto. As they let go of their false and damaging ideas about their relationships, they open themselves up to newer and better possibilities.
Bernadine (Angela Bassett): Bernie has put her own needs on hold to support her husband in his business and raise his children. She’d always wanted to open her own catering company, but her husband kept telling her to put it off because he needed her help elsewhere. On New Year’s Eve, he announces that she will not be going to the party with him because his mistress doesn’t want to be alone that night, and he sees no reason she should be; he is leaving Bernadine. She is blindsided by this, and by the fact that the woman he is leaving her for is white. (Bernadine’s anger at her rival’s whiteness is a major motivator in some of her later behavior. Less a function of racism on her part, I am guessing that it has more to do with the pool of successful, available black men being small due to over-jailing and institutional racism, and historical feelings of inferiority because of constant media image and cultural reinforcement that white is more beautiful/better than black.) In the divorce proceedings, Bernie learns that most of their assets are in her husband’s name, and that she is going to have to fight hard to get what’s fair.
Savannah (Whitney Houston): Savannah is Bernie’s best friend and has recently moved back to town because she has been given the opportunity to work as a television producer. In spite of her success, and maybe because of it, her dating pool is pretty small, and while the men may look good, they lack most of the qualities that would qualify them as an appropriate mate. (One guy just uses her toothbrush without asking. I won’t even let my husband share my toothbrush. Ick.) An old flame, Kenneth (Dennis Haysbert), re-enters her life, and at first she is excited to rekindle their romance, but he is married and shows no sign of leaving his wife. Her attempts to determine if this relationship is the best thing for her are complicated by her mother, who encourages her to stay with Kenneth because he is a “good man” despite being married to someone else.
Gloria (Loretta Devine): Gloria is a single mother who has given up looking for romance so she can focus on raising her son, Tarik (Donald Faison). She tries to assuage her loneliness by hitting on her ex-husband when he comes to visit, but it turns out he has just come out as gay. Gloria struggles with her self-esteem at the same time her son is growing up and moving away from her. When a good thing enters her life, will she be brave enough to embrace it?
Robin (Lela Rochon): Robin is an executive with an insurance company and has a taste for bad boys. And by bad boys, I mean drug-dealing, commitment-phobic cheaters. She’s successful and beautiful, but never dates men who are even close to her level of achievement. She tries to make choices that show respect for herself, while also trying to be more than a superficial and self-centered party girl.
This movie is about romantic relationships and is a classic melodrama; director Forest Whitaker does not shy away from dramatic music and overblown performances. Angela Bassett is wonderful as the betrayed Bernadine, and chews the scenery up in proper style. Loretta Devine is also really great, and gives nuance to a role that very easily could have been one-dimensional. Lela Rochon doesn’t have much to work with as Robin—she is not the best-written of the four women—but manages to make the character sympathetic even though she is annoying. And then there is Whitney. She is often accused of being flat in this role, but I don’t think she was all that bad; I’ve always enjoyed her performance here.
I generally like my women’s pictures to be about more than just romance; while this one certainly spends most of its time dealing with the men, I don’t mind it so much here. Even though all of the women begin the film obsessing about men, only one of them ends up in a relationship by the end of the movie. The other women learn that there are different paths for them at this time. The one coupling that does happen feels justified and not just tacked on to make the audience happy. It’s not just some empty-headed romance where everyone is magically paired off in the end. There is lots of sex, but this is a film for grown women—not for people who are afraid of what women might do when not properly contained by marriage.
Another strong element in this film is the friendships between the women. This is not the center of the story, but is the backdrop against which the story takes place. It is absolutely normal in this world that the women will call each other all the time, go out together, support each other, talk smack behind each other’s backs, get drunk and stop their friends from making ill-advised phone calls. In short, it looks like real friendships between women, and that is a pretty rare thing in the movies. It is very natural here, and great to see.
The fact that most of the cast is African-American is not really that surprising. All through the history of Hollywood, Black Hollywood has existed: sometimes making films within the studio system, other times making their own, independently produced features. (If you are interested in learning more about this, I recommend reading Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood, by Donald Bogle.) However, what is really interesting here is that this movie was marketed to both Black and White audiences. And it’s interesting because this film addresses issues that specifically deal with Black women and may not be viewed as “universal.” (“Universal” meaning “appeals to White people,” in this case.) I am worried that if this movie were made now, it would be marketed only to black audiences (and Tyler Perry would cast himself as Bernadine). I have a sneaking suspicion that I am missing out on some good movies.
This is not a perfect movie: it can be a little over the top and the character of Robin is seriously annoying. But, it’s a good girlfriend movie, and it’s one of my favorite sick movies of all time. (There really are very few things better in life than the combination of a blanket, a cup of Theraflu, and Waiting to Exhale.) There are a lot of annoying men in this movie, but to be honest, the women in it are not above some horrible behavior. And that is what makes it great. The characters make mistakes, they learn from them, and hopefully have the chance for a better future. And they have each other to get through the crap times.