It was an unlikely hit — a comedy-drama about four African American female friends dealing with issues of romance, careers and fulfillment.
But when “Waiting to Exhale” opened two decades ago this holiday season, the movie not only became a breakout success but also touched a cultural nerve with an underserved audience.
“‘Waiting to Exhale’ was important 20 years ago because it gave black women a voice and brought attention to their ideas on love and marriage,” actress Loretta Devine said in an email interview. Devine played Gloria, a beautician, in the film. “Now, like then, women want the world to know what women want.”
Beloved by audiences who made it into a true word-of-mouth success — not to mention the subject of countless water-cooler discussions — “Waiting to Exhale” demonstrated how potent a force women could be at the box office. It led to a new generation of movies that explored similar themes with ethnic casts, such as “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” and “The Best Man.”
Based on Terry McMillan’s bestselling 1992 novel — it had sold 3 million copies by the time the movie was released — the movie starred the late Whitney Huston as Savannah, a young woman with a married boyfriend who moves from Denver to Phoenix to take on a job and reunite with her three closest friends.
With a screenplay by McMillan and Ronald Bass, “Waiting to Exhale” also starred Angela Bassett as Bernardine, a married mother of two whose husband is leaving her for his white girlfriend. Lela Rochon played Robin, who has a head for business but is clueless when it comes to finding the right man, and Devine, who has a teenage son (Donald Faison) and has caught the fancy of her new neighbor (the late Gregory Hines).
Though the book and movie were centered on the lives of African Americans, the audience for both transcended ethnic boundaries.
“I had a lot of white women who said, ‘Sweetie, you helped me get through my divorce,”’ noted McMillan. “Back in those days I got fan mail. There was no email, so my publisher would send me boxes of letters.”
Rochon noted women of every color and ethnicity have discussed the movie with her. Even before production began, she recalled, “Loretta Devine and I were walking through the airport somewhere in the Midwest, and all of these women came up to us. There was a group of Hispanic women who said, ‘I loved the book. You go, girl. I can’t wait to see the movie.’”
Bassett, who had won acclaim two years earlier for playing Tina Turner in “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” showed her range as Bernardine, a passionate, spirited woman dealing with a complex life.
“It showed women that in spite of fractured relationships, joy, peace, love and kinship are always a possibility,” said Bassett in an email interview. “It broke perception, preconception and history.”
“Waiting to Exhale” earned $81.5 million internationally. Part of its success was not only the cast and screenplay but actor Forest Whitaker, who made his feature directorial debut with the film.
“Everybody brought a different kind of magnetism and energy and beauty and class to the story,” said McMillan. " I think Forest helped bring all of that. It was beautiful to watch.”
The four actresses immediately bonded on the set and remained friends.
“We all really liked each other in real life,” Rochon said. “There is some sort of quality we have that connected us.”
“We had bowling parties, sometimes visiting each other’s set on your day off,” noted Devine. “The set was a wonderful place to be. It was a fun shoot, and we had a great time working and living in Arizona. We worked for almost two months on the movie. It changed our lives for the better and stepped up our careers.”
A month before the film was released, the soundtrack of “Waiting to Exhale” was released featuring 17 songs composed by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds performed by female R&B artists such as Houston, Cece Winans, Mary J. Blige and Aretha Franklin.
The soundtrack topped the billboard charts for five weeks and the R&B charts for seven weeks. The disc was nominated for 11 Grammys with “Exhale” (Shoop Shoop),” which was sung by Houston, winning the Grammy for best R&B song.
Edmonds just didn’t compose the songs; he also wrote the lush score for “Waiting to Exhale.”
“Forest came to me,” recalled Edmonds. “I was familiar with the book. I didn’t know he was doing the movie. He talked to me about doing the music. I thought I would write a couple of songs and he said, ‘I don’t want you just to write the songs. I want you to score the film.’ I said I never have scored a film. He said, ‘You can do it. I’ll work with you.’”
Twenty years after its release, “Waiting to Exhale” has taken on a bittersweet quality because of the untimely deaths of Houston in 2012 at the age of 48 and Hines in 2003 at the age of 57.
“I had the best leading man ever,” said Devine of Hines. “Gregory had a dozen roses waiting in my room for me on my first day of work. I must have bragged about it until my face hurt. I love Whitney so much. She was down to earth, easy to laugh and always singing. We worked together on three projects. It was devastating losing them both.”
Bassett, who directed “Whitney,” the 2015 Lifetime biopic on the movie, noted, “Whitney and Gregory were both magnificent, talented and gracious creatures. He, utterly charming, and she, a force of joy.”