Angela Bassett, Loretta Devine and Lela Rochon on ‘that scene” from ‘Waiting To Exhale’
In an oral history of the 25-year-old iconic film, its stars revisit the friendship, the clothes and that fire
In the 25 years since Waiting to Exhale’s debut, the ground has shifted for Black female representation. The film, which was written by Terry McMillan and brought to life by Forest Whitaker, was the catalyst for that change.
Savannah (Whitney Houston), Robin (Lela Rochon), Bernadine (Angela Bassett), and Gloria (Loretta Devine) entranced audiences as they navigated life, love, and the bonds of sisterhood. It was a welcome and refreshing anomaly amid a slew of films that focused on narratives from the inner city — mostly centering Black men. The film changed the industry and catapulted the stars of nearly everyone who touched it. Now, on this pivotal anniversary, the key female players — plus the guys who portrayed their boyfriends, husbands and sons — talk to ZORA about making one of the most iconic films in history.
When McMillan first optioned the film, she had one name in mind to play Savannah. However, Bassett couldn’t envision herself as anyone but Bernadine.
“I fell in love with the drama,” Bassett tells ZORA. “[Bernadine’s] fractured relationship with her husband, starting over and learning to invest in herself in every way, rediscovering who she is and what matters most to her, putting herself first. The idea was so badass.”
The moment she read Waiting to Exhale, Rochon knew she was destined to play Robin, the high-powered executive who picks the wrong men. “I fought so hard for it because I felt very right for Robin, and the fact that Whitney was already cast was huge to me,” she remembers. “It was my first time in a lead role.”
Devine also recalls the frenzy surrounding the novel and the film’s production.
“I read the book when it first came out,” Devine says. “Everybody in Hollywood was auditioning for [the movie]. It was an exciting time. We were in Arizona for three months, and some scenes were cut out that people never saw. I had to learn to swim because [Gloria] was supposed to have a heart problem throughout the movie.”
With McMillan’s words to anchor them, it was Whitaker who carefully cultivated this story for the screen.
“Putting him at the helm as director could not have been a more excellent choice,” Bassett says. “He had such an enduring and apparent love for women, for ‘sistas’ in particular. I still think he is wondrous to this day. He’s always shown up for me, and I show up for him.”
While Waiting to Exhale is undoubtedly a story about Black women, Black men are still present. For Rochon, the memories with her male co-stars are some of the most unforgettable.
“My most difficult scene and one of my best scenes was with Wendell [Pierce],” she remembers. “It took two days to film, and he was sweating on top of me, but he was the sweetest, nicest guy. The stuff with [Mykelti Williamson], that was a lot of fun banter and fighting, and then when we got to Leon [Robinson], I just enjoyed every moment of it.”
Leon’s character Russell is a fu*kboy personified. Robinson was actually hesitant to accept the role, but Whitaker was insistent. “I asked about other roles,” Robinson says. “Forest said to me, ‘Listen, there’s no doubt you could play this role or this role, but if you do, who would I get to play Russell?’”
In the end, the electricity between Robinson and Rochon was worth it. “Forest had to call cut twice on the first time we kissed,” Robinson laughs. “We definitely had chemistry from the very moment we were together.”
While Bernadine, Savannah, and Robin struggled with love in Waiting to Exhale, Gloria literally struts up to it during a chance encounter with her neighbor, Marvin (Gregory Hines). “It was so romantic in a crazy kind of way,” says Devine of that infamous scene. “I had worked with Gregory before on Broadway, and he was such an incredible leading man. He brought me flowers my first day, and none of the other guys did that, so all of the women were jealous. I loved that.”
While there are moments of levity in Waiting to Exhale, McMillan didn’t shy away from the pain many Black women have experienced. The image of an enraged Bernadine lighting her husband’s BMW on fire will forever be embedded in our collective memory.
“I remember the flames being really hot!” Bassett recalls. “I thought of my mom and the way she held herself. I thought of her strength. It’s an honor that the scene resonated in such an impactful way and has stood the test of time. I love all the memes.”
As timeless as it’s become, some of our favorite scenes from Waiting to Exhale could’ve looked very different. Costume designer Judy L. Ruskin was brought in at the eleventh hour when a previously hired designer couldn’t proceed with the job. “I was hired the day before filming started,” Ruskin reveals. “I hit the ground running.”
Ruskin recalls dressing Bassett in a plush white robe and lingerie for that glorious fire scene. “In a heartbroken moment, you might not take off your jewelry,” says Ruskin, explaining her approach. “You might not want to get completely undressed, and you just collapsed in your bed. Then, when you get up in the morning, you put on the most comfortable thing you have.”
Another iconic look that has been emulated year after year is Robin’s keyhole white dress. Ruskin knew she had a gem on her hands when she spotted it. “I felt it was a gift from heaven,” she explains. “[Lela’s] so statuesque and that dress is like a pillar in itself. I adored that dress.”
While Black women are depicted in Waiting to Exhale as multidimensional, there were still concerns about “respectability” and “good representation.” Black men were quite outraged with the movie’s male characters.
“I don’t think the male characters were fully developed, and I’m not sure they were meant to be,” says Michael Beach, who portrayed Bernadine’s philandering husband, John. “When you introduce [John] by having him tell his beautiful Black wife that he was leaving her for a White woman, that character becomes irredeemable. I was often verbally attacked and a couple of times smacked on the shoulder or the back of the head by strangers in public.”
Still, as Beach notes, Waiting to Exhale is not a romance film. “Waiting To Exhale is not about the relationships between Black women and Black men,” he says. “It’s really about the relationships between Black women, and that hadn’t been seen before on movie screens. That fact alone makes it a classic. That’s why I never made a stink about John not being a more complete character. I also believe that if it weren’t for Exhale, Soul Food wouldn’t have been made.”
Bernadine isn’t the only woman to experience a heartbreaking moment in the film. When Gloria is faced with the truth about her ex, David (Giancarlo Esposito), and his sexuality, she’s crushed.
“He’s honest, and it breaks her heart,” Esposito, who is currently working with Whitaker on The Godfather of Harlem, reflects. “This was early on in my relationship with Loretta as an actor, and I found that she is so very sensitive because she has a way of emitting emotion through her eyes. She’s also a very light spirit. The fun for me was to see her establish herself as a powerful Black woman, but also someone who had a sense of humor and who was not afraid of allowing us to see her pain.”
Faison, who played Gloria’s teenage son, Tarik, recalls the connection he built with Devine. “Loretta was in the original cast of Dreamgirls, and my mom’s college roommate was Sheryl Lee Ralph,” he says. “Because of that, Loretta and I got really close. Working with her was amazing; it was a joy.”
In addition to Devine, Faison also formed a deep bond with Hines, who took him under his wing. “I smoked a cigar with him on a boat,” Faison recalls. “He was always awesome and would take the time to talk to me and hang out with me no matter where we were. His energy on set and his chemistry with Loretta was powerful.”
Waiting to Exhale didn’t just elevate Black women; Hollywood began churning out more female-centered stories. For Bassett, the cherished friendships on- and off-screen mean the world to her. “The scene at the end of the movie with the women listening to the radio and singing in the car was not scripted,” she says. “It was organic moments like these in which we found comfort with one another.”
That feeling of being seen has remained with Devine to this day. “It’s really affected, the way people look at Black women,” she says.
For Rochon, there is one specific day during filming that sticks out in her memory — the day she invited herself to Whitney Houston’s house. “I said to her, ‘What are you doing tonight? ‘Can we come over?’” she remembers. “We went over there, and her aunt made this huge dinner, she cooked up fried chicken and pies. She just went all out. We stayed up playing cards and bonding, and that was when we really got to know each other, but we did not go home until five in the morning.”