Connie Pulliam, an L.A. County probation officer, took 36 of her closest friends to the movies on Saturday--celebrating her 50th birthday a month late in order to catch "Waiting to Exhale," the story of four African American women in search of Mr. Right.
"Women in the theater were shouting things out, co-signing to things presented on the screen," recalled Judy Kingston, a Torrance resident who attended the Pulliam party. " 'Exhale' is a training film about the pitfalls to avoid in relationships. It was a unifying experience for many of us."
Bolstered by women, primarily African American, the $15-million 20th Century Fox release opened with a whopping $14.1 million in box-office receipts to capture the four-day holiday weekend's No. 1 spot.
Though Terry McMillan's 1992 novel sold more than 3 million copies, the magnitude of the response came as something of a surprise. Four hundred people were turned away from a promotional screening. A man at Houston's AMC's Meyer Park complex bought 300 tickets on opening day. The Magic Johnson Theatres in the Crenshaw District showed the film on six of its 12 screens and still managed to sell out. Exit polls nationwide show that 70% of the audience is female and 65% is black.
Yvonne Divans Hutchinson, an English teacher, rented a limo with friends to attend the film. "There's a great sense of anticipation and excitement in the African American community," said Hutchinson, who, like several of those interviewed, found the film wanting but is glad that it's there. "I haven't seen the likes of it since the early 1970s when [Melvin] Van Peebles' 'Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song,' which ushered in the era of the blaxploitation film."
The film, which received mostly positive reviews nationwide, is filling a void, said Newsweek film critic David Ansen. "The black audience is fed up with inner-city, ghetto stories that speak to only a small section of their community," he said, alluding to well-reviewed movies such as Spike Lee's "Clockers" and the Hughes brothers' "Dead Presidents," which failed to ignite. "There's a great hunger for projects about the middle-class experience, especially from a female point of view. Since women of all colors are frustrated with male-female relationships, much of 'Exhale's' appeal is gender-based."
The movie is about priorities, self-definition, getting through the day, said producer Deborah Schindler who, with her partner Ezra Swerdlow persuaded the studio to buy the rights three years ago. "I didn't go in thinking 'niche film' and, if the studio did, they never mentioned it to us," she said. "The challenge was to make it true to the African American community in a way that transcended it."
Tracking studies indicated there was an audience to be tapped, said Fox senior executive vice president Tom Sherak. One hundred percent of the African American women polled indicated "definite interest" in the Forest Whitaker film, which stars Angela Bassett and Whitney Houston. Eighty-five percent made it their first choice in the marketplace.
"The question was whether it would translate into box office," said Sherak, who plans to add 150 theaters to the run--all in ethnically diverse major markets--by week's end. "Who knew that the film would become to the African American community what 'Jurassic Park' was to the public at large? Men aren't responding as positively as women--but the good news is that they aren't turned off."
While it's the men who are portrayed in the more unflattering light, women also have some bones to pick.
"The bottom line is that all men are not dogs and not all women are sitting around waiting to exhale," said Janice Sylve, a 42-year-old legal secretary. "I would have called this movie 'Four Hard-Up Broads.' "
Figuring it was "the girl thing to do," USC psychology graduate student Joy Davis headed for the movie with friends but found the experience disappointing. "The movie was a series of sketches rather than any real story," said Davis, 27. "This outpouring is a knee-jerk reaction from African American women who want to see themselves reflected on screen. I predict the movie will drop off quickly--which would be too bad. That gives Hollywood an excuse not to produce intelligent black films."
Kingston, for her part, found it refreshing to see "independent, well-dressed women living in the desert, of all places," while playwright Barbara Morgan ("An American Tract") found the film "choppy but entertaining."
Besides, said actress-receptionist Colette Griggsby, not every African American movie has to be perfect. "I'm just happy the story got told, badly or not," she said. "Ninety-five percent of all books don't translate well on the screen. Whether the movie ultimately succeeds or not, the strong opening shows the industry there's a lot of interest there."
Since teens of any color are action-oriented and black men are well aware of the male-bashing charges, "Waiting to Exhale" is a true test of the women's market, Ansen said. "People who want to see it want to see it badly. But will they all go in the next few weeks--after which the film drops dead?"
That's anyone's guess, Sherak acknowledged. "Fox always regarded this film as a point of pride for the studio--potentially profitable if it was made for a price--which we did," he said. "We only counted on getting the African American audience. Whether it will translate into the women's movie of the '90s, as we hope . . . who knows?"
Freelance writer Erin J. Aubry contributed to this story.