"Waiting to Exhale" (1995) Is About Surviving Loneliness
Waiting to Exhale is a 1995 romance film directed by Forest Whitaker and based on the book of the same name by Terry McMillan.
The story centers around four women who are each dealing with difficulties in their romantic lives. Their loneliness and their fear of ultimately being alone drives much of their choices in life, until each one of them decides to take control of their happiness.
Gloria (Loretta Devine) is a curvy beautician whose loneliness has forced her son into the role of a male companion. Because she treats her son like a friend, he shows a lack of respect for her, speaking to her however he pleases in ways that hurt his mother. Because of Gloria's loneliness, their relationship is very dysfunctional.
Tarik (Donald Adeosun Faison) resents his mother for holding on, and it's part of the reason he lashes out verbally at her. When his father comes to town to visit, he is indifferent and even insults the man in front of his mother. During the argument, it is revealed that Gloria still sleeps with Tarik's father whenever he visits, regardless of the fact that their sex life is . . . inadequate. It's revealed that Tarik's father (Giancarlo Esposito) is gay but was hiding as bisexual for years, unable to face the truth.
Our relationships are often a direct reflection of us, and it's never a "coincidence" when a straight person winds up with a gay person.
Gloria didn't believe she was worthy of love because of her weight, so she (subconsciously) committed herself to someone who couldn't love her. She drew that into her life based on her (again subconscious) beliefs about herself.
Gloria is still struggling with loneliness and feelings of self-worth when Marvin King (Gregory Hines) moves in next door. He and Gloria fall in love, and he teaches her that she is worthy of love just the way she is, that she doesn't have to be afraid to let go of Tarik and be on her own.
Self-worth and independence (rather than codependency) is something every person has to discover for herself. It can't come from an outside source. The story makes it seem as if Gloria learned these lessons from Marvin, but I feel he guided her through them, rather than teaching her directly. The fact that they had an argument and she came to apologize to him -- having realized the truth on her own -- was proof enough.
Marvin brought Gloria's issues to the forefront, forced her to face them, and was there to forgive her once she realized -- of her own accord -- that being alone isn't the end of the world and that she shouldn't punish Tarik for her loneliness.
The culminating scene in Gloria's story actually ends pretty beautifully in that regard, with Marvin telling Gloria that he loves her right before kissing her.
Robin is so terrified of being alone that she just sort of settles for whatever man comes along. We the audience watch as she stumbles from relationship to relationship, ignoring her intuition and making excuses for the worst behavior -- anything to avoid singledom.
Troy (Mykelti Williamson) is a drug addict who steals Robin's wallet and humiliates her in public by treating her like a piece of meat. She ignores her initial discomfort for the sake of finding "the one," only to eventually cut him from her life when enough becomes enough (in a hilarious orange throwing scene).
Micheal (Wendell Pierce) is everything that Robin dreams of, except she isn't remotely attracted to him and he's also a terrible lover. Unable to bring herself to settle, she breaks things off with him, and he punishes her freewill by being a passive aggressive asshole at work -- to the point that she has to fire him.
Russell (Leon Robinson) is the direct opposite of Micheal -- he's good looking, great in bed, but he's also broke, married, and doesn't care about Robin's emotional needs.
Robin can't seem to find the right person for her, but by the end of the film, she comes to the realization that she doesn't need a man in her life to be happy. Happiness is not something that comes from without -- it comes from within. You can't depend on circumstance, relationships, or love interests to complete you. You have to complete yourself.
The second Robin realized that -- that she was responsible for her own happiness -- she became happy. She found the strength to push Russell out of her life and raise their child on her own. And maybe now that she loves herself enough not to settle for being a mistress, perhaps the right man will come for Robin.
And if he doesn't? Not the end of the world.
Bernadine Harris (Angela Bassett) has been left by her husband "for a white woman." She goes into an emotional meltdown, loads all her husband's stuff into the car, and sets it on fire.
It's my belief that John never loved Bernie. She was just his trophy wife, a placeholder until what he really wanted came along. Once he really fell in love with someone, he left Bernie with a calm and casual air that is pretty shocking -- even selfish, considering how he complains that she isn't making it easy for him. Bernadine's feelings didn't matter to him at all.
It sounds harsh to "blame" Bernadine for her predicament, but people wind up in these situations because they don't love themselves. Our relationships are a direct reflection of us. Bernie wound up with John (Michael Beach) due to her own self-loathing. She drew that relationship into her life.
At one point in the film, Bernadine admits that she can't even pretend it's all John's fault. So she knows she played an active role in her own misery, that she wasn't a victim of circumstance, and that is admirable -- as well as a mark of true strength.
It takes strength to recognize our mistakes and learn from them.
Like the other characters in the film, Bernie only stayed in her miserable marriage because she was afraid to be alone. She admits to Gloria in a character-defining scene that she needs someone to hold her, even if it is "a damn lie."
While going through her divorce, Bernie meets James Wheeler (Wesley Snipes) at a bar. James immediately starts hitting on her very intrusively when it's pretty clear she wants to be left alone. Bernie eventually opens up to James -- who clearly won't go away -- and they decide to head back to a hotel for casual sex.
I was always glad that the two of them didn't actually sleep together. For one thing, James stepping out on his sick and dying wife is all levels of scummy (sex is not a requirement or a need, it's a desire). For another thing, Bernie was still getting over her husband and it wouldn't have been right or fair for her to bring that energy into a new relationship -- not even just into casual sex.
I always thought it was nice that they wound up just falling asleep together. They were two lonely people in need of comfort, and they realized that they could comfort each other without doing each other -- or anyone else, namely James' wife -- any harm.
James later sends Bernie a letter saying that he's in love with her while at the same time loving his wife. And through one night of comfort, Bernie finally comes to understand that love and sex (aka being held) are not the same thing. James loved her without the need to have sex with her, and she realized -- after finally being held in a loving way -- that she didn't need to be held to be happy.
Bernie realized that she could be okay on her own, without the need for cold and meaningless casual sex.
Savannah Jackson (Whitney Houston) is a very lonely woman. She's independent and financially successful. All she needs is someone to share her life with. Unfortunately, she can't seem to a find a man who is single and above playing games with her.
In the opening of the film, she meets Lionel (Jeffrey D. Sams) at a party, a man who she's been trying to get in touch with for quite some time. Lionel dances with Savannah while failing to mention that he's already there with someone else.
When Savannah forgives Lionel's unfortunate behavior and takes him home for (very bad) sex, it shows the flaw in her character. Much like Robin, she is so desperate not to be alone that she will excuse the worst behavior from the men she dates.
Savannah does this to the point that she is willing to keep seeing Kenneth (Dennis Haysbert), a married man who is pretending he's going to leave his wife for her but really just wants to have his cake and eat it too.
After Robin reveals that she went through the same thing before moving to Phoenix, Savannah wakes up and steps into her power. Now determined to no longer be a plaything, she dumps Kenneth at their next lunch date -- in a very memorable scene where she pours her drink on him.
Savannah has finally learned that sometimes it's better to be alone than to be used.
By the end of the film, all four women have learned to love themselves, that it's okay to be single, that they are worthy of love, and that they were never alone --
They always had each other.
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