Angela Bassett Was Not Supposed To Play Bernadine in ‘Waiting To Exhale’
It’s been 25 years since the release of Waiting to Exhale and the movie’s impact remains huge. The film documents the heartbreak of four successful friends and how they lean on each other to overcome their pain. The star-studded cast includes Whitney Houston, Lela Rochon, Loretta Devine, and Angela Bassett. Ironically, Bassett was not set to star as Bernadine but convinced executives to allow her to switch roles.
Angela Bassett was initially supposed to play Savannah but felt more connected to the role of Bernadine
When author Terry McMillian optioned the book for a film adaptation, she had Bassett in mind to play Savannah, a single journalist who moves to Arizona for a new job and hopeful that her longtime married lover will leave his wife. Savannah is also the nucleus of her friendship circle.
But Bassett had another role in mind. She wanted to star as Bernadine, a middle-aged stay-at-home mother and wife who helped build her husband’s successful business only for him to leave her for his younger mistress.
“I fell in love with the drama,” Bassett tells ZORA in a recent interview commemorating the 25th anniversary of the film. “[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.”
Aside from Bernadine’s story of heartbreak to triumph, Bassett’s favorite part of the film is the sisterhood displayed on-screen amongst four Black women. She notes the final scene and the chemistry shared with the cast that’s ever so clear in the film as an example of just how powerful the portrayal is.
“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.”
Angela Bassett receives praise for her performance in ‘Waiting to Exhale’ – the film becomes a cultural classic
Overall, audiences love Waiting to Exhale, but it was Bassett’s performance that received the most praise. The scene in which Bernadine burns her soon-to-be ex-husband’s clothes and car is a forever standout. It also represents a symbol of revenge of a woman scorned.
Of the scene, Bassett tells ZORA, “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.”
Bassett’s choice to star as Berndaine paid off and critics raved about her work, particularly the fire scene. A 1995 Baltimore Sun review notes:
“Bernadine loads up his BMW with his gorgeous clothes and sets them aflame. The fire in the opulent automobile represents the pure rage that is at the center of comfortable lives and is the essence of “Waiting to Exhale.” The movie stays with Bernadine as she tries to rebuild her life and learn to trust and love again.”
Waiting to Exhale opened at No. 1 at the box office in its first weekend. The film grossed over $81 million at the close of its theatrical run. Bassett won an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actress In a Motion Picture.