Terry McMillan and Ron Bass are Hollywood's hot item, collaborators on the most eagerly anticipated movie of the year, even the decade. Waiting to Exhale, McMillan's book, has sold about three million copies to date, camping out on The New York Times bestseller list for 38 weeks. And Waiting to Exhale, the movie, for which she and Bass co-wrote the screenplay, is expected to echo that success.
The writers are on a whirlwind press tour and are tired. Bass, the lawyer, is the more successful at hiding fatigue. McMillan stifles a yawn, answers a question, then protests that, "It's Christmas, and I haven't even put up my Christmas tree yet."
By now, you'd have to have ducked out of popular culture altogether not to know what Waiting to Exhale is about. The four fictitious African-American women the book and movie center around have become female icons for the '90s--bright and ambitious, dysfunctional but loyal, horny, yet most of all romantic. The story tells how their quests for the good man and the good life turn into quests to find themselves.
"The story is their journey to learning enough about their own dysfunction and how it arises from the fact that they don't have respect for themselves," Bass explains. "It's about how they get to the place where they can do the right thing in their lives."
Exhale is a girl movie through and through, but with a sting--a Thelma and Louise without guns, and with better, hipper cars.
It's also a movie that--remaining true to the book--has chafed some black men, since most of its male characters are rakes.
"Black men are afraid to go see this movie," McMillan says. "They say, 'Oh, it's just a chick flick,' or, 'Oh, they're just doggin' the brothers again.'
"And that's not true. I mean, if we can sit around and watch men with machine guns and gangbangers killing each other all day long, and not one tender thing is said to anybody, I think a few men should be willing to sit down for a few minutes and watch what's happening in these women's lives."
McMillan chose Bass to help write the screenplay after her unsuccessful attempt to adapt a previous novel, Disappearing Acts, to the screen. Bass had worked with McMillan's best friend, author Amy Tan, on her film adaptation of The Joy Luck Club.
From the beginning, the pair agreed on what elements needed to remain in the women's tale, and presented a united front to the studio. Bass wanted voiceovers and an agreement from the studio that none of the women's stories would be cut. "In The Joy Luck Club," he says, "people were always trying to have us tell only one of the stories, 'cause they always felt there was too much story, which was stupid, I thought."
McMillan's enormous popularity has often tended to eclipse her co-screenwriter, even though Bass has compiled a long list of successful screenplays, including Rain Man, for which he won an Academy Award.
At 53, the boyish-looking Bass is an Ivy Leaguer who crept into the screenwriting business after working for a high-powered Los Angeles law firm. He wrote books in his spare time, selling his first manuscript in 1976. He also began selling and writing screenplays at the behest of studio executives. He eventually left the law firm and, in 1988, won the Oscar for Rain Man.
McMillan asked 20th Century Fox to call Bass. He was delighted by the women's stories in Waiting to Exhale.
"It was about these women and their insecurities," he says. "Because they were a part of this African-American culture, they were great at talking tough and talking trash and how independent they were and how they didn't need men and how cool they were, but inside, their hearts were broken and they were sad, and I really felt for them. I really loved them and felt they were more wonderful than they know."
This is a white man talking? "Everybody's like that," he says, "including me. You don't have to be female, and you don't have to be African-American" to relate to the movie's characters, he says.
Yet the film, like the book, delves deeply into black culture to tell its universal story and, in some ways, the life stories of McMillan and her closest girlfriends. Friendship is a major theme in Exhale, a testament to African-American female bonding.
Still, the question of black male-female relationships permeates the plot.
"It's not male bashing," McMillan says. "All I'm doing, basically, is choosing a few men who do not have the best character traits that you would necessarily want, but they are not so bad that you wouldn't be attracted to them. People keep forgetting--and I wish the men would not be so defensive about it--that these women also chose these men, and so that says a lot about them."
For Terry McMillan, that's the whole point.
She herself is a fierce woman, steely and somewhat aloof. She is the epitome of the strong black woman. The stories of Robin, Bernadine, Gloria, and Savannah are fables about the other kind of woman--like the lovely Robin, played by Lela Rochon.
"My biggest problem with Robin," McMillan says, her energy level rising, "is that she's sitting around waiting for a man to come take care of her. I am so sick of women wanting men just because of what they think they can do for them. Those kinds of women make me sick."
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McMillan has known women like Robin, but says she never, ever became one. "My mother taught me to be strong. Nobody should be here to save your ass. Nobody should be here to buy me a house. I should be able to buy my own damn house. I always dreamed that if I ever married somebody, all I ever wanted us to be able to do is merge."
Now, McMillan--the '90s woman--is working on her new book, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, and settling into a relationship with a man she says is not intimidated by her fame or wealth. Like she's been saying all along, she doesn't require much.
"If I can lay my head on your shoulder and I can trust you, and you'll be home when I get there and give me a nice big, fat, sloppy kiss, and you are going to rub through my hair while we watch a video, and the world outside is on my case, that's all I need.
"If I know somebody's got my back, I can pay my mortgage.