Byline: Merle Ginsberg
“I’m not a woman, nor am I ever going to be a woman!” says Forest Whitaker with a big grin on his face.
No kidding. The hulking 6’2′ actor was a defensive lineman in high school in Carson, Calif., and went to California State University on a football scholarship. Even with the most sensitive look in his eyes, no one’s going to mess with him.
But he called on his pronounced feminine side — which he never minds displaying in his movie portrayals in films like “Bird,” “The Crying Game,” “Platoon,” and “The Color of Money” — to manage the divas who star in the first feature film he’s directed, “Waiting to Exhale.”
“I turned it down at first,” he says, poised on a sofa in the lounge of the swank Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. “I told Terry [McMillan, the book’s author] and Ron Bass [the screenwriter] they should get a woman to direct this project. Then I read the script and loved it, and started to think of ways I could make it work. Sure, it’s about four women who are having a bad time with men — OK, a terrible time — but it’s not like the women are completely innocent, either. Bernadine [played by Angela Bassett] has been cold to her husband for years; it’s no surprise he leaves her. Savannah [played by Whitney Houston] keeps falling for married men; she should know better from the outset. I took the stance that men aren’t inherently evil, and women aren’t inherently good — because that’s the way it really is.”
Whitaker went into a recording studio to try and find a throughline, a way to make the women’s individual narratives overlap to become more of a cinematic story. The way he stumbled on was to use their voices musically, like concentric jazz riffs, which is how the final movie is structured. When they heard the vocal tracks, Twentieth Century Fox hired him on the spot, even though he’d only directed one other project, an HBO drama called “Strapped.”
“I got a lot of offers to direct after ‘Strapped,”‘ admits Whitaker. “A surprising amount. But I didn’t relate to any of them. Guns, shoot ’em ups, bad boys. If you’re going to spend two years on something, you better be moved by it. I wanted fairly emotional material.”
Specific things Whitaker brings to the film version are slightly more sympathetic male characters (“those guys aren’t bad — they’re just in bad circumstances”), and more humor to the sex scenes Whitney and Lela Rochon, who plays one of the four leads, have with their various menfolk.
“I felt a little embarrassed directing the sex scenes, but they tell a lot about the characters, so they had to be done carefully. If you notice, you never see the women nude, but you do see nude males from the back. Look — this is a movie for women, I was aware of that; it’s told from their point of view. And with these particular men — the sex is kind of funny. Sex is often funny, I think.”
Whitaker has been engaged for some time to a model, but thinks he did learn something more about the way women think while immersed in making this film.
“They depend on their friends more, they need to talk more, and they seem to be generally more resilient.”
Whitaker is going back to work in a week’s time, in his day job as actor in the movie “Phenomenon,” in which he’s starring with John Travolta and Robert Duvall in Northern California. He does want to keep directing, but maybe just one movie every other year, so he can keep up the acting work. But already the scripts are arriving — this time, full of female bonding themes.
“I probably won’t make another ‘woman’s movie,”‘ he says, considering. “But on the other hand — it probably won’t be an action picture, either.”