Critics sniped, but the phenomenon of the season is the new audience interacting with “Waiting to Exhale.”

The Oscar race is turning out to be a year of anomalies. Despite the hype about “Sense and Sensibility” and “Richard III,” the highbrow National Society of Film Critics anoints a movie about a pig, “Babe,” as its best picture. While “Toy Story” is arguably one of the surprise megahits of the decade, magazines and newspapers are devoting acres of space to a film called “Waiting to Exhale” that received a mixed reception from critics.

Moreover, while audiences seem to be responding to the Pacino-De Niro chemistry in “Heat,” critics’ groups are fixated on Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue in “Leaving Las Vegas,” a movie that won’t gross what was spent on “Heat’s” New York subway ads.

While there has never been much of a correlation between critical accolades and box office results, it was a rule of thumb that good reviews were mandatory in eliciting strong media coverage. Scan the newspapers and magazines over the past two weeks, however, and virtually all you read about is “Nixon” and “Waiting to Exhale.””Nixon” got the cover of Newsweek and “Exhale” was actually accorded a page one story in the august New York Times.

A glance at the Crix’ Picks charts in Variety last week demonstrates that neither film was exactly the darling of the critics. “Nixon” received 19 pro votes in New York and Los Angeles compared with 23 con and mixed votes, while “Exhale” was given only six unstintingly favorable reviews compared with 26 mixed or negatives.

Then why were they accorded forests of newsprint? The answer with “Nixon” is that Oliver Stone is a genius at stoking up controversy. He’s also mastered the old Bob Altman device of showing favored critics an unfinished print and saying, “Tell me what you think.” Critics, especially those working for newsmagazines, love to be let in on “the process.”

The stew over “Exhale” is more complicated. Here is a flawed movie that, at this point in time, has yet to demonstrate that it can cross over beyond a narrow segment of the marketplace — namely, black women. But what a segment to discover!

Thirty years ago, that most cynical of all studio chiefs, Jim Aubrey of MGM, found that he could crank out low-budget, low-quality “blaxploitation” movies to appeal to the inner-city male audience, but the “Shaft” type of movie quickly ran out of steam.

Where Aubrey sought to exploit, “Exhale” aims to touch. In relating the stories of four women who are looking for Mr. Right, the film depicts how all interact with the usual assortment of losers and liars. It is a painful quest one that black women clearly identify with. Indeed much of the energy in “Exhale” emanates from audience interaction. “You tell ‘em, girl,” the moviegoers shout to the characters.

It is no secret that black audiences tend to talk back to movies more than their white brethren — a trait I’ve always found refreshing. Some years ago I produced a movie called “Fun With Dick and Jane,” which depicted the misadventures of a down-and-out middle class white couple who had launched themselves on a career of crime. White audiences watched the movie with benumbed amusement; blacks practically blew away the screen as they hooted at the ineptitude of the white couple and shouted advice about their larcenous technique.

Cries of empathy

There are several superbly funny and poignant scenes in “Exhale” that evoke cries of empathy and sisterhood from the audiences, along with others that are flat or soapy. The bottom line, however, is that this modest movie, which cost a mere $ 15 million, could easily hit a domestic gross of $ 60 million or beyond. Exit polls show its audience is 70% female and also 70% black, but the share of whites is steadily climbing, suggesting the possibility of a crossover.

Self-made ‘events’

The movie already is subtly infiltrating the language. “Have you exhaled yet?” one woman is likely to ask another after a date.

The impact of “Exhale” and “Nixon” illustrates another point as well. The conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that only an “event” picture can strike a major chord with the audience, event being defined in terms of action, budget and size of canvas. These two, however, are self-made events. As such, both will leave their mark on a season of surprises and anomalies.

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