Like POISON IVY earlier in the summer, SINGLE WHITE FEMALE (released August 14, 1992) is a quintessential, much-imitated suspense thriller of the specific type that reigned in the ‘90s. I rented it on VHS back in the day and I believe I liked it, but I have to admit to thinking of this type of thriller as pretty interchangeable and disposable. Watching it now I can see that this is one of the best of its type.
There are many factors to that. Director Barbet Schroeder (BARFLY) creates a tense and atmospheric slow burn of a character piece. The script by first-timer Don Roos (adapted from a book by John Lutz) nicely establishes layered characters in an uncomfortable scenario, plus numerous details to the apartment building setting that you just know will become relevant late in the movie when violence is afoot. And it looks great – credit to cinematographer Luciano Tovoli (SUSPIRIA, TITUS) and production designer Milena Canonero (also the costume designer, as she was for BARRY LYNDON, TUCKER: THE MAN AND HIS DREAM, DICK TRACY, THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, OCEAN’S TWELVE, MARIE ANTOINETTE – man, that’s a resume!). The score by Cronenberg’s guy Howard Shore is certainly a big part of setting the eerie mood. And I don’t really know how to measure it but I gotta assume the editing is crucial to the suspense, so I want to mention that editor Lee Percy comes out of the world of exploitation – he was the scamp who bastardized LONE WOLF AND CUB into SHOGUN ASSASSIN, and he did THE KILLING OF AMERICA, THEY CALL ME BRUCE, RE-ANIMATOR, TROLL, FROM BEYOND and DOLLS. Also BLUE STEEL.
But above and beyond the great work of all these top of the line craftspeople and visionaries, SINGLE WHITE FEMALE works because of the great performances by protagonist/straight woman Bridget Fonda (DOC HOLLYWOOD) and sympathetic/terrifying stalker Jennifer Jason Leigh (BACKDRAFT).
Fonda plays Allie Jones, a talented software designer who lives with her fiancé Sam (Steven Weber, THE FLAMINGO KID) in a rent-controlled apartment on the 11th floor of the historic Ansonia in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. After discovering that Sam cheated on her she kicks him out. Since she’s afraid to live alone and her business situation isn’t great (her only client Mitchell Myerson [Stephen Tobolowsky, THELMA & LOUISE] doesn’t pay as much as she’d like) she goes looking for a roommate to split the rent off-the-books.
Leigh, of course, plays the roommate, Hedra Carlson, who Allie renames Hedy. She’s kinda shy and awkward but seems sweet, and they hit it off so well that part of me just wanted it to be a movie where they’re friends and nothing bad happens. Of course, we can see pretty quick that she’s doing inappropriate things – hiding letters and messages from Sam, buying a puppy without asking, pretending she got it for free, undressing in front of Allie and not caring that it clearly makes her uncomfortable.
Allie gets in too deep partly because she puts Hedy in a bad position and is a nice enough person to feel bad about it. When Hedy’s moving in and hears about the Sam situation she wants to make sure they’re not gonna just get back together and want her to move out, and of course that does happen almost immediately. Allie tries to navigate it by letting her stay for a while and taking the engagement slowly. She even seriously considers moving out herself and leaving the place for Hedy. But by this point Hedy has become possessive and alternates between trying to win them over (making breakfast and shit) and creepier stuff (spying on them having sex and then going to her room to masturbate).
As I alluded to earlier, I love in an action movie, a horror movie, or a suspense thriller when the early scenes establish geographical details or objects that either you don’t give much thought to and then they become important for a big set piece and you think “ah ha,” or better yet you see them and think “that’s gonna come up later” and then you anticipate it and appreciate it when it arrives. Here Allie gives her new roommate a tour of the building, and we know all of this will come up again: the rickety elevator that sometimes requires a screwdriver to close, the storage unit in the basement, the incinerator, the doorman who knows everybody. In other scenes we see the bars on the window that have a broken piece, her upstairs neighbor friend Graham (Peter Friedman, CHRISTMAS EVIL)’s vent through which he can hear sounds from Allie’s apartment, and the weird lock on his door. And as soon as Hedy gets the puppy you think “Oh shit.” That’s a little different type of anticipation, but related.
The best one I foolishly didn’t see coming (SPOILER): Allie’s very tall stiletto heel that lobotomizes Sam in the end. They both try them on at the store but Hedy says, “You take them. I’ll just borrow them when I want to.” And she does! Bravo.
The main thing I remembered from the movie happens later than I thought it would – it’s when Hedy takes Allie to the salon and comes out with an identical hairstyle. Obviously this is taken advantage of for many thriller possibilities (she tricks half awake Sam into accepting a blowjob, Graham sees her from behind and mistakes her for Allie, everything she does in front of witnesses could be blamed on Allie) but the real genius of it is calling up the more down-to-earth discomfort of geez, how would you feel if somebody (even someone you had less ambivalent feelings about) mimicked you in that way? It’s such a simple, on-the-surface-non-threatening bit of fuckery.
Honestly Leigh’s acting is pretty nuanced for a character who turns out to be quite deranged. The places Hedy goes to are over-the-top but the performance is very controlled. Hedy is not a total phony, she’s not completely putting on an act. She can be genuinely nice and she can also let it be known she’s mad, though in a passive aggressive way. But she tries to keep her worst side private. I think her scariest moments are when she’s alone and angry at the dog and just sounds so mean. It’s like we’re spying on something we’re not supposed to see.
There’s also a bit that cleverly makes us complicit in her darkness. After Allie’s meeting with her client Mitchell goes from sexual harassment to attempted rape, Hedy tries to comfort her by calling him up, pretending to be Allie, and convincingly threatening to destroy his business and family. You can’t help but get a charge out of her telling him “You’re fucked!” Allie looks horrified but also can’t help but go along with it, like us. The best part, though, is the way Hedy demonstrates her surprising skill at threatening phone calls and then turns to Allie and says, “Ta-da!”
Who the fuck knows what she’s thinking there, but the way she can let her guard down and try to share a moment of humor in the middle of all that, I take it as “Surprise! This is the real me!” My favorite moment in the whole movie.
But there’s a close runner up in the last ten minutes, when shit is going sideways for Hedy, she goes into the storage unit and gets a suitcase… and then climbs into it and starts to curl into a fetal position!
For a second I thought she was at the end of her rope and her solution was just to zip herself into a suitcase and wait for something to happen. But I think she was probly trying to measure if Allie would fit in it. Dead or alive. I’m not totally sure her reason, but I love it whatever it is.
Fonda’s performance is less showy but also excellent. There are so many small, observant character touches. I like the section where Sam is staying over and Hedy has befriended him, they’re having breakfast together and enjoying each other’s company. Allie comes out and shows her annoyance just by half smiling and taking an orange instead of what Hedy cooked. Then Sam gives Hedy a look that kinda says, “whoops, she’s mad, not your fault, but I need to take care of this.” A relatable situation conveyed with expressions, not words. It’s alot of subtle stuff like that.
But also she gets to punch Stephen Tobolowsky in the dick and throw a rat at Jennifer Jason Leigh.
30 years later in the futuristic year of 2022 there are many essays calling SINGLE WHITE FEMALE lesbophobic. Yeah, that’s an understandable interpretation. I won’t rebut it other than to say that the sexual threat never seems to be the emphasis, and that Hedy is portrayed as more sad and broken than evil. But yeah, there weren’t enough lesbians in movies back then to justify most of them being evil or sad and broken. That’s fair.
Today I also don’t think you’d make a movie that had a race in the title if it wasn’t about race. But that’s how classified ads work(ed), and it’s a catchy title. It would seem worse if they’d kept the book title, SWF Seeks Same – Wait a minute, you mean only whites need apply to be her roommate?
Despite all that, SINGLE WHITE FEMALE was an attempt to be progressive for the genre and the time. In an interview on the Shout Factory blu-ray Roos (who is a gay man) explains that he wanted to write a thriller where both leads were women, the gay friend was heroic (and didn’t die), and all the straight men were bad. And maybe that seems like nothing today, but at the time it wasn’t. In the days when horrible misogyny and homophobia were common even in light comedies I really believe this was a step forward.
If you’re wanting it to be more sex positive than the other thrillers of the time, that’s debatable. There’s a pretty out-of-nowhere scene (but all the more effective for it) where Allie follows Hedy on the street, and she goes down some stairs into some kind of fetish club with leather and latex lovers, punks, businessmen in suits seemingly watching a sex show outside of the frame, a fully clothed dude in a cage, and (this is the most ‘90s touch of the movie) Enigma’s “Sadeness Part I” playing. But the big reveal here is not that Hedy is into anything kinky, but that she hangs out there and the bartenders and everyone think her name is Allie. That’s fucked up!
I don’t think of it as an erotic thriller, because it really doesn’t seem to me like the obsession at the center of it is sexual like it would be in a Shannon Tweed movie. It’s not about temptation and forbidden lust and shit. But I suppose it qualifies because of what Hedy does to Sam, plus multiple sex scenes and more nudity than mainstream movies ever have these days. It’s all between adults and mostly without coercion, though, so it dodged the sleazy reputation of a POISON IVY.
One thing it does have in common with POISON IVY that I really like is that it’s more sympathetic toward its villainess than, say, FATAL ATTRACTION or BASIC INSTINCT. She’s tragic, not evil. When Allie sees that Hedy has completely lost it and is impersonating her around town she goes to Graham to try to figure out how to get psychological help for her. She also locates her family and calls them, and it’s a matter of “your daughter needs help,” not “come get your psycho daughter.” She even says “She’s been under alot of stress lately.” After she kills her in self defense she pushes her eyes closed. She’s not gonna spit on her grave. And just like POISON IVY it ends with a solemn voiceover. Allie seems to have talked to Hedy’s parents afterwards, and she says that every day she tries to forgive her.
Looking at the reviews from the time, it seems like I wasn’t alone in my snobby attitude about thrillers like this. Rotten Tomatoes has it at 53% rotten, but most of the reviews from major outlets that I could find were on the positive side. Roger Ebert, for example, gave it 3 out 4 stars, acknowledging it as a good example of its genre (though I disagree with him about which one: “No genre is beyond redemption or beneath contempt, and here the slasher genre is given its due with strong performances and direction.”) Still, it’s hard to find positive reviews of it that don’t compliment it in underhanded ways. Owen Gleiberman in Entertainment Weekly called it “entertaining claptrap.” Desson Thomson wrote in the Washington Post, “Even though SINGLE WHITE FEMALE is more second-rate, knife-stabbing psycho drivel, it’s no pain to sit through.”
There is good news, though. It was a hit, earning five times its budget in theaters. And Leigh won “Best Villain” at the MTV Movie Awards, beating out Danny DeVito for BATMAN RETURNS, Ray Liotta for UNLAWFUL ENTRY, Jack Nicholson for A FEW GOOD MEN and even Sharon Stone for BASIC INSTINCT. At the time this was a good category for thriller villainesses – the year before it went to Rebecca De Mornay for THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, and the year after to Alicia Silverstone for THE CRUSH.
Roos’ later scripts include BOYS ON THE SIDE (1995), DIABOLIQUE (1996) and MARLEY & ME (2008). He also started directing with THE OPPOSITE OF SEX, which I was really happy to revisit in my summer of ’98 retrospective. I had mostly forgotten it, but it held up really well.
I’m honestly pretty ignorant of Schroeder’s work (other than playing the French president in MARS ATTACKS!, of course). He started in France in the ‘60s, so I didn’t realize he’s Swiss, born in Iran. I know he did documentaries about Idi Amin and Koko the gorilla, then the Bukowski movies and REVERSAL OF FORTUNE and then this started a period of Hollywood suspense thrillers for him. The only one I remember for sure seeing is the crime movie KISS OF DEATH, which I think is really good and underrated. So I should probly check out more of his stuff.
I’ll probly start with BEVERLY HILLS COP III, where he plays “Man in Porsche.”
In 2005 SINGLE WHITE FEMALE finally got a DTV sequel, SINGLE WHITE FEMALE 2: THE PSYCHO. It sounds like it’s unrelated, just reusing the roommate/haircut idea, but you know me. I’ll probly watch it.
Anyway, Allie, I think this all could’ve been avoided if you’d gone through with calling Betty Finn from HEATHERS (Renee Estevez) instead of getting distracted by a photo of dumbass Sam (R.I.P.). I’m not saying it’s your fault, but I am saying you can make better decisions in the future.
Time capsule part 1:
Looks like The Pogues featuring Joe Strummer were about to play the Beacon Theatre when they filmed this scene.
Time capsule part 2:
When Allie is taped to a chair she tries to get the attention of the neighbors by changing the TV to a Front 242 video – or as the subtitles call it, “(loud synth music)” – and turning the volume all the way up.
As a side note, I want to point out that Hedy treats “my crush found out I murdered her fiance and is going to turn me in” similar to how the kid in HONEY, I BLEW UP THE KID treated “my crush found out my baby brother got turned giant.” Things turned out better for him, though.