For a movie that performed so modestly at the box office that even referring to it as a “summer sleeper” seems overly generous, the ’90s thriller Single White Female left an oversized impression on pop culture. I don’t have data on this, but anecdotally it seems that almost 30 years after its August 14, 1992, release, the movie remains relevant in the cultural ether. One can easily understand what it is to “single white female” someone (the lifting of a person’s look wholesale as the expression of obsession) without actually having seen Barbet Schroeder’s flick, which did about $48 million at the box office. Somewhat hilariously, the month after Female’s release, the Los Angeles Times reported that the bob variation star Bridget Fonda sports (and that Jennifer Jason Leigh’s fastidiously codependent character rips off) in the movie was the fall’s hottest hairstyle. A nation was primed to single-white-female Single White Female.
What Schroeder, his actors, director of photography Luciano Tovoli, and screenwriter Don Roos (who adapted his script from John Lutz’s 1990 novel SWF Seeks Same) devised was simply iconic. That word gets thrown around a lot these days, but Single White Female is tangibly so. It has been described as “standing among a pantheon of films about female identity fugue (Persona, Vertigo, 3 Women, Sisters),” though Single White Female is the most narratively simple of that lot, a stiletto heel to the senses with a conventional downward-spiral structure. In many ways, it’s a product of its time, but perhaps none more outstanding than its status as a hallmark of the then-common domestic thriller subgenre, a category of films that exploited the potential horrors of the home that were largely perpetuated by women and occasionally children (as in 1993's The Good Son, and, much later Orphan). Though the subgenre can be traced back to 1962's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane if not earlier, the 1987 phenomenon Fatal Attraction is probably most responsible for its surging popularity in the late ’80s and early ’90s. In a bonus interview on the 2018 Scream Factory Blu-ray release of Single White Female, Roos says he gleaned particular inspiration from The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, another of the subgenre’s quasi-classics. (Given that SWF was released just eight months after Cradle, this seems like it could be revisionist history, but the genetic similarity of the two films is nonetheless apparent.)
The movie is so ‘90s that an answering machine elicits a minor meltdown:
This is really what it was like to live back then.
That’s Fonda as Allie Jones (not to be confused with the journalist/my former Gawker colleague), whose breakup with her boyfriend Sam (Steven Weber) upends her life and sends her scrambling for a roommate in her cavernous Upper West Side apartment that is just raw enough to be chic. (Retrospectively hilarious is that the breakup is also precipitated by answering machine drama—Sam’s ex calls, but the machine picks up and Allie is able to hear both sides of the conversation, including the ex berating Sam for sleeping with her that day and then leaving her alone again. Answering machines: They took as much as they gave us.) With flair copped from Rosemary’s Baby, the exterior of Allie’s building is presented so frequently and from so many angles that it’s practically its own character. (The exterior shots are of the famous Ansonia, whose basement was home to the gay bathhouse the Continental Baths and then the straight swingers’ club Plato’s Retreat, back before AIDS panic shut down stationary New York sex clubs for good.)
After a brief search, the somewhat dowdy Hedy comes knocking, finding Allie literally crying on her kitchen floor, and it seems like an immediately good fit until Hedy gets weird and then weirder and then buys a puppy that is a yelping, bouncing example of George Carlin’s principle of “every pet is a tiny tragedy waiting to happen.” Hedy is clingy and Allie’s reconciliation with Sam after only about a month only accelerates her inevitable decline.
Before we talk about the film’s depiction of mental health, a word on its handling of race. It is a subject that is never directly addressed, though its place in the film’s subtext is as pronounced as a steady hiss of white noise. Look no further than the oddness of the title, a reference to Allie’s ad for a roommate.
Through today’s eyes, it’s bizarre that Allie would include her whiteness as part of a housing ad. It was common in dating personal listings (and to some degree remains so) especially in less enlightened times when interracial relationships were either regarded as inherently taboo or bound to be controversial, but what difference should it make to a housing situation? At least Roos’s screenplay corrected the explicit discrimination of his source material’s title (again, SWF Seeks Same, emphasis mine), but this being a ‘90s movie, such explicit signaling was redundant. Of course the protagonist in a domestic thriller was white, and of course her roommate and boyfriend (and her gay upstairs neighbor and her freelance employer and the people walks among on the streets of early ‘90s New York) were white. When I brought this up to my friend Caity Weaver earlier this week, she said that because white was (and still largely is) the default, it’s strange that it was even noted at all.
Shoutout to Caity for coming up with Unmarried Karen as an alternate title to this film. Allie is such a Karen, so much so that in the film’s opening, when she and Sam are lying in bed and he asks how many kids she wants, her response is, “I don’t know, what’s the statistical norm?” Right-down-the-middle Allie is a perpetual victim who attempts a veneer of kindness that cracks as soon as Hedy starts getting annoying. It’s a daring choice to play and write her with nefarious fragility, though I think we’re supposed to sympathize with her beyond what I could afford on this most recent viewing.
Allie’s business seems to be a proto-Photoshop program in which “you can redefine your product onscreen without going through an expensive redesign process.” The outdated tech in this movie, which also includes a Compuserve interface, is a gift that keeps giving.
Also, look at this weenie that she falls to pieces over:
Whether intentional or not, Allie’s own tendency to make questionable choices and obsess in general suggests she and Hedy are cut from opposite corners of the same cloth.
Fonda is good, but Leigh is simply spectacular. Hers is such a dynamic performance that requires a third-act over-the-top massive freak out, but that gives her the space to work up to it, erratically zipping from pathetic to demanding. Her face work alone should have gotten her at least a Golden Globe nod.
Like predecessors Fatal Attraction and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Single White Female perpetuates the idea that mental illness makes people do terrible things. Given her mood swings and own shaky sense of identity (that she attempts to solidify by copying Allie), it’s been said that Hedy exhibits features of borderline personality disorder, but as is often the case with cinematic depictions of mental illness, she is undiagnosed. Hers is a generalized “crazy.” In filling in her back story regarding her childhood trauma, though, I think Single White Female at least gestures at responsible explanation for its de facto antagonist’s drive to destruction. Its treatment of mental illness is nowhere near where we’d like to see it based on supposedly enlightened modern ideals, but for a b-movie, it affords its “bad guy” more compassion (and has its “good guy” behaving more shittily) than typically seen.
As its third act sprints to the finish, its gait turns preposterous (I won’t spoil it but the climactic death is delivered with a superhero’s precision and finesse). There are strokes of genius throughout, though. After Hedy has taken Allie hostage, we see a close up of Hedy’s face as she seems to lay out her death-wish manifesto. “I don’t want to be alone anymore,” she says slowly. “I don’t want to be anything anymore.” Her pain is never more palpable...until we cut to the computer screen and realize that she’s dictating a faux-suicide note to be signed by Allie, thus covering up Hedy’s extensive crimes.
For as much visual brilliance as this low-budget, lurid ‘90s thriller has, there are also glaring ineptitudes. An early scene forges a jump scare out of the presence of a man in an elevator that its characters couldn’t possibly have missed—he’s merely out of frame.
This little nugget of absurdity reminds me of my favorite-ever scene from the rarely coherent maestro of Eurosleaze, Jess Franco. This comes from his 1981 slasher Bloody Moon:
Single White Female contains a surprising amount of gratuitous sex, as if to will itself into the erotic thriller category even though the text just isn’t there to support that. It also contains a surprisingly frank scene in which Allie is sexually assaulted by her employer (played by Stephen Tobolowsky), who then attempts to rape her. It’s completely nonsexual and played for the straight horror that it represents in a way that feels modern for something so old. That said, I’m not sure that such a grisly exploitation flick had its heart in the right place. Instead, I think it’s fairer to say that Single White Female’s wheels were turning, even if it didn’t ultimately get us anywhere, in terms of overall progress. All of its glaring problems notwithstanding, it’s still a hell of a ride.
Okay, good night.