Friday, August 14, 2020

Summer '92 Redux - August 14, 1992: SINGLE WHITE FEMALE

by Adam Riske and Patrick Bromley
Bridget Fonda was in two movies over two months with the word single in the title.

Adam: Welcome back to Summer ‘92 Redux, our revisit of the Summer 1992 movie season. This week we’re discussing Single White Female, a movie that’s integral to what has turned into one of my favorite subgenres in recent years: the ‘90s sexy psychological thriller. Bridget Fonda plays Allie, a successful fashion software designer living in New York City who’s engaged to Sam (Steven Weber). Allie learns of Sam’s recent infidelity and kicks him out. She puts out a notice for a roommate to share her luxurious apartment, which attracts the attention of Hedra (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a shy but seemingly normal young woman. Allie and Hedra quickly become roommates, which starts out swell but just as quickly devolves into roommate from hell territory as the mentally unstable Hedra obsessively entangles herself in Allie’s life.

I saw Single White Female on cable in the early ‘90s, but I remembered very little, so this viewing felt like watching it for the first time. I liked it a lot. I’m a sucker for movies like this where it’s a heavyweight bout between two actors who get a lot of space to create fully dimensional people. I also appreciated how much Single White Female threw off my thriller clock. Events I expected at the 90-minute mark happened at the 60-minute mark, which leaves a lot of space (arguably too much) in the last act for more acting scenes between Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh; who are both very good in the movie because they always are. Also, this will sound weirder than I mean it too, but I appreciated that it had a lot of sexuality because it reminded me of a time when movies were made by grown-ups for grown-ups. We discussed Netflix’s Fatal Affair on the podcast recently and that’s a movie in the same genre as Single White Female but is so chaste that there’s not even an affair unless you count Omar Epps kissing Nia Long for a few seconds on a sink.

Are you a fan of Single White Female? What did you think of it on this watch?
Patrick: I don’t think I’ve seen the movie since watching it on VHS in 1992, so I was primed for a revisit, if only because this is the rare thriller that, like Fatal Attraction, has entered our cultural lexicon in a way that goes beyond the movie. You could describe someone “going all Single White Female” and anyone would know exactly what that means, regardless of whether or not they’ve seen the movie. I like Single White Female enough, though that has everything to do with the cast (as you have already pointed out). I’m a big fan of both lead actors, so they get me through what is otherwise a slightly more adult Lifetime movie. I don’t have the same fondness ‘90s thrillers as you do. Some of them, like Malice, I love; most of them, however, fall into the “ok, sure” category (except for Color of Night, because that movie is in a universe unto itself). Single White Female is one of the better among the genre because everyone is doing really good work, though I have a weird feeling that there’s a disconnect between the movie Don Roos wrote and the movie Barbet Schroeder is directing. The Roos movie feels campier and trashier, while Schroeder is trying to dress it up a little. Maybe that’s the reason it works. Well, that and having a movie that stars Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

I can’t believe this came out as late in ‘92 as it did, because in my memory this was the movie that revived the “psychotic __________” genre in the early ‘90s. We reviewed Unlawful Entry a few weeks ago, and I would have sworn that movie only got greenlit on the basis of SWF’s success. That Unlawful Entry came first is blowing my mind.

Here’s a question I have for you that I don’t think the movie really resolves: is Hedy’s attachment to Allison sexual? I want to say no and that it’s rooted in what we learn about Hedy and her twin sister, but then the two share a kiss at one point that confuses the whole relationship for me -- and, I assume, for Hedy. What’s your take?

Adam: I don’t know how elegantly it comes across on screen or in the script, but my interpretation (and I’m doing the heavy lifting with this theory) is Hedy doesn’t know if she wants to have Allie’s life or be in a relationship with Allie. What did Hedy want from her sister when they were kids? I feel like that whole part of the movie is really underdeveloped and holds the key of what Hedy’s motivation really is. Was it weird to you that other than her parents saying that Hedy’s sister’s death wasn’t her fault, that we get no other information about it? It leads me to believe that Hedy didn’t do anything wrong (like her sister was sick or something) but didn’t forgive herself. But didn’t forgive herself for what? Also, did you find the whiplash narration to wrap up the movie as funny as I did? It’s like “My neighbor said to get over Steven Weber, so I did after a week. Also, I’m not mad at myself because then I’ll be Hedy.” It’s years of psychology figured out over the span of a week in this movie’s timeline.
Patrick: It’s pretty sloppy across the board. The movie never really goes beyond “She’s obsessed,” which I guess is all we need to know. Jennifer Jason Leigh does the rest of the work with the characterization. And, yes, the narration at the end is hilariously out of place and bad. It’s a pet peeve of mine when a movie that has no narration suddenly has narration. Also, how is Steven Weber 30 in this movie?

The whole last act of this movie is weird. Like, Allie finds out about Hedy murdering Steven Weber and that she’s crazy and obsessed and somehow there’s still more than a half hour left in the runtime? That movie math doesn’t add up. I have to admit that the film kind of loses me once it becomes a totally conventional thriller -- I found myself lacking the patience for the final 30 or so minutes. The movie should be building to this showdown but kind of whiffs it.

What are some underrated ‘90s thrillers I need to check out?

Adam: Underrated? Dream Lover, The Minus Man and Whispers in the Dark. They’re not all “good” movies but they’re consistently crazy/interesting/entertaining. I also like Basic Instinct, The Crush, The Good Son, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, Kiss the Girls, Malice, Misery, Pacific Heights, Primal Fear (sorry), The Sixth Sense, Sleeping with the Enemy and The Talented Mr. Ripley but I’m guessing you’ve seen most of those. I still need to see a bunch like After Dark, My Sweet, The Astronaut’s Wife, Bad Influence, Blink, Consenting Adults, Deceived, Desperate Hours, Dolores Claiborne, Guilty as Sin, Heaven’s Prisoners, Jennifer 8, Never Talk to Strangers, Playing God and Silent Fall.

Patrick: I think I’ve seen every movie on that list except Whispers in the Dark and it’s at this moment that I know I’ve squandered my life.

Adam: Three kind of dumb observations about Single White Female:

• After the stiletto death, I kept thinking how awkward it would have been if it didn’t kill the guy and instead just really hurt and confused him. It might have been a better scene where he’s like “Why did you do that?” and she’s embarrassed.

• This movie has Chekov’s Incinerator. I kept waiting for you-know-who to throw you-know-who in the incinerator because it’s right there in the background in the finale. She could have had a kiss-off line like “Don’t worry about the rent!” or “I paid the heating bill!”

• What is going on with this apartment building? You can just beat the shit out of each other in an elevator, drag your roommate through halls, have a showdown in the storage room, etc., and if it’s not a noise complaint, you’re cool?
Patrick: To be fair to SWF, you’re also not supposed to have a roommate in your rent-stabilized apartment. So it’s not like there are NO rules.

You’re right about a missed opportunity for a kiss-off line. The movie should have had them all over the place. Even the shoe death you mention should have had some great one-liner to go with it, like “You’re a shoe-in for a funeral!” or “Quit being such a HEEL!” Hollywood should be giving me all their money.

Adam: Also released this week were Diggstown, Johnny Suede, and Stay Tuned. I saw Stay Tuned a lot when I was a kid and liked it just as much on this rewatch. They really max out on the premise, which has a junior varsity The Burbs vibe. I think having Peter Hyams as the director elevates the material. Plus, so many outdated pop culture references! This was my first viewing of both Johnny Suede and Diggstown. I liked the former more than the latter. Diggstown was good, but I was more invested in Bruce Dern’s performance than the movie overall. It felt very shaggy, which on one hand is neat and on the other made it difficult for me to get invested. I know you’re a fan, though. Johnny Suede has been a movie I can’t get out of my head since I watched it. I really liked the rockabilly midnight movie sensibility of the whole thing. It felt like I was dreaming the movie as much as watching it and it was nice seeing an early Catherine Keener performance. I’m looking forward to watching Living in Oblivion next.

Patrick: I like all of those movies! Stay Tuned is pretty silly, but John Ritter commits as usual and makes it all work, plus I’m always down for a Hyams joint. I haven’t revisited Diggstown since the decline of James Woods, but I remember really liking it, maybe because I like movies about con artists. Plus that cast -- Dern, Heather Graham, Oliver Platt, Louis Gossett Jr. -- is pretty incredible! Johnny Suede is another one for which I’m due for a revisit, but I remember the exact dreamlike quality you’re describing and I remember it feeling kind of sad and melancholy by the end. Am I imagining that?

Adam: Not at all. It feels like if Jim Jarmusch made Alfie.

Patrick: I’m excited for you to see Living in Oblivion. I wish Tom DiCillo had gotten to make more movies. I know I say this every week, but I can’t believe all these movies came out the same weekend! The only two I saw theatrically were Stay Tuned and Diggstown. I have no idea why a Fonda/JJL team-up didn’t get me out of the house.

Adam: Next week: Rapid Fire!

Patrick: It’s like my whole life has been building to this.


  1. Adam, I'm rediscovering my love of 90s thrillers & your list of them makes me want to take off work the rest of the day & just watch them.

    Ones I've seen from your list:
    The Minus Man (underrated!)
    Basic Instinct (need to rewatch in a major way)
    The Crush (watched on my bday and dude that carousel in the attic... paid off big time)
    Malice (loved, thanks for the rec)
    Misery (haven't seen in forever... but loved when I saw it)
    Primal Fear (sorry)
    The Sixth Sense (slept with my light on for a week after seeing this in the theater)
    Sleeping with the Enemy (I want this era of Julia Roberts back)
    The Talented Mr. Ripley (I tried to see this in the theater but the person I went with was only 16 and they wouldn't sell us a ticket for her. So we got tickets to fuckin Stuart Little instead, snuck into the Mr. Ripley screen, and some power tripping usher saw us & made us show our tickets and then forced us to go watch Stuart Little instead. The worst.)
    The Astronaut’s Wife (I saw this during my "watch all Johnny Depp movies in existence" days, didn't love it but might like more now that it's not about the lust)

    I don't know your specific criteria but these are some that I love that you didn't name:
    Blue Steel
    To Die For
    Shallow Grave
    The Last Seduction
    A Perfect Murder
    To Sleep With Anger
    Nightwatch (Ewan McGregor)
    Clay Pigeons
    The Grifters
    Wild Things
    Cruel Intentions
    Presumed Innocent
    The Pelican Brief
    Nick of Time
    Double Jeopardy (might've been released in 2000? But it's great)

    LOTS I want to check out, including:
    Perfect Strangers (Sam Neill)
    Final Analysis
    Romeo is Bleeding
    Jagged Edge
    The Adjuster
    Sea of Love
    The Big Easy
    Unlawful Entry
    Color of Night
    Mother's Boys
    Poison Ivy

    Regarding Single White Female (which I love), I enjoy thought experiments like "if this came out today, who would be in it? who would direct? what platform would release it?"

    I could see Lizzy Caplan and MacKenzie Davis in the Fonda & Leigh roles, respectively. Partly because I love them and partly because I think they look a bit alike already. I'd also be happy with Zoe Kravitz and Tessa Thompson. My dream director would be Jane Campion, because she can do weird character stuff like Sweetie but also thrillers like Top of the Lake and somewhat erotic/romantic twisted stuff like The Piano. That said, Julie Ducourneau who did Raw would be a fun choice too, because I'd love to see what gruesome body horror kind of stuff she could bring.

    As for platforms, Shudder seems the obvious one; although I could see it landing on Netflix too. They've been building up a nice little repertoire of lower to mid-budget suspenseful stuff.

    Can't wait for next week's entry! Rapid Fire is fantastic!

    1. Hi! I was naming a few thrillers from memory so I missed quite a few. Of the list of ones you love, I really like To Die For, The Last Seduction and Disclosure.

      I highly recommend Sea of Love. Final Analysis is real bad. Like real real bad.

    2. Thanks for the tip! I'll save Final Analysis for last, haha.