Treasure In Trash: SINGLE WHITE FEMALE

Jennifer Jason Leigh stands out among an ocean of ‘90s sex thriller villains.

We’re very pleased to partner with Alamo Drafthouse Brooklyn on Jennifer Jason Leigh: Part One, a screening series showcasing the films of one of the great actresses of our time. In celebration of the actress/writer/director, we’ll be running editorial about some of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s best-loved films. See the schedule and get tickets to Jennifer Jason Leigh: Part One HERE!

The ‘90s were a halcyon time for erotic thrillers. Sure, Adrian Lyne kicked off the trend with Fatal Attraction in 1987, but trend turned into frenzy by the following decade, with nearly 400 films categorized as erotic thrillers produced in the years between 1991 and 1999. Four hundred.

It’s not hard to discern why these movies were popular, though it is curious that one particular decade resulted in such a flood of them. Relaxed views of sex made it possible for titillating scenes to make their way into the most mainstream films, resulting in a sort of cinematic soft-core awakening, and sex combined with suspense is a dynamic that will always grab audiences’ attention. However, by 2000 we had the Internet, and that meant we had easy access to porn. Suddenly a sexy thriller – even a hard-R thriller – felt quaint and passé.

But in 1992, the genre was just getting its legs, and Barbet Schroeder’s Single White Female was, on paper, a fairly standard entry. You had your good girl and your bad girl, your Manhattan setting, your bare butts and breasts, your adorable animal that you know won't survive until the end credits, your theme of infidelity resulting in violence. Bridget Fonda is lovely as Allie Jones, a software designer in the fashion industry who breaks off her engagement with Sam (Steven Weber) when she learns that he’s cheated on her with his ex-wife. Suddenly, Allie – a small town girl still uncomfortable with her new big city life – lives alone in a huge, gorgeous, rent-controlled apartment that she can’t quite afford, and she’s not allowed to add anyone to the lease.

Enter Hedra Carlson, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and here’s where Single White Female barrels past typical and into transcendent. Hedy is awkward and shy, pitifully dressed in long, shapeless dresses and lumpy combat boots, with dark, frizzy hair that obscures her face – a face that Leigh, a stunning movie star, manages to pass off as plain through inelegant and often quite weird facial expressions. We know immediately that something’s off with Hedy. First, because we’ve seen an erotic thriller before, but also because her clinginess to Allie is something more than pathetic, something darker.

Allie is kind, and lonely, and she’s beautiful, and we have a feeling she’s the kind of woman who’s never been without a boyfriend before. Hedy happily fills that role, making small repairs around Allie’s apartment, cooking her dinner, gifting her with jewelry, buying her a puppy (nooooo), watching old movies together as they cuddle on the sofa.

We learn that Hedy once had an identical twin, and though she tells Allie that the twin was stillborn, we see pictures and flashbacks that indicate that her twin at least survived to childhood. Hedy would have us believe that her interest in Allie is out of that lost feeling of sisterhood, a way of sating the phantom itch that a twin must suffer when left alone in life. But Leigh never plays Hedy’s fascination with Allie as platonic or sisterly. No, Hedy wants to become Allie, but she also wants to fuck Allie. Hedy masturbates at night, thinking of Allie, with her door wide open in the hopes that Allie will see her. She undresses in front of Allie, and caresses her arm, and stares at her with naked, physical longing.

It’s all going basically fine, thanks to Allie’s cheerful obliviousness to what constitutes normal behavior in a roommate, until Sam finally wears Allie down and convinces her to take him back. In their first conversation, before Hedy agrees to move in, she asks Allie to promise that this very thing won’t happen. “I don’t want to catch you on the rebound,” she says, which is the language of an insecure lover, not a roommate who doesn’t want to deal with the hassle of finding another apartment in two months’ time. It's a fair complaint, to suddenly be saddled with a roommate's boyfriend, but Hedy's response to the situation is not reasonable. Bye-bye, puppy. Bye-bye, every man Allie's ever known. 

It's here that Leigh is unleashed, no longer content to hide Hedy's crazy under a curtain of hair and her startled bird looks. When Hedy is angry, she becomes twitchy and electric, a crackling, dangerous thing. The more she transforms herself to look like Allie - the haircut, the color, the clothes - the more she is distinctly separate from her, from this beautiful woman who can pass as "normal" even when Allie's own pathology exacerbated this toxic dynamic nearly as much as Hedy's. They share a mirror and they look so like twins, but Hedy knows they could never be the same. 

You're in a different league. I know that. You have this great personality. You have this great style. You're running your own business. You're always going to find someone. You'd have to be stupid to think that you wouldn't.

It reads as wistful and admiring, but Leigh spits out the words like they're venom, a poison blackening her veins. Here's her last chance with Allie - Sam is out of town, and Allie's unhappy with him because his seeming negligence resulted in the death of her beloved puppy. (We know better. We knew the moment we saw that puppy.) Allie's first real client, a man with too much power over her professional future, attempts to rape her, and leaves her certain that he will destroy her career. Allie is weak again, and alone, like when Hedy first met her. Maybe this time, it doesn't have to go bad, like it's gone bad for Hedy before. Allie's not the first woman Hedy has wanted to love. Why won't they just let her love them? 

Of course, it does go badly, and now Hedy has outed herself to Allie as a crazed killer. Here, Leigh transforms once more. She's in perfect control, steely and businesslike, as confident as we've ever seen her. Allie is duct-taped to a chair, now physically incapable of leaving Hedy, and every man that has competed for Hedy's attention - from Sam to the upstairs neighbor to Max the puppy - is out of the picture, and suddenly the storm inside Hedy has calmed. It's only by kissing Hedy, and begging her "Don't make me leave you," that Allie once again gains the upper hand. Because of course it was always about love for Hedy - or for Ellen Besch, the real name of the woman who killed her twin as a child and now constantly seeks to replace her. Ellen Besch has been alone since that day, but Allie might just be the other half she's been searching for her entire life. 

Some of Single White Female falls to the corny - the sex club that appears quite out of nowhere, the dangerously uncomplicated presentation of psychiatric disability, the predictability of its plot. But Fonda is good, and Leigh is great. She's an artist at play here, taking the silly and making it significant, resonating in every beat and look and word. She brings such freedom to her performances, shaking off the shackles of whatever genre prerequisites other actors bend to and treating each role as a marvelous experiment in craftsmanship. To Leigh, Single White Female isn't just a sexy thriller on her résumé. It's one more time that she's wholly embodied a character, and one more time that she's floored us with the depth of her remarkable skill. 

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