Allie Jones (Bridget Fonda) is an always fashionable software designer who is living in New York City and who has just broken up with her cheating lover, Sam (Steven Weber). She has pretty hair, a big apartment, a closet full of nice clothes, and a totally devoted gay best friend.
Hedra Carlson (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is shy and socially awkward and in need of someone who will give her a cute nickname like “Hedy.” She has pretty hair that’s just slightly less pretty than Allie’s, a job at a bookstore, a dead twin sister, a pair of really nice earrings, and a television that only seems to show old black-and-white movies.
Together …. THEY SOLVE CRIMES!
No, actually, they don’t. Instead, Hedy answers an ad that Allie placed about needing a new roommate. Even though Allie was thinking of asking another homeless woman to move in with her, Hedy impresses Allie by fixing her sink. Seriously, how can you turn down a potential roommate who knows how to do simple plumbing? Allie invited Hedy to live with her and, at first, everything is great. Hedy even brings home a dog that Allie quickly falls in love with. However, then Sam shows back up and we quickly discover just how obsessed Hedy has become with her roommate.
Single White Female was originally released way back in 1992 and, even if you’re viewing it for the very first time, you’ll probably feel a sense of deja vu while watching the movie. This is one of those films that has been so endlessly imitated and has been unofficially remade so many times that you probably already know everything that happens in the film, regardless of whether you’ve actually sat through it or not. A few years ago, there was a film called The Roommate that basically was Single White Female, just with a college setting and a bit less of a subversive subtext. As well, I’ve lost count of the number of Lifetime films that have basically ripped off Single White Female‘s plot. Any time that a new friend proves herself to be excessively clingy, chances are that she’s going to get compared to Jennifer Jason Leigh in this film.
And yet, despite all of the imitations, Single White Female still holds up surprisingly well. A lot of that is because Single White Female was directed by Barbert Schroeder. Schroeder started his career as a disciple of the French New Wave and, much like Paul Verhoeven, his American films tend to be genre films with just enough of a subversive subtext to stick in your mind afterwards.
For example, Single White Female is often describes as being a film about “the roommate from Hell” but what always seems to be missed is that, especially during the film’s first half, Allie is often as bad of a roommate as Hedy. For instance, when Allie comes home late after spending two days with Sam, Hedy is pissed off and waiting for her. On the surface, the scene is the first indication that Hedy has become obsessed with Allie. But, at the same time, Hedy actually is making a valid point. After repeatedly telling Hedy that she wants nothing to do with Sam, Allie runs off and spends two days with him without bothering to call home once. Though Hedy may have been a bit too quick to yell, she still had every right to be annoyed.
In fact, Allie really is a bit of self-centered character. She impulsively invited Hedy to live with her and then, just as impulsively, she gets back together with Sam and decides that it’s time for Hedy to move out. Of course, then Hedy tosses a dog out of a window and you pretty much lose whatever sympathy you may have had for her.
Still, you can’t help but feel that, just as Hedy wants to be Allie, there’s a part of Allie that would like to be Hedy. Hedy does all the things that Allie’s scared to do. When Allie is sexually harassed and nearly raped by a client, Hedy’s the one who actually gets revenge. While Allie tries to get over and suppress her anger at Sam, Hedy’s the one who acts on that anger. Just Hedy seems to need Allie’s life to be happy, Allie seems to need Hedy’s anger to survive. In short, there’s a lot more going on underneath the surface of Single White Female than its reputation might lead you to presume.
Not surprisingly, the film is dominated by Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance. When Hedy first appears, Leigh plays her as just being slightly off. She has some obvious confidence issues but, at the same time, she comes across as being so innocent and naive that you can’t help but want to protect her. You find yourself wondering how she could have possibly survived living in a city like New York. It’s only as the film progresses that you start to discover that Hedy was never particularly naive and everything that she’s done and said has basically been about manipulating the people around her. And yet, even after Hedy has started killing dogs and people, you can’t help but feel a strange empathy (though not necessarily sympathy) for her. There’s an emptiness to Hedy, an emptiness that she attempts to fill by stealing the personalities of the people around her and Leigh does a great job of expressing the pain that would come from not having an identity of your own. Plus, poor Hedy just seemed so happy with Allie said that she liked her earrings! I mean, I just can’t imagine being that insecure but I get the feeling it would really suck.
(Fortunately, I’ve also never really had a truly bad roommate situation. One advantage of having three older sisters is knowing that you’ll always have someone to stay with.)
Despite all of the imitations and rip-offs that have come out over the years, both Single White Female and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance hold up remarkably well. I’d recommend watching it before inviting anyone to come live with you. If nothing else, you’ll at least learn what stiletto heels are really for.