‘Single White Female’ Turns 25: Why Lesbian-Phobic Thriller Is Problematic

Though it’s still a delight to see a death by stiletto

single white female

Spoilers galore, albeit for a 25-year-old movie.

Bridget Fonda’s Allie Jones pretty much has it all in the opening scene of “Single White Female”: A handsome fiance (played by Steven Weber). A solid friend in her gay upstairs neighbor (Peter Friedman). A rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side. An impressive career as an entrepreneur and software programmer. An arguably even more impressive glamazon look straight out of a Yves Saint Laurent ad from an early ’90s issue of “Vogue.” Allie ditches that fiance, the philandering Sam, almost as quickly as we’re introduced to him. She posts an ad for a roommate, invites Jennifer Jason Leigh’s unhinged Hedy to live with her, and the rest is history — literally. Today marks the 25th anniversary of the release of “SWF,” a historically fascinating but unsettlingly lesbian-phobic cautionary tale about female independence. If you remember “SWF” mostly for the scene where the frumpy Hedy copies Allie’s chic auburn mushroom bob, you’re forgetting what makes the thriller so powerful — and so problematic.

Adapted from John Lutz’s novel “Single White Female Seeks Same,” “SWF” boasts an unbeatable elevator pitch: A woman’s new roommate likes her so much that the roommate tries to become her. The roommate dresses like her, adopts her name in front of strangers, and seduces her boyfriend. But Hedy’s obsession is erotic, too. She sniffs Allie. She undresses in front of Allie constantly. She buys Allie a puppy and cuddles with her and the dog in Allie’s bed. Hedy’s misandry bolsters her idea of herself as Allie’s sexual avenger: The madwoman murders the cheating Sam after luring him into a blow job — which she does to prove he really is as bad as Hedy insists. She also executes Allie’s attempted rapist (Stephen Tobolowsky), a client-turned-sexual harasser. In the final act, when an enraged Hedy is on the verge of killing an uncooperative Allie, our protagonist persuades her abductor that they’re on the same side with a kiss.

Check out more triviagoofs, and quotes on the film’s IMDb page.

Hedy’s sexuality might feel more incidental if Allie’s arduous search for the right roommate hadn’t essentially consisted of rejecting a series of queer women for that second bedroom. A montage early in the film shows Allie declining housing-seekers who look her up and down or basically eye-bang her on first sight. That detail makes Hedy an urban monster in two ways: She’s a predator and a liar. Though Allie isn’t homophobic, at least against gay men — she’s quite close with her neighbor Grant — it’s possible she wouldn’t have chosen Hedy as her roommate if she’d known about Hedy’s queerness. It’s Hedy’s ability to pass as straight that makes her such an effective urban monster.

The erotic thriller of the ’80s and ’90s was a socially conservative genre; films like “Fatal Attraction” and “Unfaithful” reliably punished sexual and marital transgressors. But “SWF” director Barbet Schroeder and screenwriter Don Roos aren’t the kind of filmmakers you’d expect homophobia from, even a quarter of a century ago. Nominated for a Palme d’Or (for 1987’s “Barfly”) and a Best Director Oscar (for 1990’s “Reversal of Fortune”), Schroeder has explored homoerotic themes with sensitivity in several of his movies. The writer-director of “The Opposite of Sex,” Roos is openly gay. Still, there’s no denying that “SWF” contributed to a canon of Reagan- and Clinton-era films with LGBTQ killers — a list that includes “Dressed to Kill,” “Cruising,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” and “Basic Instinct.” Hedy’s sexual depravity is foreshadowed in a sex-club scene where an unseen woman is pleasured by what sounds an awful lot like a chainsaw. (I’d love to believe that the sound effect was an homage to the time Schroeder “charged” into studio head Menahem Golan’s office with a buzz saw and threatened to cut off his little finger if his film didn’t go forward.)

The NYC of “SWF” is a chilly metropolis. The Beaux-Arts exterior of the building that Allie and Hedy live in is elegant but forebodingly shot. Inside, it’s slowly crumbling, with faulty pipes and dimly lit laundry rooms best avoided at night. The anonymity of the city allows a vampire like Hedy to hide in plain sight and for Allie to be suckered into inviting her in. At the film’s start, Allie expresses her hope that marriage will make her feel less lonely in New York. By the end, she’s more isolated than ever, with a dead fiance, a dead client, and a grievously injured friend. Yes, she has accomplished a lot. But what’s the point of all that success and ambition if it can be so easily undone, and there’s no one to share it with?

“SWF” surely endures for good reasons. Fonda and especially Leigh’s performances hold up. The fashion is great. The murder scenes are brutally, well, funny, but it’s still a delight to see a death by stiletto. But it’s also a movie with a much better premise than its execution, capturing, as it does, the anxieties of living with strangers, the dark side of female friendship, and the replicability — and thus the unexceptionalness — of the identities we work so hard to forge every single day. No wonder, then, that “SWF” has been remade several times already (with another TV adaptation in the works) and seems to have inspired this week’s release “Ingrid Goes West.” Seldom are Schroeder and Roos’s homoerotic undertones echoed — probably for the best. The lesbian panic makes “SWF” a memorable watch, with a dangerous villain who herself doesn’t seem to know if she wants a lover, a friend, an aspirational model, or a sister. But in 2017, we also expect lesbian characters to have something more going on than just being obsessed with some straight girl.  

You can find more triviagoofs, and quotes on the film’s IMDb page.