Wednesday, March 28, 2018


"Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."  - Tolstoy

Ordinary People won the 1981 Best Picture Oscar against Raging BullThe Elephant ManTess, and Coal Miner's Daughter. While hindsight and time have confirmed my personal opinion that Martin Scorsese’s searing and ambitious Raging Bull was the more deserving prize recipient that year, I must assert that in saying this, I am in no way diminishing or discounting the brilliance that is Ordinary People. It's an easy film to dramatically discredit due to its essentially conventional structure and familiar domestic themes. And it's an easy film to creatively overlook because it lacks both the cinematic bravura and operatic scope of Scorsese’s masterpiece. But, when leaving these comparisons aside, director Robert Redford's Ordinary People has always struck me as one of the most emotionally eloquent and evocative domestic dramas I've ever seen.
The passion of Scorsese's beautifully rendered biographical character study may move me aesthetically, and I'm aware that part of me responds most strongly to it (as I do with Stanley Kubrick's films) on a largely cerebral level--I'm just so impressed with its filmmaking craft. But to this day, of all the movies nominated that year, I still find Ordinary People to be the most deeply affecting of the lot. Its poignance speaks to me in ways that perhaps have little to do with art, but everything to do with its compassionate point of view and my enduring fondness for motion pictures that explore the human condition.
As the years go by, I come to appreciate Ordinary People’s simple, straightforward approach more and more, for its look feels less like the absence of style in a first-time director than a deliberate attempt on Redford’s part to use the film's crisp, conventional look as a commentary on the role conformity and the illusion of appearances play in the world these people inhabit. A means of training the focus on what’s most important to the story: repression and the inability of its characters to understand and express feelings that fall beyond the scope of coping mechanisms of structure, order, and self-control.
Mary Tyler Moore as Beth Jarrett
Donald Sutherland as Calvin Jarrett in "Ordinary People" (1980)
Donald Sutherland as Calvin Jarrett
Timothy Hutton as Conrad Jarrett
Judd Hirsch as Dr. Tyrone C. Berger
Elizabeth McGovern as Jeannine Pratt
Dinah Manoff as Karen Alrich
Dinah Manoff as Karen Alrich

Ordinary People
tells the story of the Jarretts, an upper-middle-class family living in the Chicago suburb of Lake Forest, an affluent neighborhood of spacious homes, manicured lawns, and people skilled in the art of emotional repression. Fittingly, the film opens with a montage of tranquil, postcard-perfect images of this tony residential community, for in this beige-colored, WASP enclave, appearances seem to do all the talking. Most vociferously, these meticulously kept-up appearances speak of status and wealth, but they're also an avowal of the belief that if everything looks right, it must then certainly be right.
From order comes security, and security must, therefore, bring happiness. The unexpected is kept at bay. Everyone is safe. Lives are happy. All is as it should be, and there is no mess—except for in the Jarrett household, where, bit by bit, their lives are slowly coming apart.
Keeping Up Appearances
Looking at them from the outside, one would assume the Jarretts haven’t a problem in the world. Genial, easygoing Calvin is a successful tax attorney; elegant, poised Beth, a mother and housewife, is an avid golfer and paragon of perfectionism; and 17-year-old Conrad…he’s just been released from a mental hospital after having tried to kill himself.

You see, Buck Jarrett, eldest son, star athlete, and all-around Golden Boy, drowned in a boating accident a little over a year ago, and the emotional fallout of the tragedy (or more precisely, the lack of it) has left a huge fissure in the Jarrett’s façade of have-it-all normalcy.
The loss of the older brother he looked up to causes Conrad to suffer a nervous breakdown born of survivor's guilt and from the feeling that, in the eyes of his parents, he'll never measure up enough to compensate for the void. Beth, who one senses blames Conrad for his brother’s death, has virtually shut him out of her life. Unable to display affection and withholding approval, she thinks that Conrad’s suicide attempt was a deliberate act of revenge directed at her (the deed left the image-conscious Beth having to weather both the stigma of having an institutionalized son and the humiliation of others knowing that all is far from orderly in the Jarrett household).
Calvin, stuck in the role of conciliator, drinks a bit too much and tends to turn a blind eye to what he perhaps knows/fears to be true between Beth and Conrad. In his earnest efforts to make everything nice, he too, lives in a state of denial about his feelings.
Recovering from shock therapy, left behind a grade for his months-long stay at a mental hospital,
Conrad feels the pressure of others wanting things to return to "normal" as quickly as possible

In chronicling Conrad’s journey toward forgiveness (himself and his mother) Ordinary People’s look at the dysfunction within a by-all-appearances functional family covers little of what I’d call new ground. Certainly not after all those ’60 post-Graduate films eviscerating the middle class for their false values, the wave of Vietnam-era ‘70s films and TV movies devoted to cultural soul-searching, or the 1973 PBS documentary An American Family (television's first reality show), which regaled us with the spectacle of the disintegration of a quintessential WASP family from the comfort of our living rooms.

But where Robert Redford succeeds in making Ordinary People an uncommonly perceptive look at a familiar topic is how his direction displays an insider's insight into this world and the people who inhabit it. There are none of the cliché, easy-target jibes at the upper-middle-class typical of the "domestic disintegration" genre. In its place is an intimate familiarity with the WASP rituals of suppression (few interactions occur outside of the formalized: meals, cocktail parties, golf games, and "keeping busy" are the cure-all panacea), empathy for the adult characters, and compassion for the adolescents.
The "French Toast scene" is one of my favorites. It features a father who tries too hard, a son who feels too much, and a mother who expresses her feelings in the only way she knows how: through the dutiful carrying out of household rituals. The tension is as thick as maple syrup.

Ordinary People was a critical and commercial success upon release, its few detractors mostly citing it as perhaps a little too ordinary in its approach for its own good. A solemn, pedigreed, adult drama about important issues, Ordinary People is the kind of film studios once touted as a “prestige picture,” and critics would label “Oscar bait” (Indeed, it was nominated for six Oscars, winning four: Picture, Director, Supporting Actor, and Adapted Screenplay.)
Almost too refined and tasteful for the messiness of its subject matter, Ordinary People’s family-in-crisis themes, relaxed, naturalistic performances, and distinct lack of showy, cinematic tricks (a welcome rarity from a first-time director) still have many feeling that Redford’s film is little more than a superior movie-of-the-week. 
But to me, what Ordinary People lacks in visual distinction (not entirely fair, John Bailey’s cinematography, evoking the chill and melancholy beauty of autumn in the Midwest, is remarkably expressive), it makes up for in keeping the viewer emotionally rapt in the Jarretts' domestic free-fall. Ordinary People’s greatest strength has always been its characters, the tenuous structure of their relationships, and the depth of emotional authenticity the film’s remarkable cast brings to Alvin Sargent’s splendid screenplay (from Judith Guest’s 1976 novel).

The entire cast of Ordinary People is extraordinary, but Mary Tyler Moore wasn't fucking around. She brings it like gangbusters in her portrayal of Beth, inhabiting the character in a way that leaves you feeling her role in the film is larger than it actually is. Every one of her scenes is virtuoso, but here are my favorites:
"Give her the goddamn camera!"
Never has Mary Tyler Moore's ready smile been used to better knots-in-the-stomach effect
"Mothers don't hate their sons!"
After so much politeness, Moore & Sutherland finally squaring off  is electrifying
A dog named Pippin
This is an absolutely brilliantly played and written scene (watch Moore's shift in expressions). It's like a door being cracked open, only to be slammed shut. Two people trying to connect and not being able to. It breaks my heart every time.
The Hug
On a scale of emotional power, this reverberated through the theater like the chest-busting scene in Alien. I swear, the entire theater seemed to gasp and break into LOUD sobs all at once

Dating back to the first time I ever saw Rebel Without a Cause on TV, I've seldom liked how teenagers have been written or portrayed on screen (except in low-budget '50s and '60s rock & roll musicals). They always seem to have a little too much autonomy, and the graceful, perfect actors playing them too often look like they're play-acting at youthful gawkiness and insecurity. Timothy Hutton turns in an exceptional performance simply by giving the impression he's not "playing" at anything...he's being. He comes across as genuine and age-appropriately hamstrung by his emotional confusion, his character's anguish made all the more heartbreaking because he also comes across as such a sweet, sensitive kid.

Hutton works a kind of miracle with Conrad, granting us a portrait of a tortured youth that manages to sidestep the usual problematic “troubled teen” clichés that so often come across as self-pitying and self-indulgent. Hutton was just 19 at the time, yet there’s nothing callow in how perceptively he conveys the feelings of a young man grappling with grief and self-recrimination. Given that this is the young actor's first major film role (for which he won an Oscar in the bargain), the intensity of feeling Hutton brings to his character is perhaps too-easily attributed to his having lost his real-life father just four months prior to filming (actor Jim Hutton succumbed to liver cancer at age 45); but I think it's just a case of a very talented actor meeting with the perfect role.
Adam Baldwin, Hutton, Carl DiTomasso, Fredric Lehne

As the '80s ushered in the era of the insufferable teenager—interchangeable slasher victims or indistinguishable coming-of-age horndogs—Ordinary People's realistic adolescents gently broke from tradition. Frederic Lehne plays a high school jock actually capable of showing compassion; Dinah Manoff, as Conrad's friend from the mental hospital, struggles to keep depression at bay through strained positivity; and most appealingly of all, Elizabeth McGovern (also making her film debut) as a classmate with whom Conrad shares a mutual crush.  McGovern, who has the quirky, natural charm of a young Paula Prentiss (a frequent Jim Hutton co-star), manages to rescue her character, through sheer force of originality, from being a plot-functional "dream girl" who exists solely to guide Conrad back into the world of feelings.
The charming naturalness of Hutton and McGovern adds poignance to their scenes

Both Redford and Moore have stated that the character of Beth and her inability to display affection reminded them of the non-relationship each had with their respective emotionally-remote, perfectionist fathers. I grew up at a time when, via TV shows like Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver, the patriarchal ideal defined the perfect family. That’s why Ordinary People’s fence-straddling, somewhat ineffectual, but well-intentioned Calvin Jarrett came as such a welcome surprise to me; at last: a divergence from the all-knowing authoritarian father figure of pop-culture propaganda.

Taking on the kind of peace-keeping, empathetic role typically afforded the long-suffering wife in these sorts of domestic dramas, Donald Sutherland—a personal favorite and the only major cast member to fail to receive an Oscar nod—gives an understated performance (Redford initially wanted him for the psychiatrist) whose nuances are all too easy to overlook. An actor most eloquent in his silences (Sutherland’s eyes tend to be more expressive than his face) is at a distinct disadvantage in a film full of so many showier performances; but Calvin’s restrained gentleness has the much-needed effect of humanizing Beth (some part of her must have appreciated his vulnerability) and of making Conrad’s estrangement less torturous, for it's clear he has at least one person in the household in his corner.
Had the Canadian Donald Sutherland been cast in the role of psychiatrist as Redford originally envisioned, critics would have lost the opportunity to project culturally stereotypical significance to Oscar-nominee Judd Hirsch's Jewishness; aka the trope about the "expressive" ethnic character helping the uptight white character to open up. 

“Beth was the character he [Redford] most cared about, and he wanted her to be portrayed with sensitivity. It was she who drew him to the project”  - Mary Tyler Moore

What drew me to Ordinary People was Mary Tyler Moore. I was sitting in a movie theater sometime during the summer of 1980 when I saw the trailer for Ordinary People for the first time. If you’ve never seen it, it’s one of those artfully modulated 2½ minute gems that builds in intensity until the fade-out has everyone in the theater murmuring in excitement. Like most everybody else in America at the time, I was still in the throes of Mary Richards withdrawal. The Mary Tyler Moore Show had ended in 1977, but Moore had been a consistent, cheery staple of television since The Dick Van Dyke Show premiered in 1961, so, even with reruns to salve the pain, by 1980 it still wasn’t easy living in a world without Mary.
Ordinary People (1980)
I had no advance awareness of Ordinary People, so when Mary Tyler Moore appeared in the trailer behaving in a very un-Mary-like manner, I (and many others in the theater) let out an audible gasp. By the time the trailer was over I was aware of having been gripped by the same excitement I felt when back in 1974 I first read Ann-Margret was to appear in a Ken Russell film (Tommy); or in 1979, when the news came out about Olivia Newton-John, the squeaky-clean queen of soft rock, collaborating with British rockers Electric Light Orchestra on a little ditty called Xanadu. The potential for something unpredictably brilliant is always linked to a star going counter to their image and being cast against-type; so, when Ordinary People opened on Friday, September 19th, I happily stood in line to see it. I wasn’t disappointed. 
Ordinary People is unique in its depiction of a mother as a complex, conflicted individual of depth who, inconsistent with the maternal instinct myth, refuses (is unable?) to assume the traditional familial role of nurturer and healer.

Giving everyone involved in this film their due and not taking a single thing away from a single performance, it nevertheless remains my emphatic assertion that whatever heights Ordinary People soars to—as either motion picture or human drama—are reached on the wings of Mary Tyler Moore’s performance. She’s better than good here. Her performance emanates from a place of truth that serves as a tether wrenching Ordinary People back to reality every time it appears to veer into soap opera or Lifetime movie territory. I find her to be absolutely astounding.

And not for one moment do I pretend to dissociate my reaction to the character of Beth from my personal response to Moore in the role. It’s precisely my inability to fully wrest my awareness of Moore’s endurably likable TV persona from Beth’s rigidity that gives the performance its power. The incongruity of Moore’s quick-to-smile façade masking such groundswells of anger and stony reserve produces in me the exact reaction I imagine Beth’s country club friends would have were they ever catch a glimpse of what lies behind her perfect life of order. 

Mary Tyler Moore in "Ordinary People" - 1980
Everyone from Ann-Margret to Lee Remick was considered
 for the role Moore called "The Holy Grail of my career."

Although it’s heartbreaking to see the degree to which Beth’s steely reserve and need to keep up appearances hurts her family, Moore makes Beth’s defiant defense of her own fiercely guarded vulnerability a thing of icy beauty. You can see the pain, you can see the inner struggle, you can even see what she is most fearful of having to confront by letting down her guard (her sense of being a failure at something that seems very, very important to her--achieving perfection); but just as clearly you can see that she can’t help herself. Like everyone else, she too, is a victim of grief, her coping mechanisms as imprinted on her character as her name on a Marshall Field’s credit card.

Much in the manner that The Graduate's Mrs. Robinson is set up to be that story's villain, yet emerges its most sympathetic character; Beth, in the hands of Mary Tyler Moore, while never quite sympathetic, is so powerless, yet so resolute and repressed, she becomes a tragic figure.

In these days of manufactured social media self-presentation, Photoshop perfectionism, and smartphone photo filters that turn their subjects into pore-free mannequins, a movie about the folly of keeping up appearances and the impossible pursuit of flawless “perfection” could perhaps not be more relevant.
And although Ordinary People is one of the whitest movies ever made, I’ve always been able to identify with it because the image-conscious middle-class world it dramatizes is not at all different from my own childhood growing up as one of the few Black families in an all-white neighborhood.
Everything in its Place

In the assimilationist household I grew up in, upward mobility meant the strict adherence to respectability politics. Under scrutiny whether we were shopping, playing outside, or just emptying the garbage, our family had to be a model of everything white America didn’t expect or want us to be. Black excellence (via perfectionism and achievement) was present in everything from how we kept up our house to how we dressed for school. Although we were a household of five (two older sisters had already married and moved out) and under a great deal of social pressure, we rarely spoke of these matters to one another because, by necessity, the needs and problems of the individual were sublimated to the goals of the family in particular, civil rights and the advancement of all of black America in general.
And let's not forget that during all this, I, as the only boy in the family and gay to boot, instinctively lapsed into "The Best Little Boy in the World" mode; neat, well-mannered, drug-free, straight-A student...all so that I'd never give my parents a moment's worry, ensuring that the pesky little topic of "gay" would never come up. 
No wonder I so identified with all that guilt Conrad carried around!
Were it not for my mother going through EST training in the early ‘70s (after which, talking about EVERYTHING became the household standard, resulting in even my conservative dad becoming alarmingly liberal), I think we could have wound up like the Jarretts.
One of the themes of Ordinary People is that not all breaks are clean, and not everything can be put back together again. But one of life's gifts granted to us as people is that we have this amazing capacity to endure and move on. Like the Edna St. Vincent Millay sonnet that opens Judith Guest's novel reminds us:
What a shining animal is man,
Who knows, when pain subsides, that is not that
For worse than that must follow yet can write
Music, can laugh, play tennis, even plan. 

Vanity Fair 2011
The cast of Ordinary People reunited for Vanity Fair in 2011. Photo by Mark Seliger

Ordinary People theatrical trailer

click to enlarge
Ordinary People was released Friday, September 26, 1980 at the Bruin Theater in Westwood, CA

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2018

Thursday, March 8, 2018


The great granddaddy (grandmother?) of “roommate from hell” movies is director Barbet Schroeder’s (Reversal of Fortune) masterfully creepy Single White Female. Sheer perfection in its straightforward simplicity, Single White Female is a splendidly taut and entertaining thriller of escalating dread and suspense built upon two basic, highly-relatable human anxieties: sharing a living space with a total stranger, and wondering whether it’s possible to really know another person…even those to whom we are closest.
Fashioned as an intertangled character drama masking a mordant feminist critiqueit can be argued that the entirety of the lead character's troubles arise out of the way society conditions women from an early age to harbor a fear of and resistance to being "single"; Barbet Schroeder’s Single White Female pairs the Roman Polanski urban paranoia thriller (Rosemary's Baby, The Tenant) with the Robert Altman personality-theft psychological melodrama (3 Women, Images) to chilling effect.
Bridget Fonda as Allison Jones
Jennifer Jason Leigh as Hedra Carlson
Steven Weber as Sam Rawson
Peter Friedman as Graham Knox
When an 11th-hour betrayal results in software designer Allison Jones kicking live-in fiancé Sam Rawson out of her rent-controlled apartment, our despondent, titular SWF hastily places a classified ad (against the better judgment warnings of friend and neighbor Graham Knox) for a roommate.
Enter Rizzoli Bookstore clerk Hedra Carlson; timid, sweet-natured, and studiously amorphous; she’s like a substance incapable of reflecting light, only absorbing it. Girlish and diffident in the face of Allison’s easygoing poise, resourceful where Allison is self-doubting and insecure, indistinct and shapeless to Allison’s urban sleek, the women are less an odd couple than strangely analogous opposites. Indeed, Hedra sees in Allison an image of a life she’d very much like to have. Literally.
Allison and Hedra
From the Greek, Hedra is a word used in geometry to signify many faces

In short order, roommates blossom into girlfriends (Hedy! Allie!), girlfriends bond as sisters, and sisterhood evolves into a kind of free-form female family unit into which the only male allowed is Buddy the dog. Sure, Hedra’s a little clingy, a tad furtive, maybe even a little too watchful ((It's) like she's studyin’ ya. Like you was a play, or a book, or a set of blueprints!”All About Eve); but for a time, each woman finds in the other what they are individually lacking. Allie gets a companion to help stave off her fear of being alone, Hedy finds someone who fills a deep, unarticulated emotional void.

The disruptive reappearance of Allison’s ousted fiancé evokes D.H. Lawrence’s The Fox (an impression reinforced by the lupine features of Steve Weber) in that the intrusion of the male has an abruptly poisonous effect on the friendship the two women have thus far forged. Feeling subtly edged out (even the dog prefers Allie's company), Hedy makes a desperate, fumblingly inappropriate attempt to insinuate herself into the relationship of the reconciled twosome, a move which only serves to further drive a wedge. As she watches her prominence in Allie's life diminish, Hedy's already troublingly possessive behavior and obsessive interest in Allie begins to manifest itself in increasingly psychotic ways.
Family Portrait
Playing on the TV set behind them is the 1957 Rita Hayworth film
Fire Down Below, about a friendship torn apart by romantic jealousy

Although Single White Female features an abundance of intriguing subthemes: urban fear, feminine identity, lesbianism, sexual harassment, duality, women's tendency to invalidate female friendships in deference to menSchroeder's uncluttered approach to the material and the film's familiar, easy-to-identify-with premise serves it extraordinarily well. The intelligent screenplay (adapted by Don Roos from John Lutz's 1990 novel SWF Seeks Same) simply lets the worst-case-rental nightmare scenario play out in accordance to the well-worn tropes of the classic stalker/suspense thriller, leaving plenty of room for the actors to fully and dimensionally inhabit their characters. The result is that instead of having the characters moved along by the demands of the plot, the characters themselves, as realized by the fine performances of Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh, dominate Single White Female.

As the film is structured, we know from the outset that the roommate situation will be problematic, just as we also know, this being a Hollywood thriller, that the central conflict must resolve itself with a sufficiently over-the-top, crowd-pleasing payoff: usually either cathartic (payback) or ironic (surprise twist). Thus, it's all the more appreciated that Barbet Schroeder manages to successfully subvert the plot's predictability by giving emphasis to the relationship between Allison and Hedra, making it feel authentic, while at the same time oddly discordant. The chemistry between these two women, vacillating between friendly, sororal, co-dependent, and the propulsive, compelling source of the film's suspense and considerably well-played chills.
The Happy Couple
When an arthouse darling like Barbet Schroeder (More-1969, The Valley Obscured by Clouds- 1972) makes a genre film, watching it is a little like seeing your sensitive, intellectual nephew running with the “wrong crowd”: there's concern as to which will exert the greater influence over the other.
Happily, I think Barbet Schroder’s arthouse sensibilities fairly dominate the first two-thirds of Single White Female, effectively drawing the viewer into the psychological drama before the melodrama and genre predictability of the final third takes over. He successfully turns both the city and apartment building into participating characters in the story, stressing the film's duality themes and appearances-can-be-deceiving angle by making both New York City and Allison's apartment building look simultaneously inviting and sinister.
"At least there's never a problem with privacy!"
Single White Female plays with the idea of strength and weakness, independence and helplessness. By all appearances, Allison is the character who has her life together, but the film allows her to be the one to harbor some of the more deep-rooted flaws. She is the first roommate to invade the other's privacy, yet she's made uncomfortable by Hedra's at-ease-with-herself informality (specifically, when she undresses in front of her). In the end, the women bond over the affectionate gesture of exchanged housewarming gifts. 

Barbet Schroeder displays such a sure touch with his handling of both the characters and the more rote aspects of the suspense thriller that the film’s third act, wherein Schroeder or the producers bow to the pressure to provide the ticket-buying public with the mayhem they crave, strikes the film's sole false note. While I have to concede that the violent conclusion is well executed and effectively delivers exactly what is expected of it (suspense, jeopardy, jump cuts); there's no denying that it's an improvement over the sprawling, drawn-out ending of the source novel; I nevertheless can't shake the feeling that it is an ending more genre-mandated than organic to the subtle, insinuating menace characterizing the rest of the film. I enjoy the ending for what it is, but it wouldn't surprise me were it revealed one day to be the work of another director entirely.

Single White Female combines two of my favorite film genres: the psychological suspense thriller and the identity-crisis/mind-meld melodrama. Perhaps because I looked to movies in my own quest for some kind of identity parallelism during my youth (I grew up a bookish, introverted, black gay male, living in a predominantly white neighborhood and attending a private Catholic boys school, the only boy in a family of four girls, with a hardworking but emotionally reserved father), I harbor a particular fondness for movies about people grappling with their sense of self. Even the first student film I ever made (a deservedly lost Super 8mm masterpiece that served as my admission application to the San Francisco Art Institute) was a movie about a man haunted by his doppelganger.

Single White Female is a thriller first and foremost, a genre nail-biter calculated to deliver consistent chills. But in the way it seriously cranks up the fear factor by delving into the dark side of duality and the elemental search for self, it reminds me a great deal of so many of my most beloved identity-merge films: Persona (1966), Dead Ringers (1988), Les Biches (1968), Performance (1970), Mulholland Drive (2001), Vertigo (1958), and Black Swan (2010).
When Imitation Ceases To Be The Sincerest Form Of Flattery
To varying degrees, twinning is a natural by-product of intimacy, a normal part of all close relationships. You see it in long-term couples who begin to look alike and adopt similar mannerisms. You witness it in best friends who copy and adopt identical modes of dress. It's evident in noxious "bromances" in which entire groups of male friends attend the same gym, tanning salons, and share the same can of Axe body spray.
But no matter how extreme the mirroring, each of us relies on the existence of subconscious boundaries of individual identity to prevent us from ever completely losing ourselves to, or getting completely lost in, others. No such boundaries exist in Single White Female.
Femme Fatale

An innovative director with a strong visual style and a comprehension of cinema language is a boon to any film, but such gifts are especially welcome in a genre flick. While there are many directors who’ve distinguished themselves through their association with a particular type of film: Ernst Lubitsch (comedies), John Ford (westerns), Alfred Hitchcock (suspense thriller), and John Carpenter (horror); most would contend that plot-driven, trope-reliant films, whose structures require conformity to brand, don't always leave a lot of elbow room for artistic expression.
Skeletons in the Closet
Allison discovers something scarier than wire hangers
 in Hedra's closet: a wardrobe duplicate to hers
Premise and setup are the stars of the suspense thriller, the director earning accolades only to the extent to which their talents contribute to the successful realization of the narrative’s requisite “payoffs”: surprise, scares, intensity, suspense, etc. Mind you, this isn’t easy, and any director capable of pulling off an effective thriller deserves credit, but the thrillers that tend to stick with me are the ones that manage to follow the genre dots while still bearing the imprint of a director’s unique world view and artistic perspective. 

Barbet Schroeder approaches Single White Female as though it were a character study in which one of the characters just happens to be a psychopath. The time and care spent on defining the relationship between Allie and Hedy, shading it with a comfortable intimacy and credible eccentricity (Allie accidentally catches Hedy masturbating, but instead of turning away, she lingers, watching) lends this film the stamp of quirky distinction.
Mirrors feature prominently in Single White Female, a film
exploring the dark side of identity, duality, and self-image

A similar attribute is Barbet Schroeder’s use of mise-en-scène to amplify Single White Female’s themes. For example, the internal life of Allison, a character whose anxieties are fueled by insecurity (fear of being alone) and betrayals (her former business partner, her fiancé, and her client), is reflected in her external environment.
Allison’s apartment—spacious but just cramped enough to convey urban confinement—is in a building whose derelict condition signals neglect and inattention. The rooms of the apartment all face a circular foyer, which, once the roommates’ lives and likenesses begin to merge, creates an element of disorientation and distortion. Meanwhile, privacy (or rather, its lack) is vividly dramatized by the many angles, doorways, and alcoves people use to conceal themselves or suddenly pop into view from behind; air vents that serve as sound amplifiers to neighboring apartments; and telephone answering machines that either divulge too much or are too easily erased.
Troubled Waters
Beginning with the malfunctioning faucet that precipitates Allie getting to know her better, Hedra is associated with water throughout the film. Frequently shown bathing, showering, or in some way cleansing herself (shades of Lady Macbeth), water also figures significantly in Hedra's shadowy past.

High-concept premise aside, the performances of Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh are the prime reason Single White Female endures for me, and why it continues to be such an enjoyable thrill ride after numerous rewatchings, long after its surprises have grown familiar.
When I think of actors who have good onscreen chemistry, my mind goes immediately to the similarities those actors share and the traits they have in common. But when I watch Single White Female I'm reminded that the most explosive onscreen chemistry comes from personalities with contrasting strengths that blend with symbiotic ease.
Who Is She?
The pairing of Fonda and Leigh—two actors who don't look alike; whose rhythms and acting styles contrast intriguingly; who exude self-restraint vs. barely held-in-check-- seems to draw out the inverse best in both. Fonda has never registered stronger, Leigh (in another lived-in departure for the versatile actress) is terrifying in her vulnerability.
The film uses both so well that, as with an ensemble piece, it's difficult to assess the work of one independent of the other. Suffice it to say that both actors inhabit their characters in marvelously realized performances that are so natural, that they manage to buff out the rough edges of the melodrama, making the formulaic feel fresh.
Occupational Hazard
Stephen Tobolowsky as Mitchell Myerson

As the film progresses, we learn that both Allison and Hedra have the same problem of repeating mistakes. It's revealed that Hedy is in the habit of attaching herself to people in an attempt to recapture and/or recreate a seminal relationship from her childhood. Meanwhile, Allie shows signs of being a serial bad-decision-maker. She bounces from one disloyal relationship (a failed business partner) to another (a faithless fiancé) to another (hastily opening her apartment to a woman she knows nothing about) to another (a business client whose intentions she misreads). 

I love scary movies, especially those rooted in the kind of mundane, everyday anxieties we all share. Alienation, urban paranoia, trust issues...the more the horror emanates from the basic insecurities that make up the human personality, the more intensely I relate to what is going on on the screen.
The Ansonia Apartments
Barbet Schroeder's homage to Rosemary's Baby
Like most kids, I loved to be frightened by monster movies. The worlds of Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolfman were so alien to my own existence that no matter how spooky things got, the essential "otherness" of what I was watching reinforced my subliminal safety-net reminding me that what I was watching was fantasy. Movies like these were capable of giving me a shudder, a shock, or a jolt of surprise, but they were too remote in context to ever really get under my skin. All that changed in 1967 when Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho had its broadcast television premiere. Suddenly the monster was human, the weapon a familiar household object, the victim undeserving of her fate, the violence not "safe" and bloodless, and the site (most horrifically) a personal safe haven of privacy.
My 9-year-old mind was blown. The kindertrauma spectacle of Janet Leigh’s shower murder opened a veritable Pandora's Box of everyday horror in my young life.

Ken’s Domestic Terror Timeline:
1967- Rosemary’s Baby published, In Cold Blood and Wait Until Dark released in theaters, and commercials for 1965s Return From The Ashes (in which a woman is murdered in her bathtub) appear on TV. 
Ken’s Social Terror Timeline:
1968- Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy assassinated. San Francisco (where we lived) terrorized by The Zodiac Killer. I see Rosemary’s Baby at the movies and have the holy hell scared out of me.
1969 to 1971- The hippie movement gave way to scare-a-thon news coverage of the Manson killings, and The Doors' "Riders on the Storm" terrorized me from radio playlists.
All this happened over the course of a few years, but to my psyche, it felt as though it had happened overnight. Suddenly the illusion of safety that family and home provided was shattered by the realization that not even bathrooms are safe havens, human beings are the real monsters, and violence can sometimes be cruelly random. 

Single White Female taps into all these still-fresh-to-me horrors: Apartment buildings are genuinely creepy places that thrust you into close contact with total strangers; anyone alone is justified to feel vulnerable in a big city; and what is more mysterious and labyrinthine than the human personality? 

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2018