Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Danger of Being Single, White, Female

Twenty years ago today, Bridget Fonda already had appeared in several movies — even if you didn't count her nonspeaking bit roles in "Easy Rider" and another movie.

I had heard of her — I had even seen some of her movies — but, honestly, I didn't recall seeing her in anything before this day in 1992. I guess I just didn't notice her in those earlier films, but the summer of 1992 was a busy time for me. I had just moved to Norman, Okla., and I was getting settled in to my apartment.

I really wasn't noticing much of anything.

I didn't really have time to go to movies in August 1992, and I just never saw "Single White Female," which premiered 20 years ago today, until awhile later, when it began showing up on cable TV.

And I learned that, far from being an excuse to parade Fonda and Leigh in front of cameras sans clothes, it was a good movie. Hitchcockian in its way.

I had certainly heard of Jennifer Jason Leigh. She had been in quite a few movies in the last decade, and she had earned a reputation for meticulously researching every role she played.

And she had also earned something of a reputation among young males for appearing nude in several movies. Those who went to "Single White Female" hoping to see Leigh in the altogether were not disappointed.

Nor were those who came hoping to catch a glimpse of Fonda. Her scenes tended to be shot more strategically and less revealingly, but nudity seekers saw plenty of both.

The story must have struck fear in the hearts of just about anyone who ever posted an advertisement anywhere — newspaper classifieds, online, grocery store bulletin board — seeking a roommate.

And when I saw it, my thoughts were immediately drawn to my female journalism students — none of whom were as beautiful as Fonda but any one of whom I could easily imagine being in a similar situation.

Leigh was a textbook nut case in "Single White Female," emulating the sophisticated and successful Fonda to the point of looking so much like her that her character was able to bed Fonda's philandering boyfriend (played by Steven Weber).

The audience learned early that Weber's character had a rather indiscriminate sexual appetite. Only hours before climbing into bed with Fonda, he had jumped into another bed with his ex–wife, something both the audience and Fonda learned by overhearing Weber's phone conversation with his ex.

So perhaps sleeping with Weber's character wasn't such a special accomplishment after all. Or maybe it was. Leigh's character had dyed her hair and cut it to the length Fonda wore it, and she had worn clothes that either belonged to Fonda's character or closely resembled clothes she would have worn. And she passed herself off as Fonda.

Weber only realized it was not Fonda after the fact.

In other films, she came across as beautiful and sexy, but, as Brian Dillard observed for AllMovie, "With her malleable looks and easily projected neediness ... Leigh is downright creepy."

One could almost imagine Leigh's character at the heart of an identity theft scam if such a film might be made today. And Fonda's character, with only a few modest adjustments, could be its victim.

The biggest obstacles to overcome, I suppose, would be technological. The plot would have to be revised significantly to accommodate a world in which cell phones and the internet were ordinary. In 1992, they were barely in use at all.

Certainly, my journalism students weren't using them at that time. Nor was I. In fact, one of my colleagues in the journalism faculty in those days devised a brand–new course to guide his students as they began their tentative journey into the "virtual world."

That virtual world was treated as some kind of exotic thing 20 years ago. It is very real now, thoroughly accessible to just about anyone and fraught with danger.

And it would alter the story considerably.

But it wouldn't change the central truth — that it can be hazardous to your health to be a single white female.