The other day I re-watched Single White Female & The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and realized they share many similarities. Both films came out in 1992 when sexy thrillers were very much in style (think Basic Instinct). So, you have a lot of the same themes and character traits reused between movies. Some hold up and others feel stuck in the 90s.
Single White Female focuses on Allie (Bridget Fonda), a pretty twenty-something software engineer living in New York City. When she discovers that her boyfriend, Sam (Steven Weber), has cheated on her, she tosses him out. Soon after she puts an ad in the newspaper looking for a new roommate. After meeting with a few duds, Hedy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) strolls in. Allie has been crying over Sam and she listens as she blabbers on. They instantly bond and Hedy moves-in. Allie is so taken with her new roomie that she doesn’t bother to check her references. Big mistake. It’s one of several dumb moves Allie makes. The script makes her out to be fairly dense and co-dependent. She actually doesn’t need a roommate because she can afford the rent-controlled apartment on her own, but she can’t bear to be alone. Once Hedy has moved in, she can’t see how crazy she is until it’s too late and she’s duct-taped to a chair. That will open your eyes.
The Hand that Rocks the Cradle has a different vibe, but a familiar story. Claire (Anabella Sciorra) is a wife and mother living in the suburbs of Seattle. During her second pregnancy, she is molested by her OBGYN, Dr. Mott. She tells the authorities, which causes other victims to come forward. The scandal devastates Mott and he commits suicide. His wife Peyton (Rebecca De Mornay) goes into premature labor because of all the stress and loses the baby. Months later when Claire needs help taking care of her daughter Emma (Madeline Zima) and baby Joe, Peyton arrives on the scene posing as a nanny. The doctor’s widow is set on revenge. Just like Allie, Claire is fairly gullible. She allows Peyton’s charm to win her over and doesn’t take the time to look into her references. How are these women allowing strangers to move into their homes without doing a simple background check first?! Also, Claire is extremely weak. There’s a recurring plot line where any stressor triggers her asthma and she has a massive attack. She could drop dead if someone says “boo” to her.
The villains in each movie are riding in first class on the crazy train. From the second she moves in, Hedy is obsessed with Allie. She wants to be the #1 person in her roommate’s life. She even buys a puppy so the two of them can take care of it. Poor Buddy gets tossed off the balcony when he seems to prefer Allie over Hedy. Only a true nutjob would kill a puppy! Later Allie discovers that Hedy has copies of all of her outfits. Then she takes it one step further when she gets Allie’s exact haircut and color. Ironically, this movie probably spawned a ton of mushroom copy-cuts in real life.
In Peyton’s mind, Claire destroyed her family, so she’s going to steal hers. She gets close to Emma, winning her over quickly. Then she begins to breastfeed Joe every night causing him to reject his own mother’s milk. She attempts to ruin Claire’s marriage by making her think that her husband is cheating on her. Peyton won’t rest until her enemy is down for good.
The men in these movies are basically props used to move the plot along. It’s actually refreshing since this typically happens to female characters. In both films, the villain wants to steal the heroine’s man. But it’s not really about the guys themselves. It’s more so about possessing everything the heroine has. In SWF, Hedy tries to dissuade Allie from forgiving Sam and getting back together with him. She doesn’t want to lose her position in Allie’s life. But she also wants to bang Sam herself. She succeeds in the latter point when she slithers into Sam’s bed. He thinks she’s Allie and goes along with the seduction. Once he realizes the truth, he doesn’t try too hard to push her off. But he instantly regrets cheating on Allie and hops out of bed. In this moment, we get some rare male nudity. There’s a flash of peen and a slightly longer butt shot with a peek at his low hangers. Both Fonda and Leigh have nude scenes, so it’s only fair that we get a gander at Webber too. Sam threatens to tell Allie about what happened and Hedy snaps (didn’t take much) and stabs him in the eye with her stiletto heel. Death by footwear.
Claire’s husband, Michael (Matt McCoy) fares better. He doesn’t succumb to Peyton’s “charms”, even after she flaunts them in a wet see-through nightgown. And he makes it out of the movie alive despite getting clocked with a baseball bat. But ultimately his character is a bland afterthought. If he had gotten naked, maybe he’d be more interesting.
The best friend always knows
Unlike the female leads, the best friends actually have a clue. Marlene (Julianne Moore) knows something isn’t right with Peyton. She warns Claire, “the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world”. It’s like she wrote the movie. Marlene investigates the nanny and discovers that Peyton is Dr. Mott’s widow. This leads to a typical trope in thrillers: the best friend has to die because they know too much. In this case, Marlene gets a greenhouse dropped on her head. Meanwhile, Allie’s best friend and neighbor Graham (Peter Friedman) has Hedy’s number from the moment she moves into the building. Hedy comes after Graham, knocking him out. Luckily, he survives and will be able to give Allie a big “I told you so”.
One aspect of THTRTC that doesn’t age well and also proves to be very problematic is the character of Solomon (Ernie Hudson). Claire and Michael hire the mentally challenged handyman to build a white picket fence around their yard. He’s a large black man with the mental capability of a child. So, he’s imposing, yet harmless, and altogether awkward. He’s bright enough to be wary of Peyton though. When he catches her breastfeeding Joe, she plots to get rid of him before he can out her. She tells Claire that Solomon has been inappropriate with Emma. Claire doesn’t believe it, but the seed of doubt is planted. Later, Peyton makes sure she finds a pair of Emma’s underwear in Solomon’s work cart. Claire leaps to the conclusion that he has molested her daughter and fires him. Peyton is basically a 90s “Karen”, a white woman falsely accusing a black man of a crime and ruining his life. Another problem with this story is that Michael and Claire never ask Emma what happened. They just assume it’s true. You’d think they’d take her to therapy to deal with this supposed traumatic event, but they just move on with their lives. That’s some shitty parenting and a big plot hole.
The bad guy always has to go down in the end. We’ve watched these horrible people torture the protagonists for 90% of the film and we want some payoff. This is also when Allie and Claire grow a brain and a backbone. Allie manages to best Hedy in a tense cat and mouse game in their building’s basement then kills her with a screwdriver. It’s appropriate that she gets stabbed in the back. In Cradle, Claire finally figures everything out and confronts her tormentor. Cut to her punching Peyton across a dining room table. I remember when I saw this in a packed theater, back in 1992, and the audience erupted in applause. We were all tired of that bitch. Later, Claire gets the upper hand on Peyton and shoves her out a window. The psycho nanny lands on the white picket fence that Solomon built. Now that’s payback.