A Look Back: 25 Years of ‘Basic Instinct’
Twenty-five years after Sharon Stone uncrossed her legs and walked into history, Basic Instinct remains a shocking movie. Even two decades later, the infamous interrogation sequence still pushes the bounds of what an R-rated movie will permit. Nevertheless, the movie is far more than just a single notorious scene. In honor of the movie’s silver anniversary, we take a look back at the movie’s origins, the furor it created, and, of course, its most famous moment.
During a murder investigation, San Francisco detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) becomes involved with a mysterious author named Catherine Trammell (Sharon Stone), whom he suspects may be responsible for the series of brutal deaths involving sex and an ice pick.
The script for the film was written by Joe Ezsterhas, author of Flashdance and Jagged Edge, who nabbed a then-record $3 million for his work. A parade of actors were considered for the primary roles, but ultimately many were scared off by the explicit nature of the movie’s story. Ultimately, Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone were selected. Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, at the time best known for sci-fi efforts such as Robocop and Total Recall, was called upon to direct, relishing the challenge of presenting such sexually graphic material to American audiences. “I thought it would be really interesting to see how far I could go in the United States and how far I could go with a well-known actor like Michael Douglas,” he said. “And I thought there was a real challenge to find out if I could push the limits as much as possible . . . I think it’s fun to be offending, provocative. It keeps your alive.” (source: Contemporary Hollywood Cinema, Steven Neal)
The most discussed moment in the movie comes when Sharon Stone’s character is brought in for questioning. Unflappable, she toys with her interrogators, and at one point uncrosses her legs to reveal that she is not, in fact, wearing any underwear. This kind of graphic nudity, particularly in a major Hollywood movie, was practically unprecedented and become the movie’s most infamous scene. Verhoeven got the idea for the scene from a woman he had known in his native Holland who pulled the same move at parties as a provocative mind game. Stone herself saw the scene as a power play for her character. “She had all the power. These men put her in a position where she was alone in a chair in the center of an empty room—surrounded,” she told Playboy Magazine. “That would be a very intimidating position to be in unless she disarmed them, which she did. At the police station she could have been stricken and scared. But instead she thought, ‘This is going to be fun. Oh, so you want me to sit in the middle of the room here? Oh, charming. Why is that? You want to make sure you can look up my dress? OK, you can look up my dress.’ It was a game.”
The movie generated controversy for two reasons: its portrayal of gay/lesbian characters and its graphic sexual content. The Motion Picture Association of America did force Verhoeven to trim down some of the sex scenes, but he did not feel the cuts severely impacted his overall artistic vision. “Actually, I didn’t have to cut many things, but I replaced things from different angles, made it a little more elliptical, a bit less direct,” he told The New York Times shortly after the film’s release. The script of the movie was leaked before filming began and numerous gay rights groups objected to the movie’s depiction of its lesbian characters, arguing that they were all presented as unstable or psychopathic. Though the latter controversy lingers, the film does have numerous high-profile defenders in this regard, including feminist author Camille Paglia. (Paglia even contributed a largely laudatory audio commentary for the movie’s Blu-ray edition.)
“This erotically charged thriller about the search for an ice-pick murderer in San Francisco rivets attention through its sleek style, attractive cast doing and thinking kinky things, and story, which is as weirdly implausible as it is intensely visceral.” (Variety)
“This is not a movie where the outcome depends upon the personality or behavior of the characters. It’s just a wind-up machine to jerk us around.” (Roger Ebert)
What makes it great
In porn, the plot stops at the water’s edge. As soon as the sex begins, the story steps aside. Basic Instinct is able to accomplish the unusual feat of making sex scenes that titillate and serve a full and important function within the movie’s story. Even in the most plot-heavy adult movies, the narrative needle is lifted almost completely when the kissing begins. Not so in Basic Instinct. Since the movie is about a sociopath who kills her victims during sex, the love scenes function as suspense scenes.
The porn parodies
Though Basic Instinct has plenty of graphic sex in it as it is, it still managed to inspire two separate porn parodies, both made in the golden age of porn spoofs, long after the movie’s 1992 release:
Sharon Stone became a bona fide movie star and collected her first Oscar nomination in 1995 for Martin Scorsese’s Casino. She later returned to the role of Catherine Trammell in the critically savaged sequel Basic Instinct 2. Eszterhas tried his hand at similarly themed thrillers, including Jade and Showgirls, with considerably less success. Director Verhoeven continued to make big-budget movies but grew weary of Hollywood by the early 2000s, soon returning to Europe to make more personal films. Elle, the director’s most recent effort, shares Basic Instinct‘s enthusiasm for pushing boundaries and has collected critical plaudits from across the globe.