The first time I watched ‘Basic Instinct’, I was a few years into high school and staying at the house of a friend whose parents were away. “Hey”, he said casually, almost conspiratorially, “have you watched the uncensored version of 'Basic Instinct'? You can see EVERYTHING!” No, sir, I had not! Rummaging around under his bed, he emerged with a well-worn VHS tape, labelled “Batman Returns”. He had pirated this film, he informed me, using the VCR-to-VCR technique, from a copy his parents had rented from VideoEzy.
Excitedly, he fast-forwarded to "the good bit" and then hit the pause button. “See!” he exclaimed. On a small rear-projection TV playing a videocassette, I couldn’t see much more than a vague, shadowy blur. “Dude!” I shot back. Later, I asked him what the rest of the movie was like. “Dunno”, he replied, “I haven’t watched it. Looks pretty boring, I think.”
To say 'Basic Instinct' was primarily known as the film that exposed Sharon Stone’s vulva to an uncomprehending world is no understatement. But it is also doing the film a disservice, ignoring it’s status as one of the best neo-noir films and the new ground it broke with its depiction of sexuality in mainstream Hollywood cinema. It also proved that the erotic thriller could be a bankable movie commodity and was one of several '90s films that pioneered the “director’s cut”, allowing filmmakers to return to their movies for release on video or DVD, delivering a far more explicit film for home viewers.
The basics of the film’s storyline are as follows: retired rock star, Johnny Boz, is stabbed to death with an ice pick during sex by a mysterious blonde woman at his apartment. Homicide detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) investigates, and the only suspect is Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone), Boz's bisexual girlfriend and a crime novelist who has written a novel that mirrors the crime. A few more stabbings and whole lot of foreplay and sex (also with Jeanne Tripplehorn) ensues.
Why is it one of the best neo-noir films? Because it has all the required elements of the genre - and then some.
Femme fatale? Check. Extreme paranoia? Check. Intimations of fascism? Check. Direct connections drawn between sexual arousal and the need to control others? Check. ‘Basic Instinct’ is an operatically violent, unbelievably twisty, sexually graphic neo-noir that is also about control, power, sexual exploitation and violence, and the thin line between control and domination.
Directed by Paul Verhoeven (‘Starship Troopers’, ‘Black Book’, ‘Elle’) and written by Joe Eszterhas (who wrote the script in just 13 days before selling it for $US3 million in 1990), ‘Basic Instinct’ grossed a huge $US352,927,224 worldwide against a $US49 million budget, making it the ninth highest-grossing domestic film of 1992 in the United States, and fourth-highest worldwide.
Verhoeven, who had previously been best known in America for the violent action films 'RoboCop' (1987) and 'Total Recall' (1990), had already rehearsed for the project with the sexually explicit historical drama 'Flesh + Blood' (1985), his American debut, and 'The Fourth Man' (De Vierde man, 1979), an art-house thriller from his native Holland. Jan de Bont, who had shot all Verhoeven’s earlier films, changed careers immediately after 'Basic Instinct' to become the director of 'Speed' (1994) and 'Twister' (1996).
Most audiences, however, were less interested in the film’s production credits than what Stone and Michael Douglas looked like with their gear off. Douglas, the actor-producer who had won an Oscar for playing the oily Gordon Gekko in 'Wall Street' in 1987 (the same year 'Fatal Attraction' was released), confirmed his status as the leading man who made sex look quite gross and slobbery. In ‘Basic Instinct’, however, he was out-acted by Sharon Stone, previously best known for her roles as the hero’s karate-kicking wife in 'Total Recall' and the sexually predatory journalist in 'Year of the Gun' (1991).
Verhoeven had wanted to make a modern version of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, except with a lot more sex. Eszterhas’ original script approached the film from a different angle. “My intention when I wrote the script was that it be a psychological mystery with the love scenes done subtly,” Eszterhas told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “Every love scene in my script begins with the words: ‘It is dark; we can’t see clearly.’”
Verhoeven won out (although he lost his battle for a lesbian love scene to be added to the script over the objection of Eszterhas, who thought such a scene would be even more gratuitous than the end result).
The film, which was originally classified NC-17 in the U.S. before the director “tweaked the angles”, was criticised for its depictions of sexuality, violent murder scenes and glamorising smoking (the tobacco industry loved the movie so much that they launched a tie-in brand of ‘Basic’ cigarettes). ‘Basic Instinct’ also received heavy backlash from the gay and lesbian community who were angered by the film’s depiction of women who engage in same-sex relationships as being psychopathic killers.
The most famous scene in ‘Basic Instinct’ is undoubtedly the interrogation scene, where Stone crosses and uncrosses her legs. The scene wasn’t originally in the script.
The most famous scene in ‘Basic Instinct’ is undoubtedly the interrogation scene, where Stone crosses and uncrosses her legs. The scene wasn’t originally in the script. “Paul Verhoeven decided that scene would be more fun if Sharon didn’t wear any underwear that day,” Eszterhas wrote in his 2005 memoir, 'Hollywood Animal'. “In other words, the most famous moment of any of my films was Paul Verhoeven’s. I am a militant and militantly insufferable screenwriter who insists that the screenwriter is as important as the director, who insists the director serves the screenwriter’s vision, and whose most famous and most memorable screen moment was created by the director, Paul Verhoeven.”
The film’s score, composed by Jerry Goldsmith, garnered nominations for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award. Goldsmith, in an interview with Barnes & Noble, described it as one of his most challenging efforts, stating, "'Basic Instinct' was probably the most difficult I've ever done. It's a very convoluted story with very unorthodox characters. It's a murder mystery, but it isn't really a murder mystery. The director, Paul Verhoeven, had a very clear idea of how the woman should be, and I had a hard time getting it. Because of Paul pushing me, I think it's one of the best scores I've ever written. It was a true collaboration."
Since ‘Basic Instinct’, Paul Verhoeven, Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone have all gone on to enjoy illustrious careers in Hollywood and Stone’s character, Catherine Tramell, is recognised as one of the best film villains of all time. Still revered today, the archetypical femme fatale nature of Tramell is what made the film such a leader in neo-noir: constantly playing on psychology and the human mind, she keeps the audience captivated right to the very end of the movie.
Eszterhas and Verhoeven reunited for 1995's notorious Vegas exposé ‘Showgirls’, which flopped upon its release but became a cult classic and one of the funniest movies ever made. After 'Basic Instinct’, Eszterhas famously commanded million-dollar fees for his scripts, though many of them wasted away on studio shelves. His next two films, the autobiographical coming-of-age movie 'Telling Lies In America' and the Hollywood satire 'An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn', barely broke even. Eszterhas has subsequently battled alcoholism and cancer and written two high-profile books, 'American Rhapsody' and the recent 'Hollywood Animal: A Memoir'.
After the success of ‘Basic Instinct’, studios released a slew of hilariously ripe erotic thrillers (‘Body of Evidence’, ‘Sliver’, ‘Disclosure’, ‘Color of Night’, ‘Jade’) which flopped in cinemas but did quite well in video shops during the 1990s. A few erotic thrillers succeeded critically, such as David Cronenberg’s ‘Crash’ and the Wachowski’s breakthrough film, ‘Bound’, but 'Basic Instinct 2' landed with a dull thud in 2006. It wasn’t until ‘50 Shades Of Grey’ in 2015 that the genre broke into the mainstream again.
Looking back 25 years ago, ‘Basic Instinct’ constituted one of several key moments in contemporary cinema where the envelope of what was permissible on mainstream screens was visibly pushed a little further. Sharon Stone uncrossing her legs and flashing her naked pudenda at consenting adult (and furtive teenage) viewers remains one of the most infamous shots of post-war cinema.