Basic Instinct essentially became a pop culture icon upon release. It sparked the career of its lead actress Sharon Stone, and it will always be remembered for its positively gratuitous nudity and sexual content. The film was due for an NC-17 rating before director Paul Verhoeven struck thirty seconds of material that was supposedly too explicit—what that might have been given the film’s final content, it’s hard to say—and it thereby ended up with the more palatable R rating. We can now see that the difference between the two versions was rather arbitrary, and even in its R form the film was received with protest by multiple interest groups, including gay and lesbian groups that took issue with the fact that film’s two antagonists, one a bisexual and one a lesbian, were both depicted as sociopaths. But all the controversy is, ultimately, smoke and mirrors: Basic Instinct is a passable film, and after twenty years it still holds up, but its reputation certainly precedes it. Today, where the film’s nudity and violence now seems boilerplate and unremarkable to us, one does wonder what the fracas was about.
Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone play opposite each other. He is a police detective investigating the grisly murder of a famous musician; she was romantically involved with the musician and is the lead suspect in the case. It also happens that she is a crime novelist, and one of her novels precisely describes the musician’s death. The film consists of an elaborate detection game as Douglas tries to solve the crime and keep his distance from the intoxicating Stone. He fails with regards to the latter, eventually falling in love with her, captured by the mind-games she plays.
The film opens up with the aforementioned murder. Immediately we’re exposed to a sex scene involving full-frontal female and male nudity, and the encounter ends in a violent climax as the female drives an ice pick into the musician’s face and chest, gruesomely killing him. (As a counterpart to the nudity, Verhoeven shows us the ice pick slicing through the man’s nose—a sight as startling as the naked girl atop him.) Verhoeven serves more of the same for the next two hours, though there is certainly more sex and nudity than violence. His methods, in few words, are coarse, and he essentially inserts something lewd into each scene. The film becomes oversaturated with a bizarrely frantic sexuality, and it soon feels as if the plot exists merely to facilitate some Sharon Stone nudity. While that’s certainly an exciting prospect, the narrative predictably suffers because of it, and that’s especially unfortunate given that there are the makings of a good thriller here. Basic Instinct succeeds in the rare instances where the screenwriter and the director exercise restraint.
Take the best scene in the film, where Douglas confronts Stone at her beach house. He ostensibly arrives to question her about the murder but she promptly coaxes control of the conversation away from him and begins her own interrogation. Tension mounts between the two of them. Stone eerily creeps up him so their faces are almost touching, but they never kiss—they just glare at each other, almost menacingly. We want something to happen—anything to break the scene’s tautness—but nothing does. It is brilliantly executed. Stone’s character plays similar mind-games throughout, and I’m left wondering what might have been had the film stuck with that tack. Rather, we’re provided with a fairly standard thriller, and one that is slightly mismanaged. For the most part the mystery unfolds away from the audience. We’re not privy to the clues and breakthroughs that Douglas is uncovering, so the major plot twist ends up having no basis in what we’ve seen, and doesn’t really make any sense. It’s all a little dissatisfying.
Basic Instinct essentially made Sharon Stone’s career. I tend to forget that she is a terrific actress—perhaps that’s because I haven’t seen her in too many pictures, apart from Martin Scorsese’s Casino, where she was also excellent. Accordingly, Basic Instinct serves as something of a testament to her superior ability. She spins a great character out of a mediocre script, and the way she plays that character is electrifying. Stone’s novelist is psychologically scarred, and the actress represents that well, vacillating between bursts of raw emotion and spells of severe Ice Queen-type cold. It is just as well that she performs superbly, because the nudity might otherwise have seemed as crass exploitation on the part of the filmmakers. Certainly many interpret it that way, but in the context of the character, that primitive sexuality makes sense. Stone’s character is Bacchanalian, binging on either violence or sex and always craving both, and Stone is utterly convincing in this role. She singlehandedly validates both her character and the film.
There is, of course, the famous sequence where Stone uncrosses her legs to reveal she’s not wearing underwear. For most people this is Basic Instinct in a nutshell—mention the film’s title, and this is what immediately comes to mind. Google the title and the first images you get back are (safesearched) stills on the cold blue room and Stone’s blinding white dress and pinned-back hair. Her two-second crotch flash quickly became a phenomenon worldwide, and is essentially what the film is remembered for today. In my sophomore year in college, we spent an entire lecture discussing the scene’s impact on the audience. There are actually a number of qualitative studies out there that attempt to catalog how people reacted to Stone’s flash. It all seems a little quaint now, but this was 1992, essentially before the internet and the widespread availability of pornography. And certainly for adolescent audiences, Basic Instinct was practically as good as it got—one imagines it would be easier to get hold of this film than actual pornography. (Though I do wonder what people were looking at—my DVD copy is so low-res that you can’t even see anything, let alone the 1993 VHS home video copy that kids would have had access to then.)
The film’s sexual content did not pass unchallenged. Basic Instinct has variously been labeled misogynistic (likely given its willingness to bear the female form—though men appear naked too—and its portrayal of the female antagonists as psychologically unstable) as well as homophobic. Stone’s character is bisexual, and her female lover is a lesbian, and gay groups were reportedly unhappy with the fact that both characters had psychological issues. It’s hard to understand the context of those charges today, because Basic Instinct now seems totally innocuous. While it was certainly explicit in 1992, I’m sure most adults wouldn’t bat an eyelid at its sex scenes today. And at the risk of irking those who took issue with the film, I would suggest that people were just looking for something to be offended by, and they found an easy target in Basic Instinct. It’s important to note the film never places any emphasis on Stone’s bisexuality, nor does it ever expressly address homosexuality. The fact that Stone has a female lover is almost just a passing fact, and the only contact between the two girls is when they share a kiss. They never have sex onscreen. The charge that the film is misogynistic has more weight, though I don’t find anything in the film to be abjectly offensive. Stone’s character could just as easily be male, and Douglas’ character could just as easily be female. Gender is not a central issue here, and to focus on it seems a little disingenuous.
I’d struggle to label Basic Instinct as anything more than a curiosity now. While it had great cultural gravity, it didn’t have any real lasting impact on the thriller genre. It is now most notable for Sharon Stone’s performance. She’ll forever be remembered by this film, and that is not a bad thing—she did a terrific job with the relatively drab material she was given. Basic Instinct is good entertainment, and I’m comfortable with leaving it at that. Next week we’ll be looking at an old classic: it’s the forty-fifth anniversary of Bonnie and Clyde. Be sure to revisit it so you can join in the discussion then.