Basic Instinct is Paul Verhoeven’s controversial 1992 offering to the world. Starring Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone, it is widely regarded as the film that broke Stone as a bonafide Hollywood star. Classed as neo-noir and an erotic thriller, the film contains many Hitchcockian elements that make it a visceral and challenging watch.
The plot follows San Francisco police detective Nick Curran (Douglas) who is investigating the brutal murder of a wealthy rock star. During the investigation, Curran enters into a whirlwind cat-and-mouse relationship with the prime suspect, an enigmatic crime writer, Catherine Tramell (Stone).
What might, at this point, sound like an attractive film to anyone who hasn’t seen it, the movie is actually highly problematic. It sheds light on the misogyny inherent to Hollywood and society in the ’90s. It also contains what has been regarded as embedded homophobia, with depictions of graphic anti-homosexual violence thus gaining widespread fury from LGBTQIA+ groups upon release. Even esteemed film critic Roger Ebert, who had awarded the film a favourable review weighed in: “As for the allegedly offensive homosexual characters: The movie’s protesters might take note of the fact that this film’s heterosexuals, starting with Douglas, are equally offensive. Still, there is a point to be made about Hollywood’s unremitting insistence on typecasting homosexuals—particularly lesbians—as twisted and evil.”
Famed feminist academic Camille Paglia argued against the protests and posited that Stone’s performance was “one of the great performances by a woman in screen history”, praising her character as “a great vamp figure, like Mona Lisa herself, like a pagan goddess”.
We’ll let you make your own mind up.
Regardless of the stir that it caused, even to this day, it became the film that would become most closely associated with Stone. Although she had previously come to mainstream prominence starring alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in Verhoeven’s Total Recall in 1990, Basic Instinct broke Stone as an international “sex symbol”. Today, even the term “sex symbol” leaves a sour taste in the mouth.
However, there exists one specific scene within the film that made it and Stone infamous. The interrogation scene.
Stone’s character Tramell, at this point in the film, is thought to be the main suspect in the rockstar’s murder. She is uncooperative and taunting during the interrogation. She smokes a cigarette and then uncrosses her legs revealing her naked vulva. The up-close shot of Wayne Knight’s character John Correll profusely sweating was seared into the collective consciousness ad infinitum.
The scene shocked audiences worldwide, but not as much as it did Stone herself. In her recent memoir, she recalled watching the completed film back for the first time: “After we shot Basic Instinct, I got called in to see it. Not on my own with the director, as one would anticipate, given the situation that has given us all pause, so to speak, but with a room full of agents and lawyers, most of whom had nothing to do with the project,” she wrote. “That was how I saw my vagina shot for the first time, long after I’d been told, ‘We can’t see anything — I just need you to remove your panties, as the white is reflecting the light, so we know you have panties on.’”
Unsurprisingly filled with a mix of shock and rage, Stone “went to the projection booth, slapped Paul (Verhoeven) across the face, left, went to my car, and called my lawyer, Marty Singer.”
This was to be the icing on the cake for a very fraught and terrifying time for Stone. Due to the script’s violent nature, the film had already triggered deeply embedded emotions Stone had developed as a child in a broken home. Furthermore, she had encountered widespread misogyny at every turn in her acting career. Again, the film had a frighteningly tangible impact on Stone and the audience: “When I played a serial killer in Basic Instinct I tapped into that rage. It was terrifying to look into the shadow self and to release it onto film for the world to see. To allow people to believe that I was ‘like that’. Even more, to let myself know that I have or had darkness within. I can say that it was and is the most freeing thing I have ever done.”
She added: “Ultimately, it also let me know that I wasn’t really the stabbing type. Letting myself process that rage was magnificent, and I think letting others feel that release was a bit therapeutic for the audience. I know it’s not just me.”
After consulting with her lawyer Marty Singer, Stone decided not to pursue any lawful action, and in an exclusive excerpt with Vanity Fair she explained: “Why? Because it was correct for the film and for the character; and because, after all, I did it.”
Verhoeven has always denied the claims that Stone didn’t consent to her vagina being filmed as she crossed and uncrossed her legs: “Sharon is lying,” he told ICON in 2017. “Any actress knows what she’s going to see if you ask her to take off her underwear and point there with the camera.”
Stone has reaffirmed that there exists “many points of view on this topic”; However, she asserts that, as the “one with the vagina…the other points of view are bullshit.” In March 2021 Verhoeven’s representatives declined to comment on the scene with CNN.
Regardless of all the extraneous variables, this moment in cinema history is shocking. This is made worse by the next little vignette. Stone details her meeting with an old, seedy line producer to fill out some paperwork for the film. He embodies the dark Hollywood underbelly that is so acutely displayed in films such as L.A. Confidential or Mulholland Drive: “You were not our first choice, Karen. No, you were not even the second or the third. You were the thirteenth choice for this film.”
Stone expands: “He continued to call me Karen all through the making and postproduction of the movie. I left that meeting so messed up that I got into my car in the parking lot, put on my rap music super loud, and backed into a semi three feet behind me. When I went to the Oscars for the very first time after making that film, I sat next to this same line producer at the Governors Ball dinner, which happens right after the ceremony. He did not call me Karen.”
In this anecdote, Stone accurately portrays that disgusting, age-old misogyny inherent to Hollywood, one that has culminated in the long required #MeToo movement.
“I think that I am not alone in processing some pent-up female rage,” she added. “It’s unnerving to know that for me, this rage was so controlled, I think because I was forced to control it for so long, to keep it hidden as though it were my shame. This was the nature of abuse in my era. Everything carried the heavy weight of threat. Not only to me but to those I loved or was supposed to love or whatever the fuck was going on there.”
That scene in Basic Instinct taught Stone and us a lot. Like with everything sensationalised, there exists a wide variety of opinions; both good and bad. She has also offered some insights about the industry, and wider society moving forward: “As we are learning, abuse comes in all kinds of ways and our reactions come in all ways. Generation after generation we will still be learning just how to talk about and deal with abuse without being abusive in our very discussions, sensationalistic in our interest, cruel with our concern.”
“Thank God it is not that way now. The whole system is changing. The financial burden is real, and the old boys’ club isn’t covering for this anymore. There are more women at the helm, and they aren’t in the pocket of the men, forced to play along or be canned.”
The way Stone stood up to the movie industry is nothing but commendable. After being made to feel so small, and being objectified to the maximum, she turned around, flipped them off and literally owned the situation. In this respect, it can be seen as an early turning point for women’s rights in cinema.
Harking back to the film’s premiere, Stone tells of how she went with Faye Dunaway, who played another iconic female role in 1974’s Chinatown, Evelyn Mulwray, a leading lady of depth rather than just the cliche of a simplified femme fatale. Dunaway’s character somewhat embodies the essence of what Stone achieved in her response to the infamous Basic Instinct scene.
So where else would be better to conclude than this: “Finally, after what seemed like forever, the crowd began to scream and cheer. ‘What now?’ I said to Faye, to which she replied, ‘Now you are a big star and they can all kiss your ass.’”
Basic Instinct is now available on Netflix.