“No film has ever succeeded in making sex look at once so alluring and so glum. From its opening sequence, the film is a castration fantasy that conducts a running critique of the titillation it is marketing.” – Thomas M. Leitch1

From RoboCop (1987) to Starship Troopers (1997), Showgirls (1995) to Elle (2016), Paul Verhoeven has never quite resisted to urge to roll up his sleeves and play in the muck of genre and its omnipresent tropes. He revels – too much, for some – in the codes and conventions to the point that critics and audiences are sometimes not wholly clear on if he is deconstructing, reconstructing or outright beatifying the things we suspect he might initially set out to critique.

Although firmly planted in film history as a canonical entry into the so-called erotic thriller category that permeated the 1980s and 1990s, Basic Instinct is at its heart a love-letter – in the way that only Verhoeven can do them – to Italian giallo cinema. If the hyper-stylised sex-and-violence vignettes do not convince you, then the plotline alone should: Verhoeven’s film about a crime novelist, the details of whose work comes sexily close to an actual murder, shares much in common with Dario Argento’s Tenebrae (1987), from its plot to its explicit intersection of bisexuality and assumed ‘monstrosity’. Even just in terms of its lurid sensationalism, Basic Instinct is as much a hat-tip to gialli of directors like Sergio Martino and Lucio Fulci as well as Argento as it is to the more vanilla and/or moralising American erotic thrillers that preceded it like Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981), Fatal Attraction (Adrian Lyne, 1987) or Sea of Love (Harold Becker, 1989).

At the time of its original release, however, there were more pressing concerns when it came to Basic Instinct than its heritage. The iconic figure of bisexual author Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) was far from embraced by what was then called ‘the gay community’, and was the subject of heated protests before its release, demanding the script be changed to present a more progressive vision of women’s queer sexuality beyond man-hating psychopaths: suggestions included making Michael Douglas’s character a lesbian, with Kathleen Turner suggested by protesters as ideal actor for this part. Numerous critics rushed to point out how factually incorrect the idea of a bisexual woman serial killer was, offering statistical support2 and thus somehow mocking the film – a hyperactive fantasy if ever there was one – as somehow inherently flawed because of its lacking factual basis. When the film finally came out, the controversy continued: in early 1992, GLAAD hosted a panel discussing Basic Instinct and homophobia in Hollywood more generally,3 and in March that year, a Los Angeles representative of the U.S National Organization of Women Tammy Bruce announced “We were expecting it to be homophobic, but it is also one of the most misogynistic films in recent memory.”4

Looking back, however, the rage has not exactly been maintained. In a 2011 issue of the British Gay Times magazine, a snippet about the film dismissed the controversy as nothing more than a historical oddity:

Sharon Stone’s ice-cold temptress proved that not only were lesbians smarter than straight men, they could drive faster and fuck harder. For some reason, gay rights groups thought this was homophobic, and protested the film’s release. Curious.5

Some critics at the time also took a less hostile position in regards to the films sexual politics, Rita Kempley at The Washington Post noting that “far from an attack on lesbians, Basic Instinct is a panting peep at the misperceptions and clichés surrounding female sexuality”.6 
For Stone herself, the idea of applying such moral binaries to characters in the film was itself redundant, protecting it in her mind at least from accusations of homophobia: “Everybody in this movie is dark, twisted and weirdly driven – like, Michael’s character is the good guy?”7

Still, before the film’s release scriptwriter Joe Eszterhas was spooked, as well he might be after receiving an extraordinary, then precedent-setting fee of $3.3 million for his screenplay. Eszterhas begged Verhoeven to tone the film down but the Dutch director dismissed the idea, causing a rift that was the subject of further press attention. Verhoeven’s earlier queer erotic thriller The Fourth Man (1984) had met with general acclaim, thus for him at least rendering accusations of homophobia somewhat bewildering. Upon the film’s release, Verhoeven himself emphasised that the closest Basic Instinct has to a “purest romance” is that between Catherine and Roxy (Leilani Sarelle).8

And the film is, if nothing else, all about Catherine. With one quick underwear-free uncross of the legs in a police interrogation scene, for better or for worse, Basic Instinct made the then 36-year-old Sharon Stone a star. Michelle Pfeiffer, Julia Roberts, Kim Basinger and Geena Davis all had turned down the role, and although she has admittedly had a somewhat wobbly career in the years since, it is nigh on impossible to imagine Basic Instinct with anyone but Stone as Catherine. With her high octane gyno-power at full throttle, she commands our attention now as much as she did on the film’s initial release, defiantly holding our gaze if we dare even for a moment let our eyes drift towards anything else. Stone’s Catherine is simply stronger, sexier, and more demanding of our attention than anything else in the entire film.

The did-she-or-didn’t-she/will-she-or-won’t-she ambiguity of the final scene – no one uses a cut-to-black with quite as much provocative comic finesse as Verhoeven – should have catapulted Catherine to a pantheon of great cinematic femme fatales, but Michael Caton-Jones’s lacklustre 2006 sequel came a decade too late, a lethargic embarrassment rather than the electric explosion of sex and violence we can only imagine would have come from the originally planned sequel, set to be directed by David Cronenberg. History might unkindly consider Basic Instinct a film suspended in time, a product of its zeitgeist, marked by its controversies. But if ever there was a Hollywood film that celebrated a genuine spirit of not giving a fuck what people think, this is it.

 

Basic Instinct (1992 USA 128 mins)

Prod. Co: Carolco Pictures and StudioCanal Prod: Alan Marshall Dir: Paul Verhoeven Scr: Joe Eszterhas Phot: Jan de Bont Ed: Frank J. Urioste Mus: Jerry Goldsmith Prod Des: Terence Marsh

Cast: Sharon Stone, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Michael Douglas

 

Endnotes

  1. Thomas M. Leitch, Crime Films (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 155.
  2. See, for example: Victoria A. Brownworth, “Homo Killer on the Lamb”, Outweek 15 May 1991, 98, pp. 54-55; B.D Johnson and V. Dwywer, “Killer Movies”, Maclean’s 30 March 1992, 105.13, n.p.
  3. See: “GLAAD panel discussed film and Hollywood homophobia”, New York Native. 4/13/92, Issue 469, p8-9.
  4. Johnson and Dwyer.
  5. Gay Times, December 2011, p. 78.
  6. Rita Kempley, “The Plot and the Counterplot; Basic Instinct: The Lust Picture Show”, The Washington Post, 20 March 1992, p. b01.
  7. Johnson and Dwyer.
  8. Ibid.

About The Author

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is an editor at Senses of Cinema and the author of Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011), Found Footage Horror Film: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2014), a monograph on Dario Argento’s Suspiria (part of Auteur’s Devil’s Advocates series), and her book on Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 was released in January 2017 as part of Wallflower/Columbia University Press’s Cultographies series. She is a co-host on the Plato’s Cave film criticism programme on Melbourne radio station Triple R, the 2017 Australian Film Institute Research Collection Research Fellow and a researcher at the University of Melbourne and the Victorian College of the Arts.