I’m feeling like garbage this afternoon, so I’m going to do what I do when I feel like garbage: curl up in bed and watch Basic Instinct. It’s like a Snickers bar for the discriminating filmgoer: not nearly enough to stand in for a balanced breakfast, but plenty of short-term satisfaction to tide you over till lunch. After this week’s exhausting news cycle I can’t quite handle the Criterion-inspired deep dive into the catalog of Paul Schrader I’d planned to work on today (although stay tuned, that will be coming), so to my creature comforts I go.
(I feel like I need to pause here and reassure you that while I am about to deep-dive Basic Instinct as if it were a lost work of Orson Welles, this is not going to escalate. For example, I will never, ever subject you to my critical thoughts on Sliver. Even this here lowbrow train reaches the end of its line well before goddamn Sliver.)
But a person should love their petty vices without shame. Can I really be so alone in finding this movie fun? Basic Instinct is easily the zenith of the American erotic thriller genre: it marries a classic femme fatale noir plot with high production values and plenty of overly choreographed softcore. It cast aside the heavier themes of marriage and morality covered in predecessors like Fatal Attraction and 9 1/2 Weeks, and focused squarely on the fantasy. Basic Instinct is best known for making a star out of Sharon Stone and putting Joe Eszterhas on the map (the former is well deserved and the latter I’m still dubious about), and for generating wildly polarized reactions from critics and moviegoers alike.
Despite significant protests by the LGBT community during its production and after its release, a scandal involving the leading lady slapping the director at a test screening, and last minute cuts to secure an R rating, the film went on to be a top performer at the box office, netting over $350 million. It’s undeniably as pleasing to watch as it is problematic to think about.
Basic Instinct is an incredibly satisfying film to look at: shots are dominated by San Francisco mansions and Big Sur beach houses. Mountains and redwoods loom and the Pacific ocean roils. Glossy Lotus Esprits sprint city streets and boomerang around dead man’s curves. The interiors are furnished opulently with Picassos and potted palms, etched glass, gold rococo, and cream colored marble. The wardrobes are full of ivory crepe and cocoa colored double-facing silk and plush oatmeal knits.
The moneyed aesthetic of the film is unquestionably part of its staying power; apart from a garish disco scene (and honestly, don’t all nightclubs look a little tacky on film?), none of the stars features so much as a dated haircut. Jerry Goldsmith, whose Chinatown soundtrack elegantly bridged 1940s noir with 1970s New Hollywood, applies the same logic to the Basic Instinct score, teasing only a twinge of synthetic sound and anchoring the film in a romantic Herrmann-inspired orchestral swell.
The women of Basic Instinct are equally styled: Catherine is a coked out Hitchcock blonde; her sometimes girlfriend Roxy is a femme’s femme; Beth is a clinical minx in her series of blazer and sheath dress combos; and even senior citizen murderess Hazel makes parole look stunning with her silver hair blown out into a modern bob and plenty of tasteful Elsa Peretti silver.
The men, by contrast, are decidedly schlubby and unkempt, stuffed into ill-fitting western wear, drip-dry suits, and crumpled trenchcoats. They’re at turns disheveled, hung over, apoplectic; continuously on the verge of a fistfight if they aren’t being pulled apart from one. The film implies that they’re too busy doing a job, however poorly, to be concerned with looking good, while the women are effortlessly criminal, and therefore look effortlessly good all the time. And these aesthetics definitely reinforce the heterosexual male anxiety that drives the film. All of the major female characters share a similar physicality, sexuality, and propensity for murder. Both Roxy and Hazel are confirmed murderers with criminal records, and Beth and Catherine are doppelgänger suspects for the same set of crimes.
Men and young boys are depicted as the exclusive, unwitting, undeserving victims of this inexplicable, random, female psychosis: from opening stiff Johnny Boz; to crime scene photos of Roxy’s younger brothers; to Hazel Dobkin’s husband and sons; and finally, to the shared professor of Catherine and Beth. While that’s an interesting enough thought on its face, consider the actual consequences of female power in this movie. When men die in Basic Instinct, they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. When women die in Basic Instinct, they had it coming: Beth is shot when she shows up unsolicited at a crime scene and appears to be going for a weapon, Roxy dies in a car crash after she attempts to run over Nick.
For the care taken to orchestrate elaborate, enticing softcore scenes, sex positivity isn’t celebrated in Basic Instinct—it’s a red flag for the men who encounter it, and it inevitably signifies criminality, such as Catherine exposing herself during a police interrogation; Beth “participating” in rape play with Nick (this scene is still wildly unsettling to me); Roxy spying on Nick and Catherine and then attempting Nick’s murder.
Bisexuality and lesbianism are also presented as deviance, not identity. The minute Nick derisively addresses Roxy as “Rocky”, despite the fact she’s about as butch as a dozen roses, it’s understandable why the LGBT community had such a problem with the film. Same sex relationships are portrayed with the same cliches used to market lesbian porn to straight men. Beth’s defensiveness about sleeping with Catherine “just once, just as an experiment” and Catherine’s insistence that she’s a party girl, not a lesbian, imply that being a lesbian or a bisexual female is inferior to being in a heterosexual relationship with a man. Nick insisting that his tryst with Catherine is “the fuck of the century” further argues that heterosexual intercourse satisfies in a way that same sex encounters can’t, and that any lesbian just hasn’t been properly turned out yet. Hmm.
The police work in this film is hilariously cavalier. A bedsheet is riddled with more “semen stains” than a lifetime of sexual activity would organically produce, and incidentally, this and other forensic evidence is never revisited. In fact, no actual evidence of any kind is collected that isn’t circumstantial, with the exception of the murder weapon, a bloody ice pick that is dropped into a freezer bag at the crime scene and ultimately deemed useless (to be fair, it was the very early 90s, and our national obsession with DNA evidence had not yet calcified).
The ACAB energy is strong in this picture. A district attorney appears early on in the film and never resurfaces, various brass huff and puff, but Nick’s direct supervisor is never clearly identified. Nick himself is put on disciplinary leave, yet continues to actively participate in the investigation and interact with his colleagues. Investigative tactics like criminal profiling are introduced and then promptly forgotten about. Surveillance mutates into bald voyeurism by the end of the film’s first act, and while Internal Affairs is threatened as the inevitable cinematic reckoning of all renegade detectives, no due process ever comes to fruition—for anybody.
The fact that every legitimate clue appears with its own complimentary red herring means that only the final shot of the film can definitively solve the mystery, which is less exciting after two hours of this kind of bumbling cat and mouse than it deserves to be.
Psychology is depicted throughout the film as a field practiced only by pathological women or blatantly effeminate men, and as such, is dismissed as a tool of manipulation that has no legitimate therapeutic value. It’s repeatedly suggested that women’s competitiveness that is their own undoing: whether it’s Roxy competing with Nick for Catherine, or Beth competing with Catherine for Nick. That the joke’s on Nick in the film’s final shot is little reward after two hours of listening to him malign his leading ladies verbally and physically—it serves more to prove the thesis that there’s no such thing as free love when a woman’s involved.
And that’s fundamentally what guts this movie before it has a chance to be great. The idea of an empowered, canny femme fatale who’s two moves ahead and ice picking male chauvinist pigs for sport is initially very enticing, especially for female viewers like me, but is rapidly undone by the atmosphere of rank machismo surrounding the production of the film, which is a MeToo cautionary tale for the ages.
After a string of A-list actresses turned down the part of Catherine due to the nudity and simulated sex involved, lesser-known Sharon Stone was considered an inferior pairing to Michael Douglas, and Verhoeven refused to give her the role. Determined to change his mind, she decided to show up to a Total Recall looping session in a tight-fitting cocktail dress (not your standard looping attire; she pretended she had a party to go to afterward), and that, according to both Stone and Verhoeven, is what convinced the Verhoeven that she could pull off Catherine. And even then, billed against an established star like Douglas, Stone was given only a flat salary of $500,000 for the picture, a drop in the bucket of the picture’s overall budget and particularly meager compared to Basic Instinct‘s total earnings at the box office.
The movie’s infamous sex scenes were storyboarded by straight men based exclusively on male fantasies rather than considering male and female desires, something that ultimately diminished their believability to a broader audience. Sharon Stone told Playboy in 1992 that Paul Verhoeven and Michael Douglas plotted these scenes without her input, and that she found them not only painfully acrobatic but unlikely to produce any orgasmic pleasure for a woman if attempted in real life.
And of course there’s the better-known scandal that followed the film’s release, in which Stone claimed Verhoeven tricked her into removing her underwear (he said during filming that it was too reflective) for the infamous leg-crossing scene. She asserts that she didn’t know until she was watching the film how much was exposed, and as a result, slapped Verhoeven at the screening and ran out. By the time of her Playboy interview the following year, she refused to talk about it, saying that it was “water under the bridge” and that she and Verhoeven had made up, so she saw no purpose in discussing it further.
Then there’s Joe Eszterhas’ classless boasting about having a one-night stand with Stone after the film was a hit. In his book, the aptly titled Hollywood Animal, Eszterhas says: “I figured that since I had written the biggest hit of her life for her, she was just saying thank you. And I knew that Sharon thought she was flattering me that night by treating me as if I were the director (she wouldn’t sleep with Verhoeven) and not a screenwriter, but still. Basic Instinct had been the number one box office hit of the year … in the whole world! I felt I deserved her.”
Smoke on that for a minute. He viewed the film’s lead actress as a prize he was entitled to defile as a reward for his hard work penning the script—work he did years before she was ever cast. Despite this, he goes on to describe their tryst as not “good”, just “okay”, concluding, “I’m glad I nailed her, though.” Why? Because Sharon eventually introduced him to his future wife, a woman whose husband left her for Stone, while the four of them were working on his next project, Sliver.
So was Sharon Stone a glittering object of desire, or a mediocre lay endured in the course of a greater destiny? Either way, what she’s not in this story is a person. It begs some sort of chicken-or-the-egg analysis about whether the movie foments misogyny or the industry does. Sharon Stone had to trade on her validity as a sexual object in order to get the job, and, allegedly, to demonstrate her gratitude for it. No matter how spirited of a performance she gives as Catherine, then, it’s ultimately like watching a dolphin do flips at Sea World: a shadow hangs over the fun knowing that the star performer is headed back to a cage at the end of the show.
The noir element of Basic Instinct itself is another situation where potential gets tripped up by poor execution. The entire plot results from the fact that despite the victim being a well-known celebrity nightclub owner, with presumably dozens of contacts and connections, the only possible suspect the cops will consider for his murder is his most recent sex partner (well, after quickly discounting the housekeeper as being too fat to fuck, apparently).
This all reminds me that, as Roger Ebert pointed out in his 1992 review, while the gay community had a definite right to be mad about their depiction in the film, all of the main characters in Basic Instinct are equally pretty despicable, regardless of sexual orientation. Based on their depiction as pathological, substance-abusing, unethical hotheads, cops and therapists should have been right out there on the picket lines, too.
(Speaking for my own demographic, I am totally fine with how lady novelists are depicted, though. Icepickings aside, Catherine’s opulent lifestyle as a published author is #goals, do not get it twisted.)
So, while Basic Instinct is undeniably a feast of guilty pleasures, Stone’s performance chief among them, it’s hard to fully enjoy the meal. It’s fun as hell to watch, but it’s also ultimately a movie whose makers sabotaged its potential for greatness with their own insecurities about women, psychology, and sex.
And while we’re all stuck inside with nothing to do but issue our deepest wishes to the universe, let me say to whoever might be reading this with a production budget that I’d love to see this movie remade and rewritten by women for women, and I would love to see Sharon Stone or some equally bad bitch in her peer group star in such a picture. In this current political climate, there is something undeniably appealing about the idea of a posse of bad bitches prowling the coast and picking off old white chauvinists with underused kitchen tools.