Back in the spring of 1992, Paul Verhoeven’s Basic instinct owned the pop culture landscape, hitting America like a tidal wave of cynical hedonism run rampant. His psychosexual thriller may have changed the life and career of its star, but it brought with it plenty of protests, general outrage regarding its subject matter, and all manner of pearl clutching from straight-edged audiences across the country. And after 25 years, Basic Instinct remains a terrific slice of pulp trash, wrapped up in a deceptively sharp satire like only Verhoeven can do.
The film, starring yuppie-thriller stalwart Michael Douglas and relative unknown Sharon Stone in the lead roles, was a haymaker on the cultural landscape like only a handful of films have done in human history. Here was a film about seduction, lust, sex, and murder, yet it was a film filled to the brim with despicable characters; finding a sympathetic person to root for in Basic Instinct is a tall task. Sure, there was one element of the film that pushed it over the top, past all the typical controversial cinematic schadenfreude we get with films of this ilk. It was one specific scene that dominated discourse. And it was that one specific scene which, for lack of a better term, opened up the notion of what is acceptable in American mainstream filmmaking.
More on that later.
Basic Instinct introduced the world to an actress named Sharon Stone. While she had been a key supporting player in Verhoeven’s Total Recall a year earlier, the rest of 33-year old Stone’s career was full of bit parts in He Said, She Said, Above the Law, Action Jackson, and Police Academy 4 (don’t sleep on Citizens on Patrol, it might be the best Police Academy sequel we have. @ me). This part would change Stone’s trajectory for the foreseeable future.
Stone’s Catherine Tramell is a definitive femme fatale with a meta angle. She’s the author of airport paperback thrillers full of characters just like her and the men she pursues like a succubus. She’s also filthy rich, bisexual, and absolute teflon when it comes to the suspicious deaths piling up in her past. Her most recent boy toy, a rock ‘n roller named Johnny Boz, has turned up dead, stabbed to death with an ice pick in his bed mid coitus. Naturally, Tramell is suspect number one, and on the case is one seriously fucked up detective.
At the time, Basic Instinct was met with protests during and after production because of the negative treatment of bisexuality in the film. The protesters complained that Catherine Tramell was a particularly icy murderer, and her bisexuality was interpreted as part of her villainy. It was problematic for the social landscape of the late 90s, where the AIDS epidemic was in full force. Especially in a place like San Francisco, the film’s setting. But Roger Ebert may have set the record straight better than anybody in his review. “As for the allegedly offensive homosexual characters,” he wrote, “The movie’s protesters might take note of the fact that this film’s heterosexuals, starting with Douglas, are equally offensive.”
Michael Douglas is our aforementioned detective, Nick Curran, easily the most despicable character in the whole movie. Curran is a cop with a shaky record, an alcoholic and recovering drug addict who killed a pair of tourists by mistake when he was (allegedly, probably) high on cocaine. He’s also pretty much a pig, psychologically abusing his doting shrink, played with vacant, doe-eyed innocence by Jean Tripplehorn. And their sex isn’t any gentler. Yeah, the portrayal of gay culture in San Francisco may have upset human rights groups at the time, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that Curran, Tramell, and just about everyone that occupies space in Basic Instinct operates with varying degrees of scumbaggery.
And that’s Verhoeven. No other filmmaker throughout modern history has been able to craft sharp, low-key satires littered with despicable human beings. He lures the viewer in by tapping into their most salacious desires – RoboCop made audiences salivate with the violence, all the while he was mocking our bloodlust right in front of us; here, it’s the combination of sex and violence that sells – and his alluring style is what allows him to satirize our lust. The sex here, trimmed down for an R rating, is hyper-stylized and over the top just enough to shine the light back on the viewer. His film begins like Hitchcock – slick and stylish and ominous and blonde – and ends like late-night software Cinemax thriller, tapping into our lowest, most seedy desires. Verhoeven’s satirical angle is made clear in the infamous leg-uncrossing scene.
Tramell’s interrogation was, from the very beginning, the scene that had everyone talking. According to Stone and Verhoeven, Stone’s panties were causing too much glare in the camera, so the director had her remove them. Depending on who you believe, Stone either knew her genitals would be in the final cut, or she was duped into it. Regardless, the scene became the flashpoint of Basic Instinct‘s clever satirical subversion, deftly combining voyeurism with shock and, for some, disgust. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing, but they watched it anyway.
Basic instinct may not be that great of a film, let’s not get it twisted. But that, I defend, is the point. Verhoeven’s films have always been just a little bit off kilter, a little hokey, and a little absurd because it allows him the sort of room he needs to playfully exploit his audience. Here, it paid off, as the film opened at number one at the box office and went on to grab $117 million domestically. It was one of the biggest movies of 1992. And even today in our cynical eyes, Basic Instinct holds a special place in our dark little hearts.