The reprehensible character of Michael Douglas’ Nick Curran was intended as an audience surrogate, the good guy of a big-budget thriller, simply because he was a straight, white, male cop.
If you would like a quick snapshot of how much the tastes of the moviegoing public have changed in the past 30 years, reflect on this. The biggest film of March 1992 was Basic Instinct, an erotic thriller featuring an established movie star in explicit onscreen couplings with a sexy up-and-comer.
It arrived in theaters preceded by months of controversy and hype, became the hot topic around water coolers and in newspaper editorials, and grossed an astonishing $352 million worldwide.
This month, on the other hand, sees the [long-delayed] arrival of Deep Water, an erotic thriller featuring an established movie star in explicit onscreen couplings with a sexy up-and-comer. Despite its tabloid-friendly stars and the return, after a 20-year absence, of director and erotic-cinema specialist Adrian Lyne [Fatal Attraction, 9 1/2 Weeks], Deep Water did not even receive a theatrical release, and has instead been quietly added to the Hulu streaming service.
It is hard to reconcile the markers of commercial and cultural ubiquity in 2022 — “four quadrant” appeal, family-friendly rating, recognisable IP — with the success of Basic Instinct, an unapologetically R-rated parade of sleaze that was also accused of misogyny and homophobia.
It had been a controversial property throughout its production. Joe Eszterhas [screenwriter of ’80s sensations such as Flashdance and Jagged Edge] had sold this story of a cop on the trail of a kinky serial killer to indie studio Carolco for a record $3 million in 1990, only to noisily depart the project over creative differences with the director of the film, Paul Verhoeven.
The scribe claimed that “Verhoeven’s intention is to make Basic Instinct as a sexually explicit thriller,” as if that were not Eszterhas’ intention with a screenplay that contained, per the Los Angeles Times, “half a dozen extensive and detailed lovemaking scenes.” Elsewhere, however, Eszterhas also claimed Verhoeven intended to sensationalise the bisexuality of the film’s female lead. “I despise homophobes,” he told gossip columnist Liz Smith. “So if Carolco turns this picture into something with ice-pick-wielding lesbians, then I will be the first person out in the street to join the protest against it.”
This was not, to put it mildly, a promise kept. Eszterhas and Verhoeven cheerfully reunited just before production commenced in San Francisco in April 1991, with the screenwriter reviewing the director’s alterations to his script and determining they “shared the same vision” for the film. But the shoot was disrupted by protesters and activists from Queer Nation and ACT UP, who objected to the film’s representation of LGBTQ+ characters, while the National Organization for Women criticised an eroticised rape scene.
View the film now, and it is not hard to see what raised the hackles of such groups. No one can accuse the filmmakers of dillydallying; no sooner have the opening credits ended than we are watching, via a mirrored ceiling, a couple writhing naked in coital ecstasy. As they approach climax, the woman reaches for a nearby ice pick, stabbing the man repeatedly and graphically, with blood spattering across their bodies and bed, a none-too-subtle orgasmic allusion.
Enter our protagonist, San Francisco police detective Nick Curran [Michael Douglas], recently divorced, recently off booze and coke, recently cleared of an accidental shooting that nevertheless still has him under Internal Affairs investigation — a process that includes sessions with Dr Beth Garner [Jeanne Tripplehorn], with whom he has frequently slept. As the detective on the bedroom slaying, Curran quickly sets his sights on the victim’s occasional girlfriend, Catherine Tramell [Sharon Stone], a screenwriter’s construct if there ever were one: a bisexual multimillionaire novelist [under a pen name, although her author photo is splashed across the back cover of her books] who graduated magna cum laude from Berkeley with a double major in literature and psychology.
Curran brings her in for questioning, resulting in the most famous [and most frequently parodied] sequence of the film: an interrogation in which Tramell uses her feminine wiles and lack of undergarments to fully intimidate every man in the room. [In her memoir, Stone said she was tricked into the immediately notorious frontal nudity of the scene.] Clad in a sleek white dress, her icy blond hair pulled back tight, Stone is the very picture of the ’90s-era femme fatale; she lights up a cigarette, and when she is warned that smoking is prohibited, she replies, sinfully, “What are you gonna do, charge me with smoking?”
Her back-and-forth with Curran is not exactly James Cain, but it is played the right way: Douglas steams and stammers, a typical film noir heel, while Stone delivers her dialogue with the devilish gleam of a sly actor having a great time. It is easy to see how the picture made her a star — and how it would have failed without her, both in terms of her outrageous beauty [the entire film hinges on the belief that Curran would literally risk his life to get into her bed] and her deft playing.
It is so overwrought in its execution — the showiness of Jan de Bont’s camerawork, the thundering strings of Jerry Goldsmith’s score, the absurd plotting of the Eszterhas screenplay — that it almost plays like a goof. [And maybe it is; many critics, then and now, missed the satirical angles of Verhoeven’s dystopian sci-fi films RoboCop and Starship Troopers.] In the film’s embrace and amplification of the conventions of suspense thrillers, Verhoeven steps into the Dressed to Kill director Brian De Palma’s territory. But like De Palma, Verhoeven has some trouble overcoming the ugliest aspects of his story.
After all, protesters were not wrong about its offenses. The lipstick lesbian material is played solely for the straight thrills of the male gaze, while bisexuality is framed as a symptom of mental instability, if not outright psychopathy; the cruelty with which Curran treats Roxy [Leilani Sarelle], Tramell’s girl on the side, is played for crowd-pleasing, homophobic laughs [“Tell me something, Rocky, man to man”]. And the scene in which Curran escalates consensual rough sex with Garner to explicitly nonconsensual assault is inexcusable and abhorrent, not only for the way we to continue to see an unapologetic date rapist as a sympathetic protagonist, but also for how it is shrugged off afterward [by both perpetrator and victim] as a byproduct of the heat of the moment.
Perhaps that, then, is the value of Basic Instinct: as a time capsule. It speaks volumes about its era, and the strides [minuscule though they may seem] that we have made since, that such a reprehensible character as Nick Curran was intended as an audience surrogate, the good guy of a big-budget thriller, simply because he was a straight, white, male cop.
Or maybe there is a more direct contrast to note. In the 28 April, 1992, issue of The Village Voice, an attack on the film by the writer C Carr was published alongside a defense of it from eminent critic Amy Taubin, who “thought it was a gas to see a woman on the screen in a powerful enough position to let it all hang out, and not be punished for it in the end.”
Moreover, it is not just that it was novel, in 1992, to see a female character framed as unapologetically and frankly sexual; it is that it is still uncommon now. And so is the notion of a major motion picture made by, for and about adults, messy, imperfect, and insensitive though they may be. Basic Instinct is a leftover from an era when filmmakers, even working with big budgets, could take big risks. It makes this slick, provocative dirty movie something its creators could have never imagined: quaint.