Basic Instinct 20th Anniversary – The Sharon Stone Factor

Posted on 13 March 2012
By Martin Higgins
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The past is coming back with a vengeance, and Basic Instinct is 20 years old this month, so when the clock chimes on the 20th of March 2012, fans can recall the day the movie was first sent out into the public domain, the first time Sharon Stone uncrossed those memorable legs, and the resulting whirlwind of acrimony and protest which landed the producers in some extremely hot water.

The public outcry may have subsided, and many films have pushed the envelope of sex and violence a little further since then, but the legacy of this watershed Hollywood blockbuster is set in stone.

This particular era of cinema marks a tipping point in the history of artistic expression and film making, as technology became more vital to the modern way of life, there was an inevitable transition point in Western society, a point of no return.

Traditional values were being dissected in a systematic way in the art world, the YBA (Young British Artists) were in full flow, and ’92 was the year Damien Hirst released his masterpiece, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, which was effectively a dead shark set in formaldehyde.

Suddenly people had to wake up to the reality of modernism, and partake in the metaphorical passage from innocence to experience, where sex was big money, attitudes to violence were desensitised, technology was the future, and a dead shark could become an international superstar.

America recoiled at the sexually explicit nature of the film, and the overtness was deeply shocking to a number of religious communities.

The youth however, who were being fed salacious images in racey ad campaigns like those of Calvin Klein, were developing a taste for the taboo, and something a little more x-rated.

Calvin Klein himself, who was at the forefront of this sexualisation of culture said:

“Jeans are about sex. The abundance of bare flesh is the last gasp of advertisers trying to give redundant products a new identity.”

1992 was a year when the cinema was inundated with ground-breaking films that crossed previously forbidden territory, and themes which had seemed too outrageous and sordid a few years before, were now fair game for writers, producers and directors to tackle head-on.

The 90’s were a time when censorship started to relax, and perhaps most importantly, audiences were able to search a new-fangled thing called the internet for the first time.

Pornography suddenly became a booming online industry worth hundreds of millions, and cinema seemed to tap into this emerging obsession with erotica.

The red tape which had curtailed creative freedom in the past, was cut. Old hackneyed ideas and concepts were abandoned for more challenging storylines and sexual themes, such as those explored by Joe Eszterhas here, and later by Brett Easton Ellis in American Psycho.

Basic Instinct was directed by Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall, Robocop)and centres around the bloody murder of celebrity rocker Johnny Boz (Bill Cable) who is viciously killed with an ice pick during a sexual encounter with a mystery blonde assailant.

The case lands on the desk of homicide investigator Nick Curran (Michael Douglas), who is in the middle his own personal crisis having mistakenly shot a few kids while on duty. The detective is in the process of receiving counselling when he gets the call.

Curran singles out the beautiful Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) as the primary suspect, who just so happens to be a leading novelist in crime fiction and knows the judicial system like the back of her hand.

The action sprouts from these relationships as Curran and Tramell become embroiled in a wild, sex crazed love affair, one filled with deception and even more violence.

On its release, the film caused unprecedented levels controversy for its highly charged sex scenes and crudity, and had right wing conservatives all over America calling for the film to be taken down and banned.

The gay community were also enraged for the films portrayal of homosexuality, and particularly, the way in which bisexuality was connected with a cold and manipulative psychopath. Heated protests were staged outside the San Francisco set in the run-up to its release.

Only a Marshal Mather’s LP since has evoked such a consensus of rage from the political right, gay activists, and feminists, who believed this film was extremely damaging to society and the youth, as it reaffirmed dominant power structures surrounding sexuality and domination, and objectified the characters like sex slaves.

But others acclaimed it was an empowering and liberating film, as it turned male chauvinism on its head and endowed the lead character Sharon Stone with the agency and sexual autonomy usually exemplified in leading men.

The screenplay for Basic Instinct was written by Joe Eszterhas, a man notorious for pioneering the pulp-erotic films of the early 90’s having also wrote Showgirls in ’95. This flick endured a poor ratings and critical reviews when it hit the big screen, but fared a whole lot better on VHS.

The cash register went berserk, brown paper bags were in short supply and dodgy looks pervaded video store counters all over the world, as consumers emptied their pockets to watch Saved By The Bell’s Jessie Spanno strip off again and again. The flick made $100 million from rentals alone.

So that’s it, Basic Instinct is set to leave its teenage years behind turning the big 20, and will cross the threshold into maturity like the rest of us.

But the question is, now that cinema has been taken as far as it can go with sex and violence, with the likes of ultra-graphic films like The Human Centipede and The Kill List, is a new age of moderation in the pipeline, is the clean-cut drama of Downton Abbey the future? Comments below.

Words by Martin Higgins, at www.mhfreelance.co.uk