“Basic Instinct” at 30: How an Iconic Sharon Stone Salvaged a Very Bad Film
Rewatching an erotic thriller that shocked audiences for all the wrong reasons — and how one actress saved the whole thing
(Note: The following contains 30-year-old spoilers, a lot of bad language and some ridiculous dialogue)
If you’re a bisexual woman, you’re probably a villain and definitely a suspect in Basic Instinct, the “erotic” thriller that briefly garnered an NC-17 rating and made a star out of Sharon Stone.
Released on March 20, 1992, the movie — from director Paul Verhoeven and former Rolling Stone editor turned million-dollar screenwriter Joe Eszterhas — ended up as the fourth highest-grossing film of the year. It sparked controversy for its rather graphic depictions of sex…and also rather graphic depictions of violence, which often intercrossed with the bedroom antics.
Could a movie that pushed buttons three decades ago work in the context of today? I saw the movie in 1992 in a theater and promptly forgot everything about it (except for Stone). A recent rewatch proved that, while extremely problematic, often laughable and even surprisingly dull in large spots, Basic Instinct is worth another look. But only for one reason — again, Sharon Stone.
A quick reminder for those who only remember Stone’s underwear-free interrogation scene (which, also, was filmed in a problematic way) — the film follows troubled San Francisco police detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas), who is investigating the brutal murder of rock star Johnny Boz. As Hollywood scripts demand, he ends up in a relationship with the prime suspect, book author Catherine Tramell (Stone), who is brilliant, rich and seems to surround herself with troubled ex-cons. While this is going on, Curran is also under investigation for accidentally shooting two tourists, and is also having an on-and-off affair with his police psychiatrist, Dr. Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn).
Esztherhas claims to have written the screenplay in 13 days and it shows. (In the same interview where Esztehrhas makes this believable claim, he also suggests screenwriters should not “bend over” for directors and also “write from your heart… [but] if a studio wants to give you an assignment to write something, do it only if it rings spiritual, psychic or sexual bells inside you.”)
Who killed Johnny Boz? Why do bodies keep piling up around Tramell, and later Curran? It turns out you don’t really care — as a murder-mystery, this is well below Hitchcock or even Brian De Palma. Director Verhoeven, who expertly mixes extreme violence and pitch-black humor in his best work (RoboCop, Starship Troopers, Total Recall), here seems to take the proceedings a bit too seriously.
And he shouldn’t! Basic Instinct is full of tough-talking and rather stupid policemen. The dialogue is horrid. The first example arrives early on, when the detectives are examining Boz’s dead body:
“There’s cum stains all over the sheets.”
“He got off before he got offed.”
That reads like a Naked Gun parody of police work, and it never gets better.
Curran, meanwhile, comes across as bitter, entitled, damaged and certainly not as bright as he thinks he is. Most disturbingly, he rapes Dr. Garner and shows a proclivity for violence against men and women (mainly colleagues) throughout the film.
The movie tries to position Tramell and Curran as two sides of the same coin — or, really, mirror images (there are a lot of mirrors here, literally — and a ton of well-framed close-ups, particularly of Tripplehorn). When Curran is interrogated late in the film, he even gives the exact same flippant answers as Tramell … though with his pants on.
Since the central mystery/MacGuffin here is forgettable, the film has to fall back on shock value. Here, that boils down to Tramell enjoying both the company of men and women (and also drugs), which is shocking to the detectives working the case. When Curran confronts Tramell’s lesbian hookup “Roxy” after his own sexual encounter with Stone’s character, he sneers (and purposely misprounces her name): “Let me ask you something, Rocky, man to man. I think she’s the fuck of the century, what do you think?” His last words to Dr. Garver, after discovering a past secret hook-up between her and Tramell, is him yelling “You still like girls, Beth?”
Then he shoots her.
If you’re simply here for the sex — it’s graphic and often violent, or at least always undercut with menace. When it’s Curran and Tramell in bed, that’s admittedly interesting, because you’re not quite sure if she’s going to kill him. Thirty years on, and their interaction still ranks as one of the boldest sexual encounters you’ll find in a Hollywood film. It’s not … hot, but it’s memorable.
It’s not enough to recommend this film on its own. But Stone’s performance certainly is. I’m sure I saw the film the first time purely on the idea that she’s attractive and naked (I was 19). On this second viewing years later, it’s obvious that the actress realizes every single line and plot device in the film is ridiculous. Her character’s pleasure arrives not with sexual conquest — well, not entirely — but just by knowing how much brighter she is than everyone in the room. Every line is delivered with a coolness that is genuinely unnerving.
She deserves better than Curran, who raves about their great sex…to which she responds, “Did you really think it was so special?” Multiple times, she straight up tells Douglas’s character he’s dumb (“You shouldn’t play this game, you’re in over your head,” “I’m not gonna confess all my secrets just because I had an orgasm,” etc.)
(Meanwhile, the police get increasingly angry about Tramell’s femme fatale act, with Curran’s partner Gus shouting, “Well, she got that magna cum laude pussy on her that done fried up your brain!”)
The film fails in the third act when Stone’s character appears to develop real emotions for the detective. The ending is a, no pun intended, cop-out: All evidence points to Dr. Garver as the killer, while Curran and Tramell end up together, albeit warily. After a sex scene between the two that directly mirrors the opening scene’s murder, the camera pans down to an unused ice pick beneath the bed, suggesting Tramell may have been the killer all along.
(Perhaps that mystery is solved in Basic Instinct 2, a 2006 sequel where only Stone returned that was notoriously awful and seen by pretty much no one. We’re going to pretend it doesn’t exist.)
Basic Instinct was a commercial high point for Esztherhas and Verhoeven, who collaborated a few years later on the unintentionally genius flop Showgirls. Douglas spent much of the ’90s playing a variation on the wounded white guy who’s really the victim here (see: Disclosure, The Game, Falling Down). Stone, sadly, never quite got the A-level treatment she deserved in Hollywood; she followed up Instinct with Sliver, an even worse Joe Esztherhas erotic thriller that flopped, briefly hit a high point with an Academy Award nomination in Martin Scorsese’s Casino, and then continued to work in more modest projects for two-plus decades, most recently on the charming, semi-improv Netflix series Murderville.
Basic Instinct is mostly a forgettable and sexually archaic film, but Stone’s performance is deservedly something to be studied, which you can currently do on-demand on HBO Max. “I like rough edges,” as her character says at one point. And this film has plenty.
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