Perhaps it might help to reveal my own history with Basic Instinct, no pun intended. It is the first R-rated film I saw, or at least that I remember. What makes my first R-rated movie worse is that of all people, it was my mother who took me.
My mother is a big Michael Douglas fan, so it was no surprise that I was schlepped into seeing his newest film. Bless her heart, but she had no idea what Basic Instinct was about, and I don't think I saw someone's face turn as many shades of red as hers. Put it to my own naivete and innocence, but I really did not understand what was going on. As for 'that moment', I genuinely do not remember seeing anything, to where I thought the screen had gone momentarily dark.
Now, with two decades-plus having passed since Basic Instinct slinked onto the screens, I will try to examine the film outside the noise, the scandal, the controversy, and see the film for itself. Is Basic Instinct misogynist? Is it homophobic? All questions which I will get back to.
In San Francisco, retired rock star/philanthropist Johnny Boz (Bill Cable) was murdered while in the midst of a tryst. The prime suspect is his girlfriend, novelist Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone in her breakout performance). It does not help her case that a novel of hers is about the murder of a faded rock star murdered while in the midst of a tryst.
Leading the investigation is Nick Curran (Michael Douglas), still struggling with his own demons, particularly a shooting that killed two tourists. He is in a very strange relationship with psychiatrist Beth Gardner (Jeanne Tripplehorn): she's the Internal Affairs-assigned analyst but has also had a romantic relationship with Curran, something everyone knows.
Curran is convinced Tramell is the murderess, but he's also drawn to her. It isn't long before they begin a torrid affair. More bodies pop up, including Roxy (Leilani Sarell), Catherine's lesbian lover who tried to run Nick over but is instead killed in an auto crash. Tramell's association with past murderesses like Roxy and Hazel Dobkins (Dorothy Malone) don't help her case.
However, Curran's investigation uncovers that Dr. Gardner once had a one-night stand with Tramell in college, and there's doubt as to whom was stalking whom. Ultimately, the SFPD come to the conclusion that Gardner is the killer, but the ending, with Curran and Tramell in the throes of passion, with an ice pick underneath the bed, leaves it at the least unclear and at the most certain that Tramell has once again gotten away with murder.
Vertigo in ways both large and small in this neo-noir film.
First is the setting, as both are set in San Francisco. Both have a troubled, guilt-ridden detective following a cool blonde with whom they grow sexually obsessed with. Both are plot-wise, also a bit bonkers: Vertigo has an unspoken sense of necrophilia, Basic Instinct has a more open sense of death through sex. Both are about sexual obsession and the lure of a 'forbidden' woman.
A particular ode to Vertigo from Basic Instinct, intended or not, is when Curran is following Tramell in his car, with nothing but the score to accompany both men as they take various twists and turns in pursuing this mysterious, enigmatic and dangerous woman. I lean to the 'intentional homage/ripoff' way of thinking.
Vertigo and Basic Instinct also have another thing in common: the perhaps outlandish plot. Just as the idea that Vertigo's Scottie Ferguson would not realize it was the same woman he was pursuing, it's kind of ludicrous that Gardner, the shrink analyzing Curran, could openly cavort with the person she is analyzing and everyone know it.
Conflict of interest, anyone?
The most outlandish is with when Roxy attempts to kill Curran. Not only does he manage to survive getting run down with not a scratch, but also has the stamina to go on a wild car chase with the then-unknown assassin. In real life, the hit-and-run would have killed him.
Still, as oddball as some of the plot of Basic Instinct is, the plot is not the selling point. Rather, it's the mixture of sex and violence, with the amount of both causing controversy and scandal.
Basic Instinct revels in its graphic nature, and contrary to belief there is male nudity, at least in the unrated version when we see Johnny Boz's body. Male nudity, however is not the main focus.
Sharon Stone became an A-List actress after Basic Instinct. Her performance was quite strong, showcasing the cold, calculating Tramell, a woman who used sex and desire to gain as much control as possible with just the right amount of camp. The best sequence that show Stone's strengths is in the interrogation scene.
The whole sequence is not exactly a call for female empowerment, but it does play well on many levels. You have the villainess dressed in ironic white facing off against a group of men who are both frightened and aroused by this temptress. While she is the one on the hot seat, it is clear she is the one in control because she uses her only available resource: her body. She pushes back against all the men, unwilling to bend to their will, unless she chooses to as she teases and taunts Curran.
As for the moment where Tramell reveals more than expected, from what I saw, even in the unrated cut, was a 'blink-and-you-miss it' moment that maybe was not worth the scandal. No one apart from Stone and Verhoeven will ever really know the truth, but I think with some editing things could have been implied more than shown.
In a small but important role, George Dzundza gives the film what comic relief there is as the strongly sardonic Gus, Curran's partner. The only real bad performance was Stephen Tobolowsky as Gardner's superior, going wildly overboard playing 'intense', but I put this more to Verhoeven than Tobolowsky.
It is a shame that Dorothy Malone, in her final screen performance, was essentially reduced to a cameo as one of Tramell's case studies. I think she knew this was basically a walk-on but give her credit for playing it with total sincerity.
Finally, as with Vertigo, Basic Instinct had a fantastic score from Jerry Goldsmith. Whatever flaws the film has, Goldsmith's music is not one of them. Eerie but seductive, Goldsmith's score reflects the darkness the film delves into.
Now, the film is not subtle about the homo/bisexuality of some of the characters. In 1992, there was not as much openness about homosexuality as there is today. That perhaps is why Roxy, Catherine's lesbian lover, can come across as a stereotype: the butch who hates men. The script mentions that Roxy is a released killer, having murdered her two brothers, with the suggestion she did this because again, she hates men.
Here, Basic Instinct may play out as a heterosexual male fantasy: Catherine, the bisexual woman, ultimately rejects women as sexual partners for a man, and the female lover who will never indulge with a man attempts to kill that man. The charges of homophobia pile on when Douglas' character confronts Roxy, saying they should talk...man-to-man.
The fact that the murderous butch lesbian is killed off does not help matters.
In that respect, it does play into stereotypes of crazed lesbian killers. However, I would say that Verhoeven and Eszterhas had a subtle nod to the idea that Gardner might have been a lesbian herself and not just 'experimenting' in college.
Her apartment faces a female aerobics class, which you can see more than once in scenes that take place there.
I'm sure no one involved in the making of Basic Instinct would say that it was. I however, can see a case for that: the detectives/men in authority are all men, the criminals all women. The women are treated shabbily in many respects: Roxy gets killed, Gardner's consent in one scene with Curran is questionable at best and assault at worst, she and Catherine accuse each other of stalking the other, and Catherine is in a league all by herself.
Looking back at Basic Instinct, I don't think there was one positive female character in a major role. The men don't do themselves any favors either: drunk, loutish, and at times almost paranoid about the power women have, power that stems through the pleasures of the flesh.
Yes, one can see a layer of misogyny and a touch of homophobia in all this, though how much was intentional or just the worldview of the film's makers is up to the viewer.
Despite all this, I was surprised that Basic Instinct was a pretty good film. It had good performances all around, an appropriately complex mystery that wasn't too opaque, some twists and turns that are somewhat logical, strong work in music and mood. I cannot condemn a film for doing what it set out to do.
Basic Instinct is rather gory and sexually explicit for my tastes (the initial killing and sexual encounter being rather graphic). That being said, I found it well-crafted if now slightly dated (the reference that the ice pick could be bought at any now-defunct K-Mart).
In the end I found Basic Instinct to be like the character of Catherine Tremell: alluring, dangerous, somewhat sleazy and tawdry but not ashamed of any of that.