Basic Instinct
Reviewed in 1999
Director: Paul Verhoeven. Cast: Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone, Jeanne Tripplehorn, George Dzundza, Leilani Sarelle, Dorothy Malone, Wayne Knight. Screenplay: Joe Eszterhas.

Photo © 1992 TriStar Pictures/Carolco Pictures
If it weren't so grotesque and repugnant, the consistent misogyny of Joe Eszterhas' movie scripts would almost be laughable. This man is so terrified of women, so baffled by them, and so unable to view a woman with anything like a rational, humane perspective that even that second or third-most stock-in-trade role of the female character actress—the assistant D.A./police pyschiatrist—is not good enough (i.e., bad enough) for Basic Instinct. And so pity Jeanne Tripplehorn: never one of my favorite actresses, to be sure, but why wish her worse in the role of Dr. Beth Garner than having to wear ugly, olive business suits and scream lines like "She's evil! She's brilliant!" Eszterhas, though, wishes her much worse. Beth not only gets to be dressed-down, dumbed-down, and dumped on, she is also skeptically viewed by Michael Douglas' "ace" detective as a possible psychopathic, stalking-prone, man-hating lesbian killer. If you are familiar with Eszterhas' work (Sliver, Jade, Showgirls), you know how redundant and verbose that sentence was. To be a lesbian in his movies is automatically to hate men; to be a female killer is automatically to harbor fantasies, usually enacted at least once, about other women.

Basic Instinct is quite possibly the most glittering piece of trash ever to gross $100 million. The only things that save the picture from utter worthlessness are that redoubtable talents like composer Jerry Goldsmith, editor Frank J. Urioste (both Oscar nominees for their work here), and of course the hellcattish Sharon Stone in her star-making performance are all talented enough to make the material seem less like the Cinemax-style skin flick it really is. (The movie compares quite unfavorably to such aesthetic triumphs as midnight movie par excellence Scorned 2). By contrast, some of the filmmakers who have similarly strong reputations reveal here that they are, in fact, quite fallible. Cinematographer and future Speed/Twister director Jan de Bont throws up some astonishingly flat compositions on the screen, though he does not always embarrass himself. That's more Michael Douglas' game, who by this point had grossly overplayed the whole guilty, voracious, "why must I keep straying?" white man thing. The guy looks great for middle age, until you notice the awfulness of this part and wonder about the kind of ego that would accept it. Douglas, stony-jawed as ever, doing that thing where he breathes through his nostrils and opens wide his eyes (=frustration=knowing=seduction=...), is outrageously complicit in the script's valorizing of Nick's faux virility; only occasionally does the actor seem clued into the fact that his character is, for one thing, a rapist, and for another, a moron.

I cannot deny that Basic Instinct generally maintains a certain kind of mystery momentum as the cases for and against Stone's psychosexual-murder suspect Catherine Trammell pile up, even if the case "for" her is, as much as anything else, substantiated by the fact that she has big boobs and a willingly libidinous joie de vivre. Maybe it helps that Stone seems to know all along that Basic Instinct is all tease. The movie is exemplified by the now-legendary moment where she uncrosses her legs during a police interrogation and paralyzes the cops interviewing her with a two-beats glimpse of her favorite weapon; the moment is exemplary not only for the easy titillation Paul Verhoeven goes in for, but for the absolute terror experienced by these men while looking at a female, particularly one unafraid of and even quite potently in charge of her own sexuality. Stone's coolness and detachment comes off a lot better than Douglas' jaw clenching or Tripplehorn's victimization, and why the hell did 1956 Oscar winner Dorothy Malone take a role as a one-time ax murderer and friend of Catherine's who, the script implies, is also one of her sexual partners? Wait, maybe Leilani Sarelle's lesbian lover Roxy, the one who tries to kill people with her sports car, is the one who ax-murdered her family when she was young. Malone just offed her husband, I think. Gee, how do keep all these raving nymphomaniac lunatics separate?

The only way to watch Basic Instinct is to let your own basic instincts be your guide. What is sad is that Verhoeven and Eszterhas bank so heavily on the fact that our grossest sensibilities will accept not only gratuitous nudity and gory crime, but the protracted degradation and the literal and figurative rape of the entire female gender. Whatever the proficiency of their individual contributions, none of the participants in Basic Instinct can fully clear the stenchy air that hangs all over this erratically effective but erotically repulsive picture. D


Academy Award Nominations:
Best Film Editing: Frank J. Urioste
Best Original Score: Jerry Goldsmith

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Actress (Drama): Sharon Stone
Best Original Score: Jerry Goldsmith

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