Basic Instinct (1992)
Dir: Paul Verhoeven
Stars: Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone, Jeanne Tripplehorn and George Dzundza
As far as movies go, Basic Instinct is a fairly typical thriller-suspense story – at least based on today’s standards. There were only two factors that made it so unique when it was released in 1992, in my humble opinion: first was the zeitgeist, the “It Actor” for that the time in Sharon Stone, and second was the pushing of the proverbial envelope. There were levels of sex and violence portrayed in Instinct that audiences had never seen before, just as the envelope had been pushed a year before Instinct’s release with 1991’s Silence of the Lambs.
Instead of getting into the nitty gritty of the story, let’s talk in broad strokes about sex and violence in movies, shall we? After all, aren’t those two very good reasons to go see a movie? Wouldn’t you agree that most commercials for movies include one, the other or both of these elements? I think it’s safe to say there’s appropriate sex & violence and then there’s the whole “let’s see how far we can go” kind of sex & violence… Basic Instinct is a primary example of the latter.
Let me try and give an example of appropriate violence: there’s a shoot out in L.A. Confidential in which one of the heroes, Ed Exley, persues a perp down a hallway. He runs down the hallway – as the elevator doors are closing, the music climaxing – and Exley can’t even get a hand in the elevator. But, Exley is able to put his shotgun barrel in the elevator and fire it. Instead of showing the absolutely gruesome result of the shotgun blast, the film makers opted to slowly zoom in to Exley’s face, as he panted from running down the hall. In short, the actor’s face said it all. No need to show the resulting mess! My suspicion is that Mr. Verhoeven, the director of Basic Instinct, would have shown not only the shotgun blast, but also the exploding body and all of the bits and pieces going everywhere.
A perfect example of appropriately presented sex is in the 1988 film Big. For those of you who haven’t seen it (shame on you), Tom Hanks portrays a boy who gets his wish and one day wakes up “big”, or with the body of an adult. After a lot of fun in Act 2, the boy in a man’s body gets involved with a “girl” played by Elizabeth Perkins. In a pretty tender moment, we watch the kid react to kissing and touching his girlfriend. That’s great stuff! It’s a moment many of us have imagined growing up and the director, Penny Marshall, didn’t ruin it by going too far, but instead handled the scene with maturity and class. I daresay Mr. Verhoeven, given the same scene… would have handled it differently. [As a side note, there’s another great coming of age sex scene in Once Upon a Time in America, in which a boy buys a pastry for the neighborhood prostitute, only to eat it on the stairs while he waits for her: turns out he wasn’t ready to give up his virginity.]
And then you have Basic Instinct. You got ice picks going into people – which is graphically shown. You got a woman tearing her lover’s flesh with her fingernails. Your hero is a San Francisco detective who killed innocent tourists a while back. You got a villainess who may or may not have killed numerous people before we even meet her. You got a supporting character who may or may not be batshit crazy. And you have a partner of said police detective who is one mean, ugly drunk. These are not lovely, delicate characters, and I get that; so perhaps they deserve the intense sex and violence they endure over the course of the picture.
A couple of other noteworthy elements: the director, Verhoeven, loves to present ultra-violent action scenes. I was well aware of this aspect of his film making style before I sat down for a rewatch of Instinct. I mean, this is the guy who made Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers. These are not titles I’d recommend to the squeamish. And I don’t mind admitting that I was dying to see this title when it was released in theaters…
This film was also one of the more infamous ones written by Joe Eszterhas. Not sure if you’re aware, but one of the characteristics of studios in the 1990s was to enter into “bidding wars”. An exec at [Paramount] would hear that some chump at [Warner’s] had a kick ass star vehicle for [Tom Berenger]. The Paramount exec would find out how much had been offered, then counter with $250K more. And so on. Sometimes, these films would be “fast tracked” and made almost immediately, like Basic Instinct. Others remain in immense vaults on studio lots, never to be made, a fact I find to be absolutely tragic. Anyhow, Eszterhas got a $3,000,000 paycheck for this film. The script went through numerous revisions – some of which included gay characters, some of which avoided their inclusion – but in the end, it got made and eventually cleared over $330 million worldwide.
So, is it worth it to push the envelope? I think you’d get a resounding “YES” if you were to ask every studio executive in L.A. Financially, there’s no doubt that these shock-worthy titles are made because they bring in loads and loads of dough. And we certainly see that envelope shoved further today, don’t we? Did anyone see Kick Ass, Irreversible or any of Eli Roth’s recent films? Please don’t. I completely understand that sex and violence are a part of films: I think the only person that can answer how much is appropriate is the viewer. And one more thing – if you don’t like the fact that Hollywood makes films like Basic Instinct, Hostel, Kick Ass or even an oldie like Last Tango in Paris, I’ve got good news – you don’t have to watch them.