When Sharon Stone set the screen on fire in steamy thriller Basic Instinct, viewers simply couldn’t tear their eyes away. But nowadays, the film is most remembered for its interrogation scene: where Stone uncrosses her legs to reveal that she isn’t wearing any underwear. Yet crucially both the movie’s director and the actress still dispute what went on in relation to the shoot. What we do know, however, is that afterwards she supposedly struck the director in the face.
In the scene, Stone’s character, novelist Catherine Tramell, is being questioned by a bunch of cops. And as the men leer at the cool, sexy Stone, tension drips from the walls. Suddenly, the protagonist startles both them and cinema goers with a flash of her bare nethers. And in doing so, she creates a moment that people would talk about for the rest of Stone’s working life.
Now, it seems as though Stone knew exactly what she would have to do in the scene. That’s right, director Paul Verhoeven had reportedly discussed it with her and found her to be okay with the idea. But when she later saw what the camera had captured, her reaction suggested that she was far from satisfied. Indeed, she claimed that it had turned out quite differently from what she’d expected. And from there, it seems, controversy and the film went hand in hand.
So, Basic Instinct first hit cinema screens in 1992, and it was directed by Verhoeven from a script by Joe Eszterhas. It had all the elements that Verhoeven would become known for in his movies: combining sex and violence with a strand of satire on society. And on that note, let’s take a closer look at the Dutch director.
Verhoeven made a name for himself in his native Holland, where he enjoyed a hit with 1973’s Turkish Delight. Now, not only was that film nominated for a foreign language Oscar, but it has also been feted as the best Dutch film of all time. Later, Verhoeven relocated to Hollywood in the hope of having more wiggle room in his movies. And he certainly achieved it, with a switch to violent, effects-laden action movies such as Total Recall and RoboCop.
But let’s return to Basic Instinct. Eszterhas had in fact penned the script years before the film was made, and it had garnered plenty of interest. Indeed, production companies competed over its acquisition. This might have had something to do with the fact that the writer was an old hand, authoring other hits such as Flashdance and Jagged Edge. Interestingly, though, Eszterhas had knocked up Basic Instinct in just under two weeks.
Verhoeven was signed by Carolco Pictures to make Basic Instinct, as that particular production company had won the competition to get hold of the Eszterhas script. The Dutchman went on to attach Michael Douglas to the film and eventually signed up Stone, too. She, however, wasn’t the first option that he had considered.
In the film, cop Nick Curran – who is played by Douglas – is looking into an aging rock star’s murder by ice pick. While investigating, Curran becomes entangled with Catherine Tramell, a bisexual who is also his prime suspect. He discovers, you see, that she’s written a novel featuring a crime that’s very much like the one he’s investigating. What’s more, she’s actually the murder victim’s girlfriend. And before long, it seems that either she’s the ice pick killer – or someone is framing her.
In fact, things get steamy as Curran tries to catch Tramell, with all sorts of shenanigans playing out that involve her girlfriend Roxy. Fighting his own demons, Curran is dragged into a world that challenges his mental health. Finally, he wraps up the case as he becomes convinced that the murderer is a former lover of Tramell’s. But was it? Well, we’ll never know, as the movie then ends in ambiguity. So, how was the film received by audiences?
Well, Basic Instinct was a sensation on its release, hailed for breaking fresh ground in the way that it portrayed sexuality. Feminist film critic Terri Murray, for instance, suggested that it was more than just the glitzy thriller it appeared to be. Yes, she dubbed it “a neo-noir masterpiece that plays with, and transgresses, the narrative rules of film noir.”
Given its focus on graphic sex and violence, though, the film received an R rating. But originally it had earned the more severe, NC-17 rating. Verhoeven then shaved off a few seconds to keep his paymasters happy, however. And he would later suggest that the cuts had been minor anyway. Separately, the film had taken some flack with accusations that it was essentially a soft porn flick.
So, how did Stone end up with a part in this controversial flick? Well, the success of the film seemingly hinged on finding the right actress for the role of Tramell. And while Douglas had put forward Kim Basinger for the job, she seemingly didn’t want it. She wasn’t alone; many other actors didn’t want it either, including the likes of Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, Greta Scacchi and Michelle Pfeiffer. So eventually, Verhoeven settled on a lesser-known star.
Despite not being a big name in L.A., though, Stone knew Verhoeven well. For he’d directed her in the Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick Total Recall a couple of years earlier. And her well-received performance had given her career a lift, leading to a handful of smaller films in 1991, too.
For his part, Verhoeven had no doubts about how he wanted the film to look. In fact, when some of the big names read the part, they were taken aback by the violent and raunchy scenes. And when they asked the Dutchman whether they’d be as strong as they looked in the script, he replied, “No, they will be even stronger.”
When the script was presented to Stone, however, she apparently didn’t have any qualms. After all, she’d just stripped off for a photoshoot in the soft porn magazine Playboy. So with Verhoeven’s designs for the film – in particular for Tramell’s character – the actress seemed like a natural fit.
As for Douglas, though, he was reportedly unhappy about the casting, claiming that Stone was “a second-rate actress.” And Stone’s portrayal of a bisexual woman certainly made waves in the LGBTQ+ community – but not for the reasons you might think. Some associations actually ran a boycott at the time over how the film dealt with different sexualities.
Nevertheless, not everyone was critical of Stone’s efforts. In fact, her performance was widely hailed. Critics queued up to celebrate the way that she burned up the screen, with award nominations to follow. These included the Golden Globes and the MTV Awards. Furthermore, the film’s huge box-office success – it was one of the decade’s biggest – certainly didn’t harm Stone’s future saleability.
The U.K. newspaper the Sunday Times, for instance, raved about both the movie and Stone. That’s right, critic Shannon J. Harvey said that it was among the decade’s “finest productions, doing more for female empowerment than any feminist rally. Stone – in her star-making performance – is as hot and sexy as she is ice-pick cold.” But it seemed for some time that Stone had hit her high-water mark.
After Basic Instinct, Stone went on to star in Sliver – another sexy thriller. And while critics hated it, the movie still made money. Further much-disliked movies, Intersection and The Specialist, followed, although the latter once more did well at the box office. Then, despite The Quick and the Dead bringing better reviews for Stone, her star seemed to be somewhat on the wane.
However, 1995 saw Martin Scorsese cast her alongside Robert De Niro in Casino. And Stone’s dynamite turn as Ginger McKenna earned her the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a drama. What’s more, she also got a nomination for the corresponding Oscar. The acclaim didn’t end there, though, with the actress going on to obtain a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
While Stone would never quite reach those heights again, her career continued to bring her varied, interesting roles. For example, she lit up TV screens in the 2017 mystery Mosaic and could do so again in 2020’s Ratched. Indeed, the former delighted the critics who hailed her talents and range. And the latter is an upcoming Netflix drama that could once again put Stone back in the spotlight.
Somewhat predictably, though, one movie that most definitely did not find many fans was Basic Instinct 2. Here, Stone reprised her Catherine Tramell role, but she was not enough to make the 2006 film a success. It bombed at the box office and dismayed the critics. And the only place that it proved a hit was at the Golden Raspberry Awards.
Yes, sadly the sequel was a long way from the original triumph. In fact, the first film took more than $350 million at the box office – a huge amount for the time. And its cast were applauded for their performances, even if critics said the so-called “trashy” writing had its limits. The film certainly brought Stone to a new level of prominence.
Mind you, the success didn’t hurt Verhoeven either – although his next project, Showgirls, didn’t match it. Yes, the critics slammed it, and audiences avoided it at the box office. Some have since claimed cult status for the film, however, and it did go on to make its money back. Verhoeven then returned to the science fiction world, where his films continued to be visually stunning, albeit in different ways.
Nor did Basic Instinct knock Douglas’ notoriety. Already a star, he continued to be in demand, with a string of hits through the rest of the 1990s. Disclosure, Falling Down and The Game were just three of the films that he starred in. And they helped bring him a festival award for his contribution to world cinema in 1998. But for now, let’s get back to that famous scene in Basic Instinct.
So, in the controversial leg-crossing scene, a gang of cops is in the room with Stone’s Tramell as she undergoes questioning. Douglas’ Curran is present, and he already knows that she’s not wearing underwear, because he watched her get dressed. Suddenly, she uncrosses her legs and then rearranges them, much to the consternation of the watching men. Interestingly, though, the scene wasn’t as it seemed.
Yes, you’ve heard right, because as it turns out, the men were reacting to nothing at all! The actors who played the cops all “reacted” without Stone actually being in the room. And they did so before she’d even performed the iconic leg cross. As you might have guessed by now, the takes of the cops and Tramell were actually shot separately, and at different times. Talk about a camera-trick – well, for its time anyway. But it doesn’t end there.
No, because before the shot, Stone was perhaps surprised by the scene in the first place. For it hadn’t been in the script to begin with. In fact, Verhoeven said he’d put it in because he’d encountered a woman in the 1960s who’d eschewed underwear. And what that did to the men at the time had stuck in the director’s mind.
Crucially, Stone claimed to Icon magazine that she had not expected the scene to look the way it did. She said, “When we shot it, it was going to be a hint, but [Verhoeven] told me: ‘You can see the white of your underwear, I need you to take it off.’ He assured me that nothing would be seen. So I took off my underwear and put it in my shirt pocket.”
At the end of filming, when Stone saw the shoot, it seemed okay. As she went on to explain, “At that time, there was no high definition,” continues the actress, “so when I looked at the monitor, I really did not see anything.” But it was when the film was projected onto a big screen for private viewing that Stone changed her tune. And furthermore, it led to a confrontation with Verhoeven.
Indeed, Stone’s response was vigorous. She told Icon, “I was in a state of shock. At the end of the movie, I got up, walked over to Paul Verhoeven and slapped him.” However, she could understand why Verhoeven had done it: she, too, would not have cut the revelation out of the film. However, she insisted that the director should have let her see it first.
Astonishingly, however, Verhoeven tore into Stone somewhat, rebutting her claims. He alleged to Icon, “Sharon is lying. Any actress knows what she’s going to see if you ask her to take off her underwear and point there with the camera.” He also said that when Stone viewed the outcome, it didn’t seem to have any effect on her at all. But there was more to come.
For the director made clear his belief that a difference in culture might explain their disagreement. As he went on to explain to Icon, “I think it had to do with the director of photography and I am Dutch, so we act with total normality towards nudity. And Sharon was carried away by this relaxed attitude. But when she saw the scene surrounded by other [American] people, including her agent and her publicist, she went crazy.”
And Verhoeven continued, “Everyone told her that this scene would ruin her career, so Sharon came and asked me to take it away. I told her no. ‘You accepted, and I showed you the result,’ I said.” To which, he claimed, Stone had made a rather angry and indelicate reply – using the F word. And now, he said, she had come up with a different version of events.
In today’s climate, it might seem as if Stone’s interpretation of having been exploited could place her squarely in the #MeToo movement. And when asked on CBS Sunday in 2018 whether she’d suffered from sexual harassment in her time in Hollywood, Stone’s answer was frank. In fact, she gave out a long burst of laughter.
Yes, Stone explained to interviewer Lee Cowan, “I’ve been in this business for 40 years, Lee. Can you imagine the business I stepped into 40 years ago? Looking like I look? From nowhere, Pennsylvania? I didn’t come here with any protection. I’ve seen it all.” And Cowan’s question had not been entirely unprompted.
That’s because Stone had given her support to the actresses who’d donned black at the 2018 Golden Globes. And furthermore, she herself had worn black to the event. As she went on to explain to Cowan, “We’re starting to acknowledge our own gifts as women and not think that we have to behave as men in order to be empowered or powerful or valuable.”
Meanwhile, when Stone’s adopted sons watch her films, they actually approve, she added. That’s correct, she told fashion magazine Vogue Portugal that they “think [she is] a badass.” Over the years, she’s adopted three kids, in turn fulfilling a lifelong dream. And they have become the focus of her life and are much more important than any amount of fame or money. Even so, being a mom has seemingly not stopped Stone from feeling sexy.
She told Vogue Portugal, “Yes, I still know I am sexy.” Furthermore, at the time of the interview, she was 61 years old. And she was willing to go the extra mile to show that she hadn’t lost “it.” So, characteristically, she posed topless and remade the famous film scene in a racy photoshoot for the magazine.
However, Stone explicitly confirmed that she had had enough of the film that made her famous. She said, “I am sick of talking about Basic Instinct. I have so many other real accomplishments, it just seems lazy to me. There are so many other valuable things to discuss.” And on that note, let’s hope we’ll be discussing more of her contemporary work in the not-so-distant future.