Before Basic Instinct hit theaters on this day, March 20, 1992, it was already engulfed in so much controversy, it more or less led to the movie’s success.
The plot seemed typical. On the surface it looked like another Alfred Hitchcock knock-off police procedural of a gruff and gritty cop, San Francisco detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) getting in too over his head on a murder case. The chief person of interest is wealthy socialite/novelist Catherine Trammell (Sharon Stone in a role that is better than a lot give her credit for.) The case involves an associate of Catherine’s, Johnny Boz (Bill Cable), a retired rock star turned civic leader, who was killed during a graphic sex scene that begins the movie.
As Catherine tells the police, she wasn’t dating Johnny, she was “fucking” him. This seems to catch the authorities off guard. For a society that has been brainwashed by the Reagan/Bush Administration and the Moral Majortiy along with the threat of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the notion of couples just engaging in casual sex and nothing more seems even surprising for the very liberal San Francisco Bay Area.
Boz was no angel. Police find traces of cocaine at his house. He was tied up with scarves before he was stabbed repeatedly with an ice pick by a blonde woman whose face we never see. But since Boz was a civic leader, business owner, as well as a friend to some bay area politicians, Nick’s supervisors want him and his partner, Gus Moran (George Dzunda) to be very cautious and considerate.
Nick is also facing some checkered history. It’s never fully explained but we learn that Nick had a substance abuse problem that involved alcohol and drugs, including cocaine himself. He also shot two tourists, who were of Asian descent, on an undercover job. Since then, he’s been seeing psychologist Dr. Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn) who he’s also developed a sexual relationship with. Like the relationship between Catherine and Boz, their relationship seems to based just on sex. During a scene that caused a lot of controversy, Nick more or less gets date rapes her by getting too rough. The uncut version is rawer.
Nick’s history attracts Catherine who begins to play mind games with her and the police. But here’s the $64,000 question – is Catherine the killer? And here is where I think director Paul Verhoeven and writer Joe Eszterhas play with our assumptions. I have a theory that Catherine is totally innocent. She may not be the best person, but it was her lesbian lover, Roxanne “Roxy” Hardy (Leilani Sarelle). When Nick and Gus go to Catherine’s house in San Francisco, they initially mistake Roxy, whose blonde, for Catherine.
It’s later revealed that Roxy had a violent history. She killed her family members with a knife when she was still a juvenile. Her records were sealed and she was eventually released from custody when she became a legal adult at 21. This is why when Nick and Gus look into her, they can’t find much information. Roxy observes Nick and Catherine having sex and later confronts and threatens Nick.
She actually tries to run him off the road during a later scene which results in her getting into a car accident herself and dying from the injuries. My theory is Roxy is jealous of Catherine’s relationship with Boz and Nick. She’s able to seduce Box into sex to kill him. After Catherine breaks up with Roxy following her involvement with Nick, she tries to kill him as well.
Because of his past, Nick is also the subject of scrutiny by Lt. Marty Nielsen (Daniel von Bargen) of the Internal Affairs Division, who feels he’s going to slip up again and then they can come after him after he was cleared for shooting the tourists. Nick and Nielsen get into a confrontation in a bar after Nick orders an alcoholic drink for the first time in months. They later get physical when Nick barges into Nielsen’s office. And then Nielsen is shot while in his car with Nick’s superior, Lt. Phillip Walker (Denis Arndt) suspects Nick as do others, even though Nielsen was killed by a different caliber firearm than Nick’s.
Nick is questioned but his interrogation at times mimics a previous interrogation in which Catherine talked with police and an assistant district attorney, John Correli (Wayne Knight). This scene plays very well. Despite Stone’s insisting that she was never supposed to show her nude crotch, as Verhoeven had her panties off because there was a glare from the studio lights, it shows that Catherine enjoys playing with people. In a room surrounded by half a dozen men and without a lawyer present, Catherine makes them all uncomfortable.
This doesn’t mean that Catherine is the ice pick killer. As Nick himself says, Catherine has a degree in psychology, which means she knows how to mess with people’s head. And to show how the male cops all sit around together in an office talking macho, they are later left speechless by Catherine’s ease and openness. She turns the interview against them. It’s about gender roles. Men were seeing themselves as the dominants and here’s a woman who has scared Correli and Captain Talcott (Chelcie Ross) because her net worth is over $100 million. It’s the wealth and power that they’re afraid of.
Nick is placed on suspension but still uses this time to investigate the case more. He discovers that Catherine and Beth knew each other at the University of California at Berkeley and even had an intimate relationship. Catherine is also become friends with an older woman, Hazel Dobkins (Dorothy Malone), who killed her husband and children. Nick realizes that the only reason Catherine was involved with him was to use him for research for a book she’s writing (even though the most we see of Catherine is when she is at nightclubs, so she must write during the day.)
Catherine had written a book years earlier under her pen name in which the murder of Boz is similar. But Nick thinks she did it to establish an alibi. He’s even more alarmed to realize how Catherine’s demeanor changes toward him after she finishes the book where she’s not as cordial. My theory is Catherine talks with people who have had criminal history to get into their minds but dismisses them when they are no longer useful, which is why she dumps Roxy who has a violent history. But Roxy takes it to believe Nick was the reason.
When Nick confronts Beth about the relationship with Catherine, she admits it but says it was Catherine who was obsessed even though photos make it look like Beth is the one. A college professor of theirs was killed with an ice pick. Beth was also practicing in another town under her late husband’s name.
When Gus picks up Nick to drive to an office building as he claims a roommate of Catherine’s contacted him, Nick waits outside. Inside, Gus is killed with an ice pick as he gets off an elevator. The killer appears to be a woman in a huge rain coat to obscure her identity. Nick runs in as he remembers the page of Catherine’s manuscript on the printer involved someone in a building, only to discover Gus’ body. He later sees Beth walking up to him and becomes suspicious as he draws a gun on her. Beth has her hand in her pocket and appears agitated as Nick asks her to show him her hand.
In the end, Nick fatally shoots her but realizes all it was were her set of keys. But when the police arrive, they discover a wig and the rain coat in the stairwell not far from Beth’s body. Also, other evidence seems to implicate Beth in the murders of Boz, Nielsen and her husband. Yet I feel that she did kill Nielsen to implicate Nick once she discovered Catherine was a person of interest. And she killed Gus when he got too close.
Either way, I don’t feel that Catherine had anything to do with any of the murders. We as moviegoers are expecting a last-minute twist. Nick is unsatisfied with all the evidence pointing to Beth even though Talbot, who has been critical of him, congratulates him. The twist that Verhoeven and Eszterhas give us is there is no twist. Eszterhas had written the movie Jagged Edge where it was revealed that Jeff Bridge’s character was the killer as it only seemed logical. I think here, Eszterhas is kinda criticizing his own critics on that movie by setting up more characters who can be the killer.
And at the end when Nick and Catherine meet at his apartment and have sex, it’s implied that she’s going to kill him, but she doesn’t. Verhoeven does a little trick with the camera as he presents two endings, one in which Nick and Catherine discuss the possibility of having a longer relationship and future together and another in which you see the camera pan down to show an ice pick underneath the bed.
Of course, what we don’t realize is Nick had bought an ice pick himself and this could just be something that found itself under his bed. The implication that she was the killer is what we as the audience want. We want that final open twist that all these movies have. Verhoeven is Dutch and this is his way of giving American audiences what they want but also criticizing them for expecting it even though it doesn’t fit the story structure. I noticed some of the critics compared Basic Instinct to Hitchcock and this reminds me of the ending of North by Northwest when the police shoot the Martin Landau character and then the James Mason character, in handcuffs, makes a critical remark of how cliched it is.
In a psychological way, the Beth/Catherine dichotomy Nick faces is similar to the Madonna/Whore complex. He sees Beth as the Madonna as she’s the respected woman while the more promiscuous Catherine is the whore. That’s common in a lot of pop culture, such as Archie debating over Betty and Veronica or even Gilligan and Mary Ann and Ginger. In Scooby-Doo, our society saw Daphne as the sex object and Velma as the intellectual. But times have changed and people view Velma more sexually.
At the end, Nick and Catherine are discussing the possibility of raising rugrats, i.e. children. He’s speaking of starting a family with Catherine hours after he killed Beth who he thought was the one he could be in love with. Beth’s final words is telling Nick that she loved him. This also speaks of how men seem to be more interested in just sex jumping from one person to the next. And it’s accepted. But if a woman does it, she’s the whore. I also look at it as Verhoeven mocking a trope in Hollywood movies where the brunette is seen as the right one for the leading man over the blonde, who is wrong for him. Beth is the brunette and Catherine is the blonde. In the end, Beth was wrong.
Basic Instinct end up grossing over $350 million worldwide and it led to an outpouring of “erotic thrillers” including Color of Night and Jade. Most of the movies basically went to Skinemax. Verhoeven and Eszterhas collaborated again on the NC-17 rated Showgirls and Eszterhas wrote the erotic thriller Jade. But by the end of the 1990s, these thrillers had gone back to late-night cable.
Considering that Basic is over two hours long and there’s only maybe 10 minutes of nudity and sexual content, that’s less than 10 percent of the movie’s run time. While cuts were made to the violence to secure an R rating as well, the movie doesn’t really have much profanity compared to other movies. In a way. it was the first time in many years since filmmakers were willing to actually show much nudity in movies.
In the 1979 Oscar winner Kramer vs. Kramer, JoBeth Williams appeared nude in front of child actor Justin Henry for laughs and it got a PG rating. (There was no PG-13 rating at the time.) But even when The Woman in Red came out in 1984 with the new rating, you can briefly see Kelly LeBrock’s pubic hair. But the latter half of the 1980s practically neutered Hollywood thanks to criticism from the Moral Majority and other Christian organizations.
In many ways, Basic Instinct is more of a social commentary on America at the time. We were so scared and in many ways, we still are, of things that come natural. Seeing Roxy and Catherine kiss and dancing close together was hard for Middle America to understand. Now, same-sex couples are more common in media.
And while the scene between Nick and Beth is very graphic, I think it’s opens a dialogue on what is consensual sex and what is rape. It is, more or less, rape and the trigger Beth needs to go implicate Nick or Catherine. And in the end, Nick is considered a hero even though he doesn’t feel like one and we shouldn’t recognize him as one.
Thirty years later, we haven’t come far. TV shows like Games of Thrones have pushed the envelope more than American cinema. We have so many Saw movies but yet something as tame as Orgazmo gets an NC-17 rating. More people are concerned about the glorification of smoking over images of sexual assault in movies.
Just like the ending of Basic Instinct, we want to have our cake and eat it too. We want a happy ending and we also want an ending with a twist. But we can’t have both.
What do you think? Please comment.