Basic Instinct is a 1992 neo-noir erotic thriller film directed by Paul Verhoeven and written by Joe Eszterhas. The film follows San Francisco police detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas), who is investigating the brutal murder of a wealthy rock star. During the investigation Curran becomes involved in a torrid and intense relationship with the prime suspect, Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone), an enigmatic writer.
Eszterhas developed the script in the 1980s, which became a subject of a bidding war until Carolco Pictures acquired the rights to the film. From there, Verhoeven signed on to direct and Douglas and Stone joined the project, after many actresses were considered for the role of Tramell. Before its release, Basic Instinct generated heated controversy due to its overt sexuality and graphic depictions of violence, including a scene of rape. It was strongly opposed by gay rights activists, who criticized the film's depiction of homosexual relationships and the portrayal of a bisexual woman as a murderous psychopath. In a 2006 interview, Stone alleged that a scene in which her vulva was exposed as she crossed her legs was filmed without her knowledge.
Basic Instinct premiered in Los Angeles on March 18, 1992, and was released in the United States by TriStar Pictures on March 20, 1992. The film received mixed reviews from critics, who praised the performances of its cast, original score, and editing, but criticized its writing and character development. Despite initial mixed critical reception and public protest, Basic Instinct was a box office success, grossing $352 million worldwide, making it the fourth highest-grossing film of 1992. Several versions of the film have been released on videocassette, DVD, and Blu-ray including a director's cut with extended footage previously unseen in North American cinemas.
The film has contemporarily been recognized for its groundbreaking depictions of sexuality in mainstream Hollywood cinema, and has been referred to by one scholar as "a neo-film noir masterpiece that plays with, and transgresses, the narrative rules of film noir." A 2006 sequel (14 years later), Basic Instinct 2, also starred Stone and was made without Verhoeven's involvement, but received negative reviews from critics and was not particularly successful at the box office.
In San Francisco, homicide detective Nick Curran investigates the murder of retired rock star Johnny Boz, who has been stabbed to death with an ice pick during sex with a mysterious blonde woman. Nick's only suspect is Boz's bisexual girlfriend, crime novelist Catherine Tramell, who has written a novel that mirrors the crime. It is concluded that either Catherine is the murderer or someone is attempting to frame her. Catherine is uncooperative and taunting during the investigation, smoking and exposing herself during her interrogation. She has an alibi and passes a lie detector test. Nick discovers Catherine has a history of befriending murderers, including her girlfriend Roxy, who killed her two younger brothers, on impulse, when she was sixteen years of age, and Hazel Dobkins, who killed her husband and children for no apparent reason.
Nick, who accidentally shot two tourists while high on cocaine during an undercover assignment, attends counseling sessions with police psychologist Dr. Beth Garner, with whom he has an on and off affair. Nick discovers that Catherine is basing the protagonist of her latest book on him, wherein his character is murdered after falling for the wrong woman. Nick also learns that Catherine has bribed Lt. Marty Nielsen of Internal Affairs for information from Nick's psychiatric file and that Beth had previously given it to Nielsen after he threatened to recommend Nick's termination. Nick assaults Nielsen in his office, and later becomes a prime suspect when Nielsen is killed. Nick suspects Catherine, and when his behavior deteriorates, he is put on leave.
Nick and Catherine begin a torrid affair with the air of a cat-and-mouse game. Nick arrives at a club and witnesses Catherine doing coke with Roxy and another man. Nick and Catherine dance and make out, and are later observed by Roxy, having violent sex in Catherine's bed. Catherine ties Nick to the headboard with a white silk scarf, just as Boz was tied by the mystery blonde, but does not kill him. Roxy, jealous of Nick, attempts to run him over with Catherine's car, but dies when the car crashes. Catherine grieves over Roxy's death and tells Nick about a previous lesbian encounter at college that went awry. She claims that the girl became obsessed with her, causing Nick to believe that Catherine may not have killed Boz. Nick identifies the girl as Beth, who acknowledges the encounter, but she claims it was Catherine who became obsessed. Additionally, Nick discovers that a college professor of Beth and Catherine's was also killed with an ice pick in an unsolved homicide, and that the events inspired one of Catherine's early novels.
Nick comes across the final pages of Catherine's book in which the fictional detective finds his partner's body in an elevator. Catherine then breaks off their affair, causing Nick to become upset and suspicious. Nick later meets his partner Gus Moran, who has arranged to meet with Catherine's college roommate at an office building, hoping to reveal what really went on between Catherine and Beth. As Nick waits in the car, Gus is stabbed to death with an ice pick in the elevator. Recalling the last pages of Catherine's book, Nick runs into the building, only to find Gus' body in a manner similar to the scene described. Beth turns up as if out of nowhere and explains that she received a message to meet Gus. Nick suspects Beth has murdered Gus and, believing that she is reaching for a gun, shoots her, but discovers that Beth was only fingering an ornament on her key chain.
Evidence collected in Beth's apartment implicates her as the killer of Boz, Nielsen, Moran, and her own husband, along with collections of photos and newspaper clippings of Catherine that imply an obsession with her. Nick is left confused and dejected. He returns to his apartment where Catherine meets him. She explains her reluctance to commit to him and the two have sex. As they discuss their future, an ice pick is revealed to be under the bed.
- Michael Douglas as Detective Nick Curran
- Sharon Stone as Catherine Tramell
- George Dzundza as Detective Gus Moran
- Jeanne Tripplehorn as Dr. Beth Garner
- Denis Arndt as Lieutenant Phillip Walker
- Leilani Sarelle as Roxanne "Roxy" Hardy
- Bruce A. Young as Andrews
- Chelcie Ross as Captain Talcott
- Dorothy Malone as Hazel Dobkins
- Wayne Knight as John Correli
- Daniel von Bargen as Lieutenant Marty Nielsen
- Stephen Tobolowsky as Dr. Lamott
- Benjamin Mouton as Harrigan
- Jack McGee as Sheriff
- Bill Cable as Johnny Boz
- James Rebhorn as Dr. McElwaine
The screenplay, written in the 1980s, was popular enough to prompt a bidding war; it was eventually purchased by Carolco Pictures, for a reported US$3 million. Eszterhas, who had been the creative source for several other blockbusters, including Flashdance (1983) and Jagged Edge (1985), wrote the film in 13 days. Paul Verhoeven had suggested changes to the script that Eszterhas disagreed with, one of which included a lesbian sex scene that Eszterhas called "exploitative." With Verhoeven unwilling to budge, Joe Eszterhas and producer, Irwin Winkler, left over creative differences.
Gary Goldman was subsequently hired to do four different re-writes of the script, at the advice of Paul Verhoeven. After the fourth re-write, Verhoeven admitted his proposals were "undramatic" and " really stupid", and by the fifth draft, the script had been reverted to Eszterhas' original, with minor visual and dialogue changes. Joe Eszterhas received sole writing credit for the film.
In preparation for the car chase scene, Douglas reportedly drove up the steps on Kearny Street in San Francisco for four nights by himself. Douglas recommended Kim Basinger for the role of Catherine Tramell, but Basinger declined. He also proposed Julia Roberts, Greta Scacchi and Meg Ryan, but they also turned down the role, as did Michelle Pfeiffer, Geena Davis, Kathleen Turner, Ellen Barkin, and Mariel Hemingway. Verhoeven considered Demi Moore. Stone, who was eventually selected for the role, was a relative unknown until the success of this film, but had previously worked with Verhoeven on Total Recall. According to Verhoeven, her quick change of emotion before her character is killed in Total Recall drew him to select her for the part; he stated, "That transition for me was so notable. The evil in her eyes changes into the love of her life in a couple seconds." She was paid $500,000, a minimal amount considering the film's extensive production budget. Michael Douglas was determined to have another A-list actress starring in the movie with him; worried to take the risk on his own, he was quoted as saying "I need someone to share the risks of this movie. [...] I don't want to be up there all by myself. There's going to be a lot of s*** flying around."
Filming in San Francisco was attended by gay and lesbian rights activists and demonstrators, and San Francisco Police Department riot police were present at every location daily to deal with the crowds. Protesters outside of filming locations held signs that said "Honk if you love the 49ers" and "Honk if you love men". The protesters brought lasers and whistles with them as well in order to interfere with the filming. Even though the police were on set and a restraining order was in place, producer Alan Marshall had to individually pick out each protester he wanted arrested. This resulted in chaos on set, leading to a citizen's arrest of Alan Marshall. The arrest didn't lead to anything with the local police department.
In the scene in which Stone's vulva was exposed on camera as she crossed her legs, Stone claimed to believe that the character's not wearing underwear would only be alluded to and not shown. She said she had been wearing white underwear until Verhoeven said they reflected light on the camera lens and asked her to take them off, assuring her that only shadow would be visible. Stone said that it was not until she saw the film in a screening room with a test audience that she became aware of it, leading her to slap Verhoeven in the face and leave the screening. However, Verhoeven strongly denied her claim, and said she was fully aware in advance that her vulva would be filmed.
The film score to Basic Instinct was composed by Jerry Goldsmith, and garnered him nominations for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award. Goldsmith said, "Basic Instinct was probably the most difficult I've ever done. It's a very convoluted story with very unorthodox characters. It's a murder mystery, but it isn't really a murder mystery. The director, Paul Verhoeven, had a very clear idea of how the woman should be, and I had a hard time getting it. Because of Paul pushing me, I think it's one of the best scores I've ever written. It was a true collaboration."
Apart from the score, professionally released music did not play a major part in the film. The scene in which source music plays a prominent role occurs during the club scene; Curran, Tramell, and Roxy are seen at Downtown San Francisco. It features "Blue" by Chicago house music performer LaTour and "Rave the Rhythm" by the group Channel X. It also features "Movin' on Up" by Jeff Barry and Ja'Net DuBois.
The soundtrack was released on March 17, 1992. A considerably expanded release of Goldsmith's score, featuring previously omitted sections and alternative compositions of certain elements, was issued by Prometheus Records in 2004.
The film was entered into the 1992 Cannes Film Festival.
Basic Instinct is rated R for "strong violence and sensuality, and for drug use and language". It was initially given a commercially restrictive NC-17 rating by the MPAA for “graphic depictions of extremely explicit violence, sexual content, and strong language”, but under pressure from TriStar and Carolco, Verhoeven cut 35–40 seconds to gain an R rating. Verhoeven described the changes in a March 1992 article in The New York Times.
The film was subsequently re-released in its uncut format on video and later on DVD.
Following the theatrical version, the film was first released in its uncut format in an unrated version onto video in 1992, running at 129 minutes. This was followed by a DVD release in 1997, in a "barebones" format that contained the R-rated version. A Collector's Edition was released on DVD in 2001, containing the uncut version of the film with a commentary by Camille Paglia and a small ice-pick (the villain's weapon of choice). This version of the film, running 127 minutes, was re-released twice: in 2003 and 2006.
In March 2006, the unrated version (also known as the Director's Cut) was re-released on DVD and labeled as the Ultimate Edition. In 2007, the film was released on Blu-ray with the Director's Cut label.
The film was cut by 35–40 seconds to avoid an NC-17 rating on its theatrical release in 1992, with some violence and sexually explicit content removed. The missing or censored material (later released on video and DVD unrated as the director's cut) included:
- The murder of Johnny Boz in the opening scene. In the director's cut, the killer is seen stabbing him in his neck, in the chest, and through his nose. In addition, Tramell is still having violent sex with him while stabbing him at the same time.
- The scene where Nick has sex with Beth is cut in the US theatrical version, as he is seen ripping off her clothes and forcing her over the couch, before a cut to the two of them lying on the floor. In the uncut version they are seen having rougher sex.
- The scene where Nick and Tramell have sex after going to the club is longer and much more explicit in the uncut version.
Basic Instinct opened in theaters in the United States and was one of the highest-grossing films of 1992, after its March 29 release. In its opening weekend, the film grossed $15 million. It was the fourth highest-grossing film of 1992, grossing $352,927,224 worldwide.
The film's critical reaction was mixed. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a score of 52% based on 63 reviews, with an average rating of 5.84/10 and the consensus: "Unevenly echoing the work of Alfred Hitchcock, Basic Instinct contains a star-making performance from Sharon Stone, but is ultimately undone by its problematic, overly lurid plot." On Metacritic the film holds a score of 41 based on 28 critics, indicating "mixed or average" reviews. Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B+" on an A+ to F scale.
Janet Maslin of The New York Times praised the film, saying "Basic Instinct transfers Mr. Verhoeven's flair for action-oriented material to the realm of Hitchcockian intrigue, and the results are viscerally effective even when they don't make sense." Peter Travers of Rolling Stone also praised the film, saying it was a guilty pleasure film; he also expressed admiration for Verhoeven's direction, saying "[his] cinematic wet dream delivers the goods, especially when Sharon Stone struts on with enough come-on carnality to singe the screen," and praised Stone's performance: "Stone, a former model, is a knockout; she even got a rise out of Ah-nold in Verhoeven's Total Recall. But being the bright spot in too many dull movies (He Said, She Said; Irreconcilable Differences) stalled her career. Though Basic Instinct establishes Stone as a bombshell for the Nineties, it also shows she can nail a laugh or shade an emotion with equal aplomb."
The international critical reception was favorable, with Australian critic Shannon J. Harvey of the Sunday Times calling it one of the "1990s['] 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."
The film was not without its detractors. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times dismissed the film, giving it two out of four stars, stating that the film is well-crafted, yet dies down in the last half hour: "The film is like a crossword puzzle. It keeps your interest until you solve it. Then it's just a worthless scrap with the spaces filled in." Dave Kehr of the Chicago Tribune also gave a negative review, calling it psychologically empty: "Verhoeven does not explore the dark side, but merely exploits it, and that makes all the difference in the world."
The film generated controversy due to its overt sexuality and graphic depictions of violence, including a scene of rape. During principal photography, the film was protested against by gay rights activists who felt that the film followed a pattern of negative depiction of homosexuals in film. Members of the lesbian and bisexual activist group LABIA protested against the film on its opening night. Others also picketed theatres to dissuade people from attending screenings, carrying signs saying "Kiss My Ice Pick", "Hollywood Promotes Anti-Gay Violence" and "Catherine Did It!"/"Save Your Money—The Bisexual Did It". Verhoeven himself defended the groups' right to protest, but criticized the disruptions they caused, saying "Fascism is not in raising your voice; the fascism is in not accepting the no."
Film critic Roger Ebert mentioned the controversy in his review, saying "As for the allegedly offensive homosexual characters: The movie's protesters might take note of the fact that this film's heterosexuals, starting with Douglas, are equally offensive. Still, there is a point to be made about Hollywood's unremitting insistence on typecasting homosexuals—particularly lesbians—as twisted and evil." Camille Paglia denounced gay activist and feminist protests against Basic Instinct, and called Sharon Stone's performance "one of the great performances by a woman in screen history", praising her character as "a great vamp figure, like Mona Lisa herself, like a pagan goddess".
The film was also widely criticized for glamorizing cigarette smoking. Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas was later diagnosed with throat cancer and publicly apologized for glamorizing smoking in his films.