What does it say about a movie when the whole film is best remembered by one scene? In When Harry Met Sally it’s the scene where Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm in a restaurant booth. In The Crying Game it’s the scene where Dil (Jaye Davidson) undresses. And in Basic Instinct? It’s the interrogation scene, of course.
You know the one. Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone), a murder suspect, is being interrogated by Detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) and John Correli (Wayne Knight, aka Newman). During the smoky, sexually charged interrogation, during which Tramell
repeatedly calls Nick by his first name, she crosses and uncrosses her legs and…she’s not wearing any knickers! It’s pretty shocking the first time you see it (unless you happen to blink at the wrong time, and then you’re out of luck, my friend), and even nearly two decades after the film came out, it’s still memorable.
So what does that tell us about the film? It pretty much sums it up, actually. The whole of 1992’s Basic Instinct is racy and shocking and sexy in an unsettling way. The premise is that a former rock star named Johnny Boz has been murdered, tied to a bed with a white scarf and stabbed with an ice pick. Which is exactly the way a character in psychologist/author Catherine Tramell’s novel met his end. And Tramell was the last person seen with him before he died.
When Detective Nick Curran starts investigating Tramell, he’s completely taken with her. And so is the audience. It was Stone’s breakout role, even though she’d been paying her dues in Hollywood for some time (yep, she was Debbie on Silver Spoons), and had been in mega-hit Total Recall just two years earlier. In this movie she made her name as a smart, beautiful actress who is anything but shy about her sexuality.
Twenty years is a long time, but this movie still manages to thrill. It’s got a good love triangle, interesting mystery, and not one but two terrifically unexpected plot twists.
That’s the upside to Basic Instinct. The downside is that this is one of a string of late-eighties-early-nineties movies—all of which starred Michael Douglas, by the way—that equated beautiful, sexy women with all-out, ball-busting craziness. There was Fatal Attraction in 1987 (the rabbit in the pot would be another scene-stealer for our list), Basic Instinct, and Disclosure in 1994. A veritable trifecta of anti-feminist anxiety.
Basic Instinct is a well-made film. A taut thriller, if you will. But the message it leaves is encapsulated by its most famous scene: no matter how smart or beautiful a woman is, when she opens her legs, all hell breaks loose.