Queer villains, erotic noir, 90s pulp. 'Basic Instinct' and the backlash, rewound : Pop Culture Happy Hour In the second chapter of our special documentary series, Screening Ourselves, host Aisha Harris revisits the politics and legacy of Basic Instinct. Paul Verhoeven's 1992 thriller is a sexy and violent cult classic. But the film was also a problematic mainstream portrayal of queer women at a time of great political crisis for LGBTQ politics and representation.

Queer villains, erotic noir, 90s pulp. 'Basic Instinct' and the backlash, rewound

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LINDA HOLMES, HOST:

A warning - this episode contains strong language and discussion of sexual assault and suicide.

Welcome to a very special weekend edition of NPR's POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR. Today, we're continuing our new documentary series, Screening Ourselves, created by our host, Aisha Harris. Hey, Aisha.

AISHA HARRIS, HOST:

Hey, Linda.

HOLMES: Now, in case listeners are not aware, last week, we presented the first installment of Screening Ourselves, which looks back on controversial movies of the past and the debates that they stirred at the time they were released.

HARRIS: Yeah. So far, we've covered "The Godfather" and its complicated legacy within some Italian American communities.

HOLMES: That was a lot to bite off for a first episode.

HARRIS: Yes.

HOLMES: And I am excited to know, what is the next film that you are bringing to us?

HARRIS: Well, today we're going to be diving into "Basic Instinct," Paul Verhoeven's 1992 erotic thriller. You've seen this, right, Linda?

HOLMES: I have. I sure have.

HARRIS: Yeah, yeah. And I remember watching it a long time ago, too, for the first time. But I didn't realize that it was actually kind of controversial at the time it came out for a few reasons, notably the way that it kind of plays with these kind of icky stereotypes around this quote, unquote "psycho lesbian" trope or the mad woman trope.

HOLMES: Right.

HARRIS: And it also depicted queer characters at a time when they weren't really that visible onscreen and in a way that was frustrating to some queer people in the audience. It was such a point of contention that it actually inspired a wave of protest movements that took place all throughout the run of the film. So I'm excited to dig into this for everyone.

HOLMES: Yeah. I'm excited to hear about it, so take it away.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARRIS: So if there's one thing people remember about "Basic Instinct," it's that scene. You know the one - where Sharon Stone's slinky character, Catherine Tramell, is seated in what looks like a brightly lit war room. She's under interrogation by five dude detectives about the murder of one of her romantic partners, a rock star.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BASIC INSTINCT")

WAYNE KNIGHT: (As John Correli) Would you tell us the nature of your relationship with Mr. Boz?

SHARON STONE: (As Catherine Tramell) I had sex with him for about a year and a half. I liked having sex with him. He wasn't afraid of experimenting. I like men like that - men who give me pleasure. He gave me a lot of pleasure.

HARRIS: Catherine's an icy blonde whose every word oozes sensuality. Her hair is slicked back in an updo reminiscent of Kim Novak in Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo," and she's wearing a curve-hugging, white mini dress. And then Catherine ever so casually yet deliberately uncrosses her legs, revealing to the men and us, the audience, that she's not wearing any underwear. The flashing happens in, yes, a flash. As quickly as her legs are uncrossed, she crosses them back again. If you were watching this in the theater in 1992 and you blinked at that exact moment, you'd miss it. That scene and the movie's other salacious moments plunged "Basic Instinct" into the cultural zeitgeist back in 1992 and the years to follow.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MARRIED... WITH CHILDREN")

KATEY SAGAL: (As Margaret "Peggy" Bundy) You saw it all?

ED O'NEILL: (As Al Bundy) Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRASIER")

DAVID HYDE PIERCE: (As Dr. Niles Crane) You're no different from that movie star who let everyone look up her skirt in that film and then did nothing but complain that nobody took her seriously as an actress.

KELSEY GRAMMER: (As Dr. Frasier Crane) Well, that has nothing to do with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF 65TH ACADEMY AWARDS)

BILLY CRYSTAL: But the theme tonight is women in film. And ironically, 1992 has been a very poor year for women's parts. In fact, some of the most talked about women's parts are Sharon Stone's in "Basic Instinct."

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: This titillating buzz helped turn Sharon Stone into a huge star and made "Basic Instinct" one of the biggest movies of the year. Today on Screening Ourselves, we dissect the many debates around "Basic Instinct."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARRIS: Sharon Stone's breakthrough performance as Catherine Tramell, a crime novelist and suspected murderer, overlapped with a couple of cultural trends that were already very popular at the time, for one, the erotic thriller. Now, for decades, the Hays Code restricted what most filmmakers at major Hollywood studios could depict onscreen, including what they referred to as pointed profanity and sex perversion. By the late '60s, the code was abandoned, and the rise of the porn industry in the '70s helped open the door for Hollywood's much more liberal approach to sex on screen. And then in the '80s, movies like "9 1/2 Weeks" and "Blue Velvet" combined elements of noir with sexually explicit encounters that could border on softcore porn. "Fatal Attraction," which starred Glenn Close and Michael Douglas, was perhaps the poster child of the genre.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FATAL ATTRACTION")

MICHAEL DOUGLAS: (As Dan Gallagher) Showing up at my apartment.

GLENN CLOSE: (As Alex Forrest) What am I supposed to do? You won't answer my calls. You change your number. I mean, I'm not going to be ignored, Dan.

HARRIS: These kinds of movies treated sex as something both alluring and lethal, an experience that might feel amazing in the moment, but with the wrong person, it might end up costing you. These movies featured femme fatales in Hollywood's long and tragic tradition of dangerous, sexy women. But these new women of the '80s and early '90s were also R-rated criminals.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BASIC INSTINCT")

KNIGHT: (As John Correli) Did you kill Mr. Boz, Ms. Tramell?

STONE: (As Catherine Tramell) I'd have to be pretty stupid to write a book about killing and then kill somebody the way I described it in my book. I'd be announcing myself as the killer. I'm not stupid.

HARRIS: Now, I cannot emphasize enough how utterly weird of a movie "Basic Instinct" is. If you haven't seen it in a while, just know it's as over-the-top, sleazy and ridiculous as you probably remember it. This is a movie that opens with an aging rock star's murder by ice pick while he's mid-coitus with a mysterious blonde woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BASIC INSTINCT")

BILL CABLE: (As Johnny Boz) No. Oh, God.

HARRIS: And that mysterious blonde just might be Sharon Stone's femme fatale, Catherine. Director Paul Verhoeven imagined Catherine to be evil personified.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL VERHOEVEN: I would characterize her more as the devil, you know? This whole story makes only sense to me when she's Satan. So it's a story about a Satanist situation, basically. Otherwise, it doesn't make sense.

HARRIS: The archetype of the femme fatale draws a direct line from feminine wiles to wickedness and evil. The biblical Eve is considered a prototype for this trope, but most of us today associate it with the film noirs of the '40s and '50s or its notable revival in the erotic thriller of the '80s and '90s. "Basic Instinct" tapped into all of those currents, but it also toyed around with that idea in ways no studio movie had done at the time. Sharon Stone's character Catherine was bisexual, her sexual appetites and partners as wide-ranging and salacious as her supposed crimes. For better and worse, it was a film that centered the life and the machinations of a queer woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BASIC INSTINCT")

STONE: (As Catherine Tramell, crying) Everybody that I care about dies.

HARRIS: In fact, all of the primary women characters are explicitly queer. They're also closely tied to deadly crimes or at least suspected of having committed them. As you may imagine, by exaggerating and exploiting the erotic thriller, "Basic Instinct" was designed for heated discourse. Here's "MTV News."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MTV NEWS")

JEHAN AGRAMA: This is one in a series of continual portrayals of lesbians as villains, as killers of men, as man-hating, as psychopaths.

HARRIS: LGBTQ activists were furious. Protests from queer audiences and allies hung over the production and the movie's release for more than a year. People definitely weren't just talking about that interrogation scene, as we heard on NPR's own Morning Edition.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KATHLEEN CHAPMAN: It's hideous. It's awful. It's very anti-bisexual. It's very anti-lesbian. And it's misogynistic in general.

HARRIS: In "Basic Instinct," Director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas - two straight men, I should add - cull from an overflowing grab bag of established tropes. The movie isn't just a trashy, erotic neo noir; it's a trashy, erotic neo noir where every female character poses a direct threat to men as either a would-be murderer, a queer person or both. Now, to some viewers, this makes the movie a somewhat feminist outlier for the era and Catherine a queer icon. To others, it's yet another example of Hollywood's misogyny and terrible record of LGBTQ representation. And in 1992, everyone had thoughts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARRIS: Just a few weeks into "Basic Instinct's" run, Sharon Stone hosted "Saturday Night Live."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

STONE: You know, I've had a great week. I like working with these guys. They give me a lot of laughs. I like to laugh. It's nice. It sends ripples of pleasure through my body.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: During her monologue, she parodied that infamous interrogation scene. Wearing that little white dress from the movie, she was seated on the chair, one leg crossed over the other. She played up her character's bisexual identity.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

STONE: But you know what? The women are funny, too - very funny. That's right. The women make me laugh, too.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: Viewers in the studio audience that night were privy to an unscripted moment. According to reports following the broadcast, hecklers could be heard interrupting Stone during her monologue in protest of the film's misogyny and depiction of lesbian and bi villains. The show continued, and six people were arrested. NBC replaced that version of the monologue with footage from the dress rehearsal for reruns of the episode. So unless you were watching it live that night or have it recorded on an old VHS somewhere, you probably haven't seen it. It's likely forever locked up in an NBC vault. Otherwise, we'd have played the audio for you right about now.

But anyhoo (ph), to understand how "Basic Instinct" became so big of a cultural flashpoint that people went to "SNL" to protest it, we first got to dig a bit deeper into how this strange mashup of genres became a mainstream studio film in the first place.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARRIS: In June 1990, screenwriter Joe Eszterhas sold his script for "Basic Instinct" on spec for a then-record-breaking $3 million to Carolco Pictures. By August, Eszterhas and producer Irwin Winkler had left the project over disagreement with director Paul Verhoeven. The director reportedly wanted to make the film more sexually explicit, including adding a lesbian sex scene. In a statement at the time, Eszterhas said, my intention when I wrote the script was that it be a psychological mystery with the love scenes done subtly. Every love scene in my script begins with the words, it is dark; we can't see clearly.

Darkness in the world of "Basic Instinct" included the landscape of homosexuality. To be queer was a dangerous, edgy layer to add to the stew of stereotypes the movie was already peddling. And that was why "Basic Instinct" ignited such a firestorm. Openly queer and gay people in cities like San Francisco led a movement to resist the film's seductions. So up to that point, postwar Hollywood had rarely depicted homosexuality as more than a shadow, a psychological derangement or a caricature. Even when not made explicit, queer-coded characters had haunted films from "The Maltese Falcon" to "Rebecca" to "Psycho" as nothing more than sidebars in the lives of central, straight protagonists.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MALTESE FALCON")

PETER LORRE: (As Joel Cairo) I warn you, if you attempt to prevent me, I shall certainly shoot you.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "REBECCA")

JUDITH ANDERSON: (As Mrs. Danvers) While she was undressing, she'd tell me about the party she'd been to. She knew everyone that mattered. Everyone loved her.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PSYCHO")

ANTHONY PERKINS: (As Norman Bates) Mother, my mother - what is the phrase? - she isn't quite herself today.

HARRIS: By the 1980s, times were changing. Politics, culture and lives were at stake. Just as cinema's boundaries would open to allow for an R-rated sexual thriller like "Basic Instinct," queer Americans were finally emerging as a mainstream cultural and political force in their own right and in the shadow of the AIDS crisis.

B RUBY RICH: It's ironic because, of course, the '80s is the age of AIDS. But it was also a time of really flourishing lesbian culture and the lesbian emergence into the mainstream.

HARRIS: This is critic and scholar B. Ruby Rich. In a 1992 Village Voice article, she identified a cinematic movement she coined New Queer Cinema the same year "Basic Instinct" came out.

RICH: By the late '80s, there was the emergence of something that may be forgotten now called lesbian chic. And people like k.d. lang were on the cover of magazines, and Madonna and Sandra Bernhard were on the David Letterman show pretending to be lovers and smooching and seen in the girls bars of New York. And I think it was also possibly the first moment when lesbian culture felt safe enough to come out of the shadows and not be fearful.

HARRIS: Yet as queer visibility increased in pop culture, some filmmakers deliberately exploited a supposed connection between queerness and violence.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CRUISING")

POWERS BOOTHE: (As salesman) A light blue hanky in your left back pocket means you want a blowjob. Right pocket means you give one.

HARRIS: This is how you got the 1980 movie "Cruising," which starred Al Pacino as a cop who goes undercover to investigate a serial killer targeting gay men in New York City. And in that same year, two other problematic depictions of queer life - "Windows," where a woman, played by Elizabeth Ashley, goes to sadistic lengths to chase the affections of her neighbor, who's played by Talia Shire; and "Dressed to Kill" with Michael Caine as a transgender woman whose body dysmorphia drives her to murder. "Basic Instinct" arrived in a cultural season that included a larger news obsession with homicidal and dangerous women. Here's Ruby Rich.

RICH: Aileen Wuornos was billed as the first female serial killer. She went on trial in 1992.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The jury took little time in finding 35-year-old Aileen Wuornos guilty of first-degree murder and armed robbery. Wuornos has a total of five murder charges to answer for. She confessed to killing seven men along Florida roadways.

RICH: So there was some precedent for thinking that lesbians might be out to murder men. Luckily, Sharon Stone didn't meet the same fate because Aileen Wuornos was actually executed by the state of Florida.

HARRIS: Ruby Rich has documented other films about homicidal lesbians that followed in the years immediately after "Basic Instinct," like Peter Jackson's "Heavenly Creatures" and Nancy Meckler's "Sister My Sister," both from 1994.

RICH: I actually tried to dub a new genre, Lesbians Who Kill, and tried to argue that, after AIDS, the way you could tell if people were having sex was by murder.

HARRIS: But LGBTQ characters were also still just as likely to be victims onscreen. In 1995, NPR's film critic Bob Mondello observed as much on All Things Considered, just three years after Catherine Tramell became, if only for a moment, the world's most visible bisexual.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BOB MONDELLO: Physical violence is depicted as almost routine in the lives of sexual minorities. In "Higher Learning," neo-Nazi skinheads beat up a male couple on their way to a rally, and in "A Man Of No Importance," Albert Finney's bus conductor gets mugged the moment he comes out of the closet - not to mention the verbal abuse, graffiti and cold shoulders the characters endure.

HARRIS: An empowered community of queer activists and organizers were alert to these connections and representations, and they were calling them out scene by scene when and if they could. Richard Jennings was executive director at the Los Angeles chapter of GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. He says that queer people in the industry were passing along scripts of forthcoming projects that featured queer characters to GLAAD for review. Before it was even filmed, "Basic Instinct" was one of the scripts that landed on Jennings' desk.

RICHARD JENNINGS: I was shocked and appalled when I read the script and the depiction of both lesbian and bisexual characters as murderers, murder suspects. I mean, there just seemed to be, you know, gratuitous violence on the part of the lesbian and bisexual characters and directed at them - you know, a rape scene.

HARRIS: OK, quick sidebar here. Yes, there is a date rape scene. It occurs between Michael Douglas's character, Nick, and Nick's psychologist, Dr. Beth Garner, played by Jean Tripplehorn. It's not treated as sexual assault, however. After it's over, Beth is merely disappointed by what she deems as unexpectedly rough sex, while Nick more or less shrugs it off as being in the heat of the moment.

That misogyny and those harmful stereotypes were the sorts of things Richard Jennings and his team were objecting to. In the early fall of 1990, GLAAD took out an ad to call attention to the 7,000 hate crimes against queer people that had been reported in the previous year. They also referenced recent and forthcoming movies like "Miller's Crossing" and "Darkman" for perpetuating insensitive queer representation. The campaign got GLAAD some attention, notably from the LA councilman who helped put Richard in touch with movie studios. Pretty soon, Richard had managed to set up a meeting over the phone with Paul Verhoeven. He recalls talking to him for about 40 minutes.

JENNINGS: He let me know that they were in the process of rewriting the "Basic Instinct" script so as to try and make it less offensive, less - they were going to soften the lesbian character who kills her brothers when she's a teen, you know, things like that. Wasn't clear that they were going to be able to do it, but he promised to stay in touch. And, you know, there was some hope that he would be able to do something about the script.

HARRIS: That didn't happen. A few months later, in the spring of 1991, just weeks before filming was set to start, Joe Eszterhas and Irwin Winkler reconciled with Verhoeven. Eszterhas rejoined as an executive producer, and he told the press he was surprised to learn Verhoeven had barely changed the script at all. The shoot began in San Francisco. Richard Jennings of GLAAD couldn't get a hold of Verhoeven, and he started making calls.

JENNINGS: I let the San Francisco chapter of GLAAD know what was happening, sent them the script. They and other groups in San Francisco started protesting the film. They were getting the details on where it was shooting, including a gay bar that the makers had contracted with as a location for some of the scenes.

HARRIS: Now, if you know only one thing about San Francisco, it's that the city has long been a national mecca for queer culture and activism. Filming this movie there, that takes some hubris or just a complete and utter lack of self-awareness.

ANNETTE GAUDINO: The point of our protest was to inconvenience them as much as possible - right? - and to increase the cost of them doing business.

HARRIS: Annette Gaudino is currently a health policy consultant based in New York City. But back in 1991, she was, as she puts it, a 20-something professional homosexual, newly arrived in San Francisco.

GAUDINO: They had come to San Francisco to use San Francisco as their backdrop and to sort of authenticate the queerness in the film. And we weren't going to let them do that scot-free. We were going to do everything we could to slow and increase the cost of their production.

HARRIS: Annette learned about the script for "Basic Instinct" through her involvement with the local chapter of the activist group Queer Nation. The first picket she attended was a nighttime shoot. None of the movie stars were in attendance. She was among around 20 protesters who were out there chanting that evening.

GAUDINO: We were all very, very surprised when the police showed up. We were just like, what's going on? Like, this is interesting.

HARRIS: Annette and the others were eventually arrested, and the experience emboldened her.

GAUDINO: I really had a very, very clear understanding after that night of the police being used - how the police can be used, you know, to protect property, you know, to protect people in power. And I didn't like it. And none of the rest of us did. So it just grew from there immediately after that. Every other night shoot had many, many people showing up. The crowds grew significantly. We got more and more creative in what we were doing.

HARRIS: Richard Jennings again.

JENNINGS: The producers were getting injunctions against the street protests - actually, they were getting injunctions against the city's release of the details as to where they were going to be filming each day 'cause the filming had to be, you know, cleared with the city, but the mayor went ahead and released the information to the activists anyway.

GAUDINO: We were going to drop glue and glitter bombs, like, on some of their sets, which would cause a lot of reflections, and they would have to hose them down. It would delay their filming. And they would have to film more nights, which would cost them more money. We were going to bring little mirrors and blow whistles, like, in the background to ruin their shots.

HARRIS: Annette says that while it would be a stretch to say there was strategic planning between GLAAD, Queer Nation and the other groups, there was communication and occasional collaboration on press messaging. The pushback worked well enough to get representatives from the groups a meeting with Joe Eszterhas and Paul Verhoeven just a few weeks into filming. The LA Times reported at the time that Eszterhas had been moved by the protests and was pushing to make changes to the script.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE ESZTERHAS: They were changes that I felt didn't hurt the material, that they wouldn't hurt the plot or the construction. I felt that the movie was not homophobic and feel to this day that it's not homophobic but that there were certain insensitivities in it which could have been corrected. Paul and Michael and Carolco felt and feel very adamantly that they're not going to make any changes.

HARRIS: Of course, Eszterhas lost that battle. The rape scene, the detail about Catherine's girlfriend Roxy having murdered her brothers, the horrific deaths of Roxy and Beth who - it's eventually revealed - experimented with Catherine once in college, all of these things ended up in the finished product. The world was about to get Eszterhas and Verhoeven's very dark psychological mystery. So let's cut to the spring of 1992, when everyone is finally able to see the finished product in theaters. Here's what Elvis Mitchell had to say on NPR's Weekend Edition.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ELVIS MITCHELL: I think the activists - if I can just address that for one second because it's hard to not address it when discussing the film - are sort of missing the point. I don't think the movie is just anti-gay or misogynist; I think it's misanthropic.

HARRIS: And here's Stephen Schiff on Fresh Air.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

STEPHEN SCHIFF: The least of screenwriter Joe Eszterhas' sins is that Tramell and all the other female suspects in this movie are lesbian or bisexual. For that to be offensive, we would have to see some connection between their sexual preference and their evil deeds, which is tough when you can't see any connection between these characters and human life on Earth.

HARRIS: A lot of critics, many of the men, dismiss the cries of misogyny and homophobia because of the movie's inherent silliness and lack of any good or positive characters regardless of gender or sexuality. Yet there were women, queer and straight, who saw something else in the movie altogether. Here's film critic and scholar Ruby Rich again.

RICH: I crossed the picket line to go opening night at the multiplex because I looked at the sign, I thought, well, look, all the other films that are playing here are about men murdering women. Why am I supposed to boycott the only one that's about a woman murdering men? So I proudly, kind of staunchly walked through and went to see it several times and wrote about it.

HARRIS: This is a common perspective among the movie's defenders. And there are definitely arguments to be made that despite the film's unfortunate depictions of gross, queer stereotypes, it can also be viewed as a subversive feminist exercise. In 1992, critic Amy Taubin teases out in an essay for The Village Voice.

AMY TAUBIN: What happens to women when they look at movies, when they're small - and they want to be able to identify. And you identify with the male characters. And you do that whether you end up being a heterosexual woman or you'll end up being queer or no matter what your preference is and your gender orientation and your presentation of self. You learn how to identify with the active character who is going to prevail. And this was one of the first movies where it was fun to identify with the Sharon Stone character.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BASIC INSTINCT")

STONE: (As Catherine Tramell) I'm not going to confess all my secrets, Nick, just because I have an orgasm. You won't learn anything I don't want you to know.

DOUGLAS: (As Det. Nick Curran) Yes, I will.

HARRIS: Catherine's cool, sexy, and always in control unlike Nick, who's impulsive and reckless. And as Nick investigates her, she uses him and his life as her muse for her next novel. And while Roxy and Beth are dead by the end of the movie, Catherine makes it to the final shot very much alive. And that doesn't happen to femme fatales.

TAUBIN: I don't think that Verhoeven thought he was making a feminist movie at all. I think he thought he was making a movie, however, about strong women and how terrifying they are to men.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARRIS: OK, so there were critics who couldn't take it seriously enough to entertain concerns about the movie's insensitivities. And then, there were those like Ruby Rich and Amy Taubin, who found it fun and, to a certain extent, feminist. But what about the people who'd been protesting long before the movie ever made it to theaters, people like Annette Gaudino?

GAUDINO: In some ways, we weren't actually prepared for how violent and awful it was. You know, we went in because it was like, we have to say that we saw it. We can't just critique from outside. We have to subject ourselves to this.

HARRIS: Annette and her fellow activists brainstormed a sly way to mess with the movie's reception - spoil the movie's ending.

GAUDINO: You know, like, they've made this big deal about the whole plot kind of hinges on you not knowing until the end or not being revealed to the end that the blonde bombshell is actually not just a femme fatale; she's a murderous - you know, a murderous bisexual.

HARRIS: On opening night, demonstrators stood outside theaters across the country with some of them chanting, Catherine did it, to passerby (ph). They also handed out leaflets spoiling the movie's end.

GAUDINO: We knew, well, if we call ourselves Catherine Did It, they're going to censor that. Perfect. That just plays into our hands. And then, we can use the opportunity to talk about, like, what real censorship looks like, which is things like homophobic test audiences, you know, just wholesale invisibility of queers.

HARRIS: Catherine Did It didn't wind up being censored. I found tons of contemporaneous news reports that referred directly to the group and what they were saying. But it did help keep their cause at the forefront of the press. Less than two weeks after the movie's opening, Annette and other demonstrators took their grievances to Hollywood's splashiest event of the year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BOB EDWARDS: The 64th Annual Academy Awards will be handed out this evening in Los Angeles. This year, gay rights groups are protesting what they say is Hollywood's stereotypical portrayal of homosexuals. And there's extra security in and around Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

STEVE PROFFITT: Kathleen Chapman calls herself a queer national. She's helping organize tonight's demonstrations. Chapman says many homosexuals are outraged by what they see as a continuing stream of gay-bashing films coming out of the major studios.

CHAPMAN: Even as we speak, there are homophobic films being made right now. Basically, a lot of the anger started to build around the making of "Basic Instinct," which is a slanderous film. It's hideous. It's awful. It's very anti-bisexual. It's very anti-lesbian. And it's misogynistic in general.

HARRIS: The Oscar ceremony was the perfect vessel for these protests and not just because all the most powerful people in Hollywood would be there. That year, two big movies from 1991 - both featuring queer villains, might I add - were up for multiple awards.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS")

ANTHONY HOPKINS: (As Hannibal Lecter) The significance of the moth is change - caterpillar into chrysalis, or pupa, and from thence into beauty. Our Billy wants to change, too.

HARRIS: One, Jonathan Demme's "Silence Of The Lambs" and, two, Oliver Stone's "JFK."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JFK")

JOE PESCI: (As David Ferrie) It could be blamed on Castro. The whole country will want to invade Cuba. All we got to do is get Kennedy in the open.

TOMMY LEE JONES: (As Clay Bertrand) David, David...

HARRIS: Now, according to Annette Gaudino, the demonstrations outside the ceremony didn't last long. There were reportedly dozens of people carrying signs through the crowds of fans who were lined up to catch a glimpse of the red-carpet arrivals.

GAUDINO: I remember very clearly a large horse coming at us. And I remember a billy club coming down on me a couple of times and sort of being, like, pushed back by the flank of a horse.

HARRIS: Annette says that she and others in her group were arrested. Eventually they got bailed out. And Annette made her way to an Oscar viewing party.

GAUDINO: And I just remember feeling just very odd and kind of empty, you know? Like. On the one hand, you know, we had achieved what we wanted to achieve in that we had sort of disrupted. It hadn't gone down quite the way we wanted it to, but it was still totally worth it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARRIS: Richard Jennings, who you heard from earlier, was also at the Oscars that night.

JENNINGS: GLAAD did what we had to do at the time. We had, you know, practically no money. And Hollywood wasn't talking to us. So doing these protests with the limited budget that we had, with the limited access to the media we had, that was really the only way to get their attention.

HARRIS: The Oscars went on. "Silence Of The Lambs" won five awards, including Best Picture. And "JFK" took home two awards. GLAAD, Queer Nation and the other demonstrators had done plenty to bring awareness to these issues even as Hollywood's spotlight remained on films populated by dangerously queer characters. But what about the legacy of "Basic Instinct" in our time?

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HARRIS: It's been 30 years since "Basic Instinct" caused a commotion. Since then, it's been a staple of cable TV. Multiple DVD editions have been released. And it's considered Sharon Stone's definitive performance. Over the years, she's always seemed game to talk about it. Here she is on "Conan" in 2013.

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CONAN O'BRIEN: "Basic Instinct" is the most paused - has the most paused moment in movie history. In all of movie history, it is the most paused moment...

STONE: Why, Conan, what moment would that be?

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: It's towards the - yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

STONE: I'm uncertain what moment we're talking about.

HARRIS: And while Stone has embraced the role and can joke about it with the distance of time, the production wasn't all smooth sailing for her either. In 1992, she was still an emerging actress in Hollywood, being directed and governed by a male-dominated industry and its male gaze. Stone's always maintained she had no idea her private parts would be exposed on camera while shooting the film's infamous interrogation scene. According to Stone, she was told to remove her underwear because they were reflecting the light and was assured nothing would be revealed. But when she saw a cut of the film, she was shocked and furious. She claims she slapped Verhoeven and called her lawyer to discuss her legal rights. Here she is describing the incident in the audio book of her 2021 memoir "The Beauty Of Living Twice."

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STONE: Then I thought some more. What if I were the director? What if I had gotten that shot? What if I'd gotten it on purpose or by accident? What if it just existed? That was a lot to think about. I knew what film I was doing. For heaven's sakes, I fought for the part. And all that time, only this director had stood up for me. I had to find some way to become objective.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARRIS: Verhoeven, for his part, has described his memory of the events as, quote, "radically different." In a 2021 interview with Variety, he said, quote, "she knew exactly what we were doing," unquote. Wherever the truth lies, Stone chose to take back control of an allegedly violating experience and reclaim it, lean into it.

I think Stone's version of events can help us understand how some queer viewers have chosen to respond to "Basic Instinct" and why it remains a microcosm of how onscreen portrayals shape our sense of self and our sense of possibility. On the one hand, this portrayal can make you feel violated or angry for how it depicts your background or culture. On the other, it might tap into another part of you that nevertheless feels seen or entertained. It's a dance of constant negotiation and reconciliation with the injustices of the past and the present. The same problematic portrayal can become creative and personal fuel, an affirmation born in disconnection. Here's critic Ruby Rich again.

RICH: This is where I had a real dispute with Vito Russo, whose famous "Celluloid Closet" gave us the history of Hollywood's treatment of gay people, because I felt that we were not a passive audience. I felt that we could talk back to the screen. We could take what we wanted. We could take what we loved and we could ignore the rest, just as women did in the 1940s with those infamous women's films, where the women always got punished at the end.

HARRIS: Queer viewers who eventually became filmmakers in their own right weren't passive either. They began telling their own stories. By the early '90s, LGBTQ characters were showing up onscreen in capacities arguably more exciting and subversive than Verhoeven's film and other studio products. These were smaller, independently made movies by filmmakers with distinct voices and sensibilities. Ruby observed this boon within the festival scene, and in 1992, she famously dubbed it the New Queer Cinema in the Village Voice.

RICH: What was happening here that's really, really pertinent is that camcorders had been invented, and that was the single-biggest influence. In the late '80s, you no longer had to go to film school to learn how to make a film, how to load 16 millimeter into a camera, you know, how to hire unions or use Super 16 or - you didn't have to do that. The economy made it possible. You know, I always credit cheap rent for being the main factor driving the New Queer Cinema. You could quit your job, make a film, pay your rent, share an apartment. It was a very, very forgiving economic environment that we have not seen since.

HARRIS: These films could also dabble in tropes and stereotypes and were done so knowingly, as a means of twisting and challenging them directly.

RICH: It wasn't only lesbians that were out killing. Gregg Araki's "Living End," Tom Kalin's "Swoon," they both were films that created a kind of newly legendary gay male killers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LIVING END")

CRAIG GILMORE: (As Jon) And just to think, 48 hours ago I was just another bummed-out, HIV-positive homo minding my own business.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SWOON")

CRAIG CHESTER: (As Nathan Leopold Jr.) Killing Bobby Franks together would join Richard and I for life. I wanted to murder the idea of suffering as my condition.

RICH: The irony, of course, is that what was killing gay men was AIDS. And these were both films about gay men killing other people. Lesbians were being killed by various maniac murderers, and yet here was this film that was the scandal, and it was about lesbians killing a man. So I think there was really an element of wish fulfillment in those films in which gay men and lesbians on screen kind of struck back and killed people along their path.

HARRIS: As Ruby put it in her "New Queer Cinema" essay 30 years ago, these movies actively rejected the notion of positive images and for the better. Claim the heroes, claim the villains, she wrote, and don't mistake any of it for realness.

I tend to lean to Ruby's side on this point. It's really fascinating to think about how these films could all coexist in that era, unwittingly in conversation with one another. And respectability politics never actually liberate the oppressed. Whether you're a creative or an audience member, power can be had in reclaiming the stereotypes that challenge your very existence. But that's a personal choice every person must make for themselves, like Annette Gaudino has with "Basic Instinct."

GAUDINO: And I haven't been able to watch it since. I can't, like, enjoy it as camp, as some people can. I understand why some people can enjoy it as camp, but that hasn't been my experience. And more, like, I haven't wanted to enjoy it as camp. It's sort of like, OK, I don't need to see that again, you know? Whatever sort of parts of it that you can reclaim or play with, like, I spent my whole life doing that with film.

HARRIS: It also does matter who is telling the story because that can be directly tied to how the story is platformed and received. Hardly anyone outside of cinephile circles saw the ambitious, low-budget "Swoon" and "The Living End" at the time. Combined, these movies, created by and about queer people, took in around $1 million at the box office. "Basic Instinct," helmed by two straight cis guys, made $15 million in its opening weekend alone. There's a stark imbalance in who reaches an audience and who has the greatest potential to make a cultural impact.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DAHMER – MONSTER: THE JEFFREY DAHMER STORY")

EVAN PETERS: (As Jeffrey Dahmer) Can I listen to your heartbeat? Because I'm going to eat it.

HARRIS: Thirty years later, power has shifted, but those tensions remain. Just this year, Ryan Murphy's Netflix series, "Dahmer - Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story," reignited many of the anxieties that surfaced around "Basic Instinct." The dramatization of the real-life serial killer's crimes was a huge viral hit, but it was also strongly criticized for grossly exploiting the mostly Black and brown victims and their families for entertainment. Though, unlike in 1992, when "Basic Instinct" was released, there are now way more counterexamples to balance that negativity.

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BILLY PORTER: (As Pray Tell) There is nothing more tragic than a sad queen.

MICHAELA JAE RODRIGUEZ: (As Blanca Rodriguez) I'm not sad. These are tears of joy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIRE ISLAND")

BOWEN YANG: (As Howie) I'm serious. We used to come here to be gay and stupid. And now I come here, I just feel terminally alone.

JOEL KIM BOOSTER: (As Noah) Alone? Look around. We're literally swimming in dick.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN")

CHANTE ADAMS: (As Max Chapman) I don't know what my life is going to look like, but I don't want you to worry about me 'cause I'm going to be OK.

HARRIS: Movies and TV shows like "Pose," "Fire Island" and the 2022 series adaptation of "A League Of Their Own" are just a few of the more recent depictions of queer life that don't indulge in cheap and easy tropes but push beyond them to create more nuanced portrayals.

There's a case to be made that the criticisms of "Basic Instinct" probably helped move that needle for the present day. So those meetings queer activists had with the "Basic Instinct" team, the protests and sustained pressure, they may not have altered the final movie, but the pressure paid off in the long run. Annette Gaudino.

GAUDINO: Hollywood sees itself as liberal. And they were really taken aback - straight Hollywood was really taken aback that we were calling them out and that we were mad at them. And they were sort of offended and didn't understand. Like, you know, but we're your friends, and just wanted to sort of hand wave things away. And they didn't like that they had upset the gays. Like, it made them very, very uncomfortable.

JENNINGS: So "Basic Instinct" was one of the most notorious projects that was in development in that whole time that helped us in our protests of it, in our sounding the alarm about it and other negative portrayals. The environment is much different now, thank God.

HARRIS: Both Annette and Richard are careful to point out that it was never just about "Basic Instinct" or "Silence Of The Lambs" or any of the other damaging depictions that came before and that have come since. The campaigns against those images were done in coordination with looking at the bigger picture - that is, the equity fights taking place off-screen.

GAUDINO: People were being bashed in the streets all the time. Coming out meant, in most cases, like, irreparable separation from your family. Being queer was joyful, but it was also not a joke. I wasn't trying to build a world of positive queer role models; I was just trying to stop the Hollywood machine from profiting off of both our invisibility and our stereotyping that had nothing to do with us at all and had everything to do with, like, the misogynist straight imagination.

HARRIS: Around the time of "Basic Instinct," Michael Douglas became involved with Hollywood Supports, and Sharon Stone has been consistently involved with LGBTQ and AIDS activism. The protesters ultimately weren't able to influence changes to the movie's script, but they were able to influence the movie's legacy.

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HARRIS: I want to play a line from the press tour for "Basic Instinct." Again, Sharon Stone.

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STONE: My character particularly, Catherine, isn't really driven by a particular sexuality. She's driven by an all-consuming need to be powerful.

HARRIS: That's a word I keep coming back to when I think about the debates over "Basic Instinct" - power. Who had it? During and after production of "Basic Instinct," the answer was arguably different at any given moment - Joe Eszterhas quitting over script disagreements, monthslong demonstrations against the film, Sharon Stone owning that uncrossed-legs moment, viewers getting whatever they wanted out of the movie and discarding with the rest. How fitting for a movie that's all about power and how lust and envy feed power.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BASIC INSTINCT")

DOUGLAS: (As Nick Curran) What's your new book about?

STONE: (As Catherine Tramell) A detective. He falls for the wrong woman.

DOUGLAS: (As Nick Curran) What happens?

STONE: (As Catherine Tramell) She kills him.

HARRIS: Of course, like anything else, power or empowerment can be subjective, especially when it's as intangible as an emotional response. One person's Catherine Tramell is a queer icon, "Basic Instinct" is queer canon, is another person's "Basic Instinct" is heteronormative BS. Both perspectives exist, and both can be powerful.

I want to turn to one last example of power that's tangentially related to "Basic Instinct." During my conversation with Richard Jennings, who had led GLAAD in Los Angeles at the time the film was being developed, I asked him how he'd felt about Verhoeven rejecting his group's suggested revisions to the script. He answered me - kind of - by taking me back to a movie he saw as his younger self.

JENNINGS: It was a movie that kept me in the closet for years. I had been very involved in politics as a young kid, and the only depiction I knew of being gay in politics was this movie called "Advise & Consent," in which a senator who is - who's had a gay experience, you know, when he was in the military, is a potential presidential contender, and he starts getting blackmailed about this incident that happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ADVISE AND CONSENT")

DON MURRAY: (As Senator Brigham "Brig" Anderson) This is something from a long time ago, before I even knew you.

JENNINGS: Ultimately, in the movie, he commits suicide. When I was growing up, you know, when there were no other depictions of gay people, that was a message to me that if I was going to have a career in politics, I had to stay in the closet.

HARRIS: Do you remember about how old you were when that - when you saw that movie?

JENNINGS: I think I was around - in my early teens, 13 or so. Back in the '80s, we were dealing with, in California, yearly referenda that were homophobic, either trying to get gays barred from teaching in school or, you know, people with AIDS, you know, banned from various kinds of jobs and things. So that's why I got personally involved in it, spent 10 years of my life, basically, as a professional gay trying to have this kind of dialogue. And for me, it was a matter of love. I think for the most part, that succeeded. You know, people like Sharon Stone and Michael Douglas and others, Jonathan Demme, did get our message and did start helping us be seen in a more accurate and balanced light.

HARRIS: Richard was doing something many of us have probably had to do at some point or another - take something that makes him feel powerless and turn it into fuel. So there's plenty of ways we can think about "Basic Instinct," as misogynistic, homophobic, noir, pulpy. But it also proved, in its own way, to be a changemaker.

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HARRIS: Next time on Screening Ourselves, we revisit the debates ignited by Steven Spielberg's 1985 movie "The Color Purple."

This episode was written by me, Aisha Harris, and produced by Mike Katzif, with additional production support from Schuyler Swenson. Bilal Qureshi is our editor. Thanks to Mary Glendinning and Jane Gilvin for their research support and to Kwesi Lee for engineering support. Some of the music you heard in this episode is by Ramtin Arablouei. Special thanks to Jessica Reedy, Lauren Gonzalez, Micah Ratner, Emily Bogle, Brendan Crump and Linda Holmes. Thanks also to Jason Bailey. Our senior director is Beth Donovan, and our VP of programming is Anya Grundmann. I'm Aisha Harris, and this is Screening Ourselves, a special series from NPR's POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR.

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