COVER

KILLER MOVIES

BASIC INSTINCT PUSHES THE BOUNDARIES OF THE HOLLYWOOD MAINSTREAM

Brian D. Johnson March 30 1992
COVER

KILLER MOVIES

BASIC INSTINCT PUSHES THE BOUNDARIES OF THE HOLLYWOOD MAINSTREAM

Brian D. Johnson March 30 1992

KILLER MOVIES

COVER

BASIC INSTINCT PUSHES THE BOUNDARIES OF THE HOLLYWOOD MAINSTREAM

The opening scene shows a man and woman naked on a bed, engaged in passionate sex. The woman is on top. Her blond hair has fallen forward, hiding her face. Suddenly, she lashes the man’s wrists to the head of the bed with a white silk Hermès scarf. They continue to make love and, as he reaches orgasm, she grabs an ice pick and plunges it repeatedly into his neck and chest. The camera shows the blood splatter across her body. But despite appearances, the movie is neither cheap pornography nor Bgrade horror. It is Basic Instinct, a $50-million picture from Tri-Star Pictures, a major Hollywood studio.

And in its graphic mix of sex and violence, it goes further than any mainstream American movie in memory. By portraying bisexual women as psychopathic killers, meanwhile, it has become the target of protests by feminist and gay rights groups. As the movie opened on the weekend, demonstrators in cities across North America hit theatre lineups with signs and leaflets revealing the movie’s ending. And

other protestors are threatening to disrupt next week’s Academy Awards presentations—the movie is not nominated, but the gala ceremony is the largest TV event of the year, and the stars of Basic Instinct, Sharon Stone and Michael Douglas, will both be presenting Oscars.

Basic Instinct is the latest, and most incendiary, of a new breed of adult thrillers, movies that tap a popular fascination with sexual menace and brutal violence. Psychopaths have served as fodder for thrillers for a long time, but their behavior has never been drama-

tized in such grisly detail, and with such chilling sympathy, as in the past year. At the Oscars, which will be awarded on March 30, three of the five best-actor nominees are honored for movies in which they play psychopathic killers. As Hannibal (the Cannibal) Lecter, a charming Anthony Hopkins dines on live human flesh in Silence of the Lambs. Robert De Niro’s charismatic Max Cady bites a chunk from a woman’s face while raping her in Cafe Fear. And in the role of a glorified gangster, a debonair Warren Beatty kicks a man half to death in Bugsy.

Chilling: Hollywood seems to be going psycho. Jack Nicholson perhaps started the current trend three years ago by playing the Joker, that clown prince of psychopaths, in Batman—he stole the movie from the hero (Michael Keaton) and finessed a $ 70-million cut of the profits and merchandising. Last year’s topgrossing movie, Terminator 2, pitted a good psychopath against a bad one, both killing-machines devoid of 3 emotion or conscience. But more u significantly, serious film-makers inÏ eluding Martin Scorsese {Cape Fear) and Jonathan Demme (who is fa-

vored to win best director for Silence of the Lambs) have lent artistic dignity to the kind of visceral horror once found only in B-movies. As one industry insider said with a smile, “With Marty or Jonathan directing, you can eat human flesh.”

In a less sensationalist fashion, Canadian television has cultivated a certain vocation for dramatizing true stories of grisly murder (page 57). They include CBC’s Love and Hate{1989), about the murder of JoAnn Thatcher by her ex-husband, former Saskatchewan cabinet minister Colin Thatcher, and last fall’s Conspiracy of Silence, which

chronicles the 1971 sex slaying of Helen Betty Osborne in The Pas, Man., and CTV’s To Catch a Killer, a recent movie about Chicago serial killer John Wayne Gacy. The appeal of such fare feeds a popular fascination with lurid details and sinister psychology. But on television, at least in Canada, there is an attempt to be tasteful. In fact, the CBC recently abandoned a project to film the story of serial killer Clifford Olson because it was too gruesome.

Anxiety: In the movies, however, the glamor of evil seems unlimited. And in romancing the psychopath, Hollywood has alarmed a broad spectrum of critics, ranging from conservative Christians to homosexual guardians of political correctness. Elliott Leyton, the Canadian author of a book about serial killers titled Hunting Humans—The Rise of the Modern Multiple Murderer(1986), told Maclean’s that the new thrillers “promote a kind of backhanded admiration for the bogus raw power and violence that these creatures exude.” Added Leyton, who teaches anthropology at Memorial University in St. John’s, Nfld.: “I find it very disturbing that society is continually being bombarded by these cultural messages.”

But film-makers argue that adult thrillers serve as a harmless form of escape, a safe flirtation with danger in an age of tightening anxiety. “It’s a scary time in the world,” Basic Instinct star Sharon Stone told Maclean’s last week. “There are so many things that are frightening—environmentally, psychologically, economically, sexually. You can vent all your feelings through a movie like this. You can vicariously let off a lot of steam.” Added Stone: “It’s the New Age answer to terrorism.”

And in the movies, women are finally getting to dish out some of the terror. While the public was mesmerized by the Clarence Thomas hearings and the rape trials of Mike Tyson and William Kennedy Smith, the gender war has also been raging on the big screen: leading ladies are shooting to kill. Three of the five best-actress nominees play gun-wielding avengers of brutal sexual violence—Jodi Foster, the plucky FBI agent in Silence of the Lambs, and Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, the feminist road warriors of Thelma and Louise. And in movies ranging from last’s year’s tawdry but profitable Sleeping with the Enemy to the current hit Fried Green Tomatoes, heroic women work up the nerve to gun down abusive husbands.

Hatred: Taking dramatic licence with reality, actresses also are flexing their box-office muscle by proving that they can be just as villainous as men. Kathy Bates won a bestactress Oscar last year for Misery, in which she played a deranged recluse who kidnaps her favorite novelist Games Caan) and cracks his legs with a sledgehammer. The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, a thriller starring Rebecca De Momay as a homicidal nanny, is the topgrossing picture of the year so far, having

HOLLYWOOD HAS GONE PSYCHO WITH MOVIES BUILT ON GRISLY DETAIL

earned $85 million. And Basic Instinct, in which Stone appears opposite Michael Douglas as a serial-murder suspect, seems destined to make her a major star (page 55). Although it bears a superficial resemblance to Fatal Attraction (1987), another Douglas vehicle about a lethal woman, played by Glenn Close, Basic Instinct is no cautionary tale. It promotes sexuality rather than discouraging it. And with the woman commanding respect rather than hatred, most of the humor is at the expense of the man.

Vixens: But Basic Instincts male fantasyland of beautiful, bisexual, bloodthirsty vixens has provoked angry protests from American feminist and gay rights groups. The Los Angeles chapter of a militant homosexual group called Queer Nation plans to blockade limousine traffic at the Oscars and disrupt the ceremonies inside, where Douglas is slated to present the award for best actress. And last week, the U.S. National Organization of Women added its voice to the protest. After seeing the movie, Tammy Bruce, a Los Angeles representative of NOW, said: “We were expecting it to be homophobic, but it is also one of the most misogynistic films in recent memory.”

Those attacking the movie as politically incorrect, however, may find themselves uncomfortably allied with right-wing advocates of censorship. In February, Cardinal Roger Mahony, head of the Los Angeles Roman Catholic archdiocese, proposed a new morality code for movies and television, one that would ban nudity, lustful embraces, foul language and blasphemy. And this month, popular film critic Michael Medved, co-host of TV’s weekly movie show Sneak Previews, endorsed Mahony’s code and declared that American cinema has become the enemy of “decency” and “traditional American values.”

In interviews with Maclean’s, both Stone and Douglas defended Basic Instinct while expressing sympathy with the gay rights cause. “You have to use this platform to have that cause heard,” said Stone. “You have to. But I don’t think it’s homophobic.” She added: “Everybody in this movie is dark, twisted and weirdly driven—like, Michael’s character is the good guy?” In Basic Instinct, Douglas portrays a decadent homicide detective who develops an acute conflict of interest by letting

his prime suspect seduce him. The protests, Douglas maintains, overlook the fact that the movie is “larger than life, gothic and theatrical.”

Indeed, according to the experts, Hollywood’s portrayals of psychopathic killers are grossly inauthentic. Although Leyton has spent much of his career researching serial killers, he says that he walked out of Silence of the Lambs

because “I couldn’t stand the gratuitous violence. But what really offended me,” he added, “was the way that the real hero of the film—a psychopathic, tongue-eating killer and rapist— was portrayed as witty, intelligent, urbane and perceptive. It was a very unrealistic depiction of a serial killer. They are, almost to a man, dull, defective personalities with a grudge.” The director of Basic Instinct, however, insists that the characters are not meant to be representative. In an interview with Maclean’s, Dutch-bom Paul Verhoeven explained that Stone’s character, Catherine, possesses a highly unlikely combination of attributes. “She’s brilliant, she’s beautiful, she’s rich, she’s bisexual—and she might be a killer,” he said. “I see her as a special edition of the devil.” The story originated with veteran Hollywood screenwriter Joe Eszterhas {Jagged Edge, The Music Box). Last year, he told San Francisco’s Frisko magazine: “My wife says [the movie’s script] comes out of all my sexual fantasies.” Eszterhas received a fee of $3.3 million, the highest sum ever paid for a screenplay. But after a bitter, and most unusual,

quarrel with its director, he no longer supports the movie.

The dispute originated during the early stages of production in San Francisco last year, when Basic Instinct became a target for militant gay activists who had obtained copies of the script. They shouted, they picketed and they paint-bombed the set. The protesters had a remarkable list of demands. They asked for Douglas’s character to be changed to a lesbian, and suggested that she be played by Kathleen Turner. They also requested that the story feature the murder of women as well as men, so that lesbians and female bisexuals are not seen as man-haters.

Eszterhas refused to go that far. But he did

propose some astounding revisions to the script. Modifying a scene of rough sex, he suggested that, before ripping off a woman’s underwear, Douglas’s character should pause to explain what he is doing and ask her if she approves. He also requested a disclaimer to run at the beginning of the film saying, “The movie you are about to see is fiction.” Rejecting such changes as ridiculous, Verhoeven stuck to the original script. “When he wanted to change it to please the gay community,” said the director, “he was losing track of the dramatic issues. I felt I had to protect the script from him, which was kind of weird.” Eszterhas is probably the first Hollywood screenwriter to complain because his script ended up on the screen the way he wrote it.

Lesbian: With the opening of the movie on the weekend, the protests rapidly spread beyond San Francisco. In various cities, including Toronto, gay activists blitzed theatre lineups, giving away the identity of the killer. In Los Angeles, Queer Nation members formed a committee called “[the killer’s name] Did It.” And The San Francisco Bay Times printed

their slogan on a full page. “Hollywood consistently portrays us as victims or psychotics,” said committee member Patt Riese. “We’re saying, don’t spend your money to see homophobia and misogyny.”

Verhoeven seems puzzled by the outcry. To North Americans, he is best known as the director of Total Recall (1990), a violent science-fiction adventure starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. But he built his reputation in Europe with such films as The Fourth Man (1984), a homoerotic thriller that was well received by the gay community. Responding to criticism that he has portrayed bisexuals negatively in Basic Instinct, he said: “I would argue that we are all probably born bisexual.” The

director maintains that the lesbian relationships in Basic Instinct are designed to serve the plot. “Homosexuality is a part of life,” he said. “You can make it a plot point without making it an issue all the time.” He also emphasized that the movie’s purest romance is the lesbian bond between Catherine and Roxy (Leilani Sarelle).

In fact, to the consternation of his Hollywood producers, Verhoeven originally lobbied to add an explicit lesbian sex scene to the movie. But he says that he eventually convinced himself it was dramatically unjustified. As it turned out, the straight sex scenes were hot enough to jeopardize the movie’s distribution. “I shot it as provocatively as I could,” said the director. “I’ve always tried to film sex scenes the way they should be enjoyed.”

Qualms: At first, the movie was threatened with an NC-17 rating (which denies admission to anyone under 17) in the United States. That classification would have spelled commercial disaster for a $50-million movie: many newspapers decline to advertise NO 17 pictures. After showing the ratings board “a version I knew I wouldn’t get away with,” said Verhoeven, he used outtakes that, anticipating classification problems, he had filmed from more discreet angles to assemble a less graphic version. As a result, the movie R-rated in

the United States, which admits teenagers accompanied by adults. In Canada, ratings vary from province to province, but in most places admission to Basic Instinct is restricted to those over the age of 18.

But even when the movie was still at the script stage, it was provocative enough that Verhoeven had trouble casting his leading lady. “All the A-list actresses were approached,” he said, mentioning Michelle Pfeiffer, Julia Roberts, Kim Basinger and Geena Davis. They declined. “In the end, nobody was left.”

The role eventually fell to Stone, who had appeared in Verhoeven’s Total Recall. She says that she had no qualms about playing Catherine. In fact, she maintains that she has incorporated a loose feminist logic into her

character’s sexual aggression. “Catherine is so dynamic and manipulative with her sexuality that she can’t be objectified,” said Stone. “When she takes her clothes off, you don’t go, ‘Oooooh!’ You go, ‘Oh my God, she’s doing that !’ ” She also argued that the scenes of violence, especially the ice-pick murder, should not be taken too literally. “The murder,” she said, “is a sex act. It’s not a violence act.” Gore: The adult thriller has come a long way since Alfred Hitchcock’s cunning direction of the classic shower scene in Psycho (1960). Although that scene involved the repeated stabbing of a naked woman, it conveyed abject terror without a single frame of nudity or sliced flesh or gore. Of course, Norman Bates, the murderous

motel manager played by Anthony Perkins, turned out to be a wicked cross-dresser who liked to assume the identity of his dead mother before picking up the knife. But there was no wave of protests by transvestites—or motel managers.

Times change. In directing Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme revealed a reverence for both Hitchcock and B-movie king Roger Corman, for whom he made his first feature, a movie about a women’s prison called Caged Heat. Unlike Verhoeven, who toys with the clichés of slasher melodrama, Demme clearly went out of his way to make Silence of the Lambs a serious thriller about a gruesome subject without undue exploitation. But one of the two psychopaths in the movie, a serial killer

Perhaps the only safe way to portray a psycho killer is as a white, heterosexual American male. In fact, according to Leyton, statistics show that 95 per cent of serial killers are men. Almost half are heterosexuals who kill only females, 20 per cent are homosexuals who kill only males, and 30 per cent are straights and gays who kill both males and females. Clearly, Hollywood’s recent tendency to make

named Buffalo Bill who is sewing himself a suit out of his victims’ skin, is depicted as a transsexual. And that also aroused bitter protests from gay rights advocates. Demme dismissed the complaints about the character, saying, “I don’t see him as the latest in a line of gay psycho killers.”

psychopathic killing an equal-opportunity endeavor does not reflect reality. “A substantial number of women have assisted their boyfriends and husbands in their killing sprees, with varying degrees of enthusiasm,” noted Leyton, “but as the initiators, they’re not there. Let’s face it. Violence is overwhelmingly the domain of men.” And serial killing is much more prevalent among men in the United States than elsewhere, added Leyton—it is linked to “a broad fabric of tensions in the cultures that glorify violence.”

Primal: It is hard to say how much movies and television warp the society that they reflect. The line between art and pornography, like that between sex and violence, has become increasingly blurred. In an era of rising concern about violence against women, celluloid fantasies of female vengeance momentarily reverse the roles of sexual aggression. And in the age of safe sex, movies like Basic Instinct offer an adrenaline rush of voyeurism. The Hollywood psychopaths serve as convenient incarnations of evil. And in the new adult thrillers, the distinctions between heroes and villains begin to evaporate. Observed Douglas, discussing his predisposition towards dark roles: “My characters are tom between one side of society which is extremely violent and brutal and sexually explicit and primal—and another side which is supposed to be educated

and cultured and sophisticated.”

The two sides merge next week in the pomp and circumstance of the Oscars, where the award for best picture will emerge from nominees that explore themes of cannibalism (Silence of the Lambs), gangsterism (Bugsy), assassination (JFK) and rape ( The Prince of Tides). Only Beauty and the Beast, a cartoon fairy tale, sounds a chord of unadulterated optimism. In times of recession and anxiety, the big screen has traditionally served as an avenue of escape. Lately, it seems to be ushering moviegoers into a seductive darkness.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

VICTOR DWYER

DIANE TURBIDE