When I first saw basic instinct in '92, I quite liked it, though not for political reasons; I simply found it irritating. The sexuality of it seemed like a joke, the sheer loudness of the dialogue‑delivered with spit-praying force‑made me imagine rampaging hamsters on speed tearing at each other with their tiny claws.
For the benefit of anyone who's been asleep for the last three years, Basic Instinct was a wildly successful box‑office thriller, about homicidal, sex‑crazed bisexual babes (Sharon Stone and Jeanne Tripplehorn) and a tortured detective who gets tied to the bedposts with an Hermès scarf (Michael Douglas). There's lots of naked flailing and murder and jokes. Feminists denounced the picture as misogynistic, gay groups protested it for portraying killer queers, and Camille Paglia praised its female lead as the ultimate postmodern heroine. Personally, I couldn't understand why anyone took the thing seriously enough to argue about it.
Then I saw it again on cable. I came in on the famous scene where Sharon Stone languorously taunts a gruntish bunch of cops with a glimpse of, as one of them puts it, her “magna cum laude pussy.” To my surprise I was too charmed by Stone’s snotty poise to change the channel. I saw something I hadn’t noticed before; she had a lightness, a subtle humor that gave her real grace, which was interesting in contrast to the movie’s feverish pitch. The loudness of it struck me differently as well. Its garish broad strokes reminded me of Kabuki: Simple and static on the surface, the cartoony form is an abstract of violence, desperation, and sexual terror presented with the ridiculous vulgarity and ridiculous elegance of a good joke. My hamsters‑on‑speed take still felt accurate, but in a different way: The film had an emotional tone like that of a person violently divorced from his own nature and hyped up by compulsions akin to synthetic drugs, trying to scratch and claw his way back to some state of true feeling. Like it or not, it is a grotesque, comic, and accurate reflection of a particularly painful human condition‑one that, for my money, is pretty common these days. Basic Instinct may be a cartoon, but it's an awfully good one.
This piece of gargantua was written by a Hollywood phenomenon named Joe Eszterhas, a fellow Details, once referred to as "Hollywood's highest paid spiritually transmitted disease.” He wrote the script on spec (without a development deal, no money up front), and sold it for $3 million, making him the highest paid screenwriter in movie history‑on top of which, a recent deal with Savoy Pictures makes him the first scriptwriter to get a percentage of all gross revenue collected from movies he writes. And if that's not enough, he publicly blew off his former agent, the notoriously ruthless Mike Ovitz, and lived to pontificate. "Part of the reason there are so many bad movies out there is exactly because screenwriters spend their time hustling ideas, tying to make deals' he said on the Today show in 1992. "[They're] trying to con studios into ideas instead of sitting down and writing what they believe in.”
As the Details tagline suggests, his monstrous success has made him an object of admiration, resentment, and fascination. In articles with headlines like "Gonzo Screenwriter," "Mighty Joe Eszterhas," or "Bucks and Blonds‑Joe Eszterhas Lives the Big Dream' everyone from The New York Times to GQ has expended brain cells on how his ascension came to be, sometimes lauding his grit, sometimes dismissing him as a sellout. When his twenty‑four‑year‑old marriage blew apart in a complicated quadrangle involving Sharon Stone, Bill MacDonald (producer of Sliver) and MacDonald's wife, Naomi, the media pounced on the story as if such a thing had never happened before. (Stone has long since dumped MacDonald, while Eszterhas divorced his wife and married the former Mrs. MacDonald, a warm, intellectually engaging woman fourteen years his junior. Bucks and blonds indeed.)
Meanwhile, Eszterhas chugs away, writing what he believes in. In the hopper are Foreplay, which is about rock stars and serial rulers; Gangland, about John Gotti; Jade, about a housewife/call girl; and, due out this fall, Showgirls, an extravagant production about Las Vegas dancers for which he got $3.2 million. Showgirls, which is directed by Paul (Basic Instinct) Verhoeven, is the story of Nomi, a nineteen-year‑old girl (newcomer Elizabeth Berkley) who hitchhikes to Las Vegas and finds work lap dancing‑that is, sitting naked on men's laps and wriggling around as though she’s having sex with them. She wants to become the star of a topless revue and ruthlessly schemes to supplant a headliner named Cristal (Gina Gershon). According to the advance word, there's slithering lap dances aplenty, a tad of bisexuality, a rape, an S&M number, and wall‑to‑wall nudity. Such subject matter will surely support the conventional wisdom that Eszterhas, for all his artistic buffing and puffing, is merely the hot‑button meister of the moment.
Maybe he is. However, as Eszterhas is quick to remind me, he has been writing scripts since 1974, and prior to Basic Instinct, none of them depended on sex to move their plots forward. Nor have they been exploitatively violent. Indeed, Basic Instinct, his ninth picture, is the first one with a screaming titillation factor. His other projects have included Flashdance, Jagged Edge, Music Box, and Betrayed. He also wrote Big Shots, a tough‑sweet comic adventure about two eleven‑year‑old boys. Whatever you think of these pictures, they do show range as well as a robust pop sensibility. Besides, even if Eszterhas wrote exclusively about sex and violence, that would not be enough to explain his extraordinary success; lots of Hollywood films are saturated in sex and violence. In GQ one writer suggested that his "overweening persona," that is, the fact that he comes across like a dandified Hell's Angel with a penchant for dramatic public feuds, is a reason he can "turn a bad picture into a bona fide event." But most of the people who see his movies don't know or care about his personal style. I suspect that the reason is deeper than button pushing or hype, that Eszterhas has an almost unconscious genius for articulating big chunks of emotional and cultural conflict and throwing them up on the screen in broad, dramatic forms that no one could fail to see, and that are guaranteed to whack your nervous system good and hard. One might say that is button pushing. Well, if so, it's button pushing as an art form.
Eszterhas says that what he writes "depends on this twisted little person inside me. I couldn't tell you why in '86 I wrote Big Shots or why in '90 I wrote Basic Instinct… I don't know exactly where that little person is coming from. I suspect that he or she is coming from a lot of different places.”
I don't doubt it. In most of Eszterhas's more successful pictures thus far, however, there is a strong thematic current. In Jagged Edge, Betrayed, Music Box, Basic Instinct, and Sliver, he presents relationships or situations that appear to be reliable and loving, or at least normal, and that ultimately reek of betrayal, violence, and craziness. Upstanding citizens‑therapists, for Chrissake‑may be sex killers, the cute boy upstairs is a megalomaniacal voyeur, a likable family man is a racist assassin, his lover is an FBI informant, and Dad turns out to have been a Nazi torturer during the war. The weakness in the motif is that the craziness and so on doesn't seem connected to anything; it's as if it just popped out of the closet to scare you. This isn't very interesting from an artistic point of view; however, even in its theatricality, it's realistic in the deepest and most obvious way.
"I've always been fascinated by the notion that no matter how intimate we become with each other, we remain strangers on some level," Eszterhas says. "It's not necessarily a negative thing, but in certain situations those parts that remain unknown to us can become dangerous. And it's true, I'm fascinated by that"
Eszterhas is a stocky, bulky guy with a broad wrinkled face that might be awfully jolly if he looked out of it less intently. His voice and manner are an interesting combination of coarse and very refined, he seems simple and intellectual at once. I get the sense that he lives primarily through his instincts and emotions‑although perhaps not very comfortably. He's both very masculine and impish, and those qualities are apparent in the way he relates to his new wife, Naomi. At his request she sits with him through most of the interview, not saying much, but clearly tracking the conversation.
I do find his "dangerous, unknown parts" remark both intellectual and simple‑too simple. But I have to admit that many relationships are one way on the surface and quite another underneath, and when no one admits the contradiction, such relationships are pretty painful. Joe Eszterhas has experienced this perhaps more dramatically than most of us; his mother, with whom he was very close, was a schizophrenic who would stop speaking to him from one day to the next, once ignoring him completely for two months. Her illness came and went in an unpredictable way‑sometimes she was present and loving, other times she'd be running around pulling out radio cords and stopping up the windows with cement so that enemy rays wouldn't seep in. The family had just recently immigrated from Hungary at the onset of the illness, and the mother spoke no English, which made it hard to get treatment; they couldn't find a psychiatrist who spoke Hungarian. For her son, the inexplicable changes must have seemed like something horrible that just, wall, popped out of a closet. Eszterhas speaks of his mother as "a gentle, almost innocent, educated woman who had to live through six years of refugee camps where her gentleness and gentility were violate" But the combination of innocence and emotional violence must have been particularly difficult for a child to make sense of: "It was certainly traumatic," he says. "The violence of her withdrawal from me was... had she hit me, it would have been easier."
All children feel the contrast between what is overtly expressed and what is hidden very acutely‑I remember being consistently bewildered and sometimes frightened by the lack of connection between what was presented to me and what I could sense beneath the presentation. I think that experience is common even for children of sane and loving parents‑which is perhaps why characters like the vicious racist family man in Betrayed or the ex‑Nazi father in Music Box affect us whether or not we totally believe in the films.
In Basic Instinct, this dynamic is much more dramatic than in the other films, as well as more comedic. The violence in the other movies is treated, pretty typically, as a sinister aberration. In Basic Instinct, it's almost a given. Running underneath the tarted‑up whodunit is a swift‑moving emotional current‑and in the ambiance of that current, violence and violation equals play. In the end, when Sharon Stone reaches for the ice pick under the bed, then changes her mind and kisses Michael Douglas instead, an uneasy truce has been reached‑which in the movie's terms is not horrible, but matter‑of‑fact.
Ezsterhas likes that interpretation better than those of a more straight‑ahead feminist variety; he says he intended the movie to be almost campy. He was disappointed, he says, even hurt when feminist critics attacked the movie as misogynistic. “My intention was to do a total flip of my other movies where women were manipulated by men, a movie where you've got a smart, shrewd woman who's able to do this whole game to a cynical, worldly, street‑smart man. And that somehow got lost.” He goes on to denounce political correctness with what almost amounts to counter‑PC. about artistic expression and so on.
As far as that goes, I agree with him. I wouldn't call Sharon Stone's ice pick-wielding sex thang feminist heroism, but enjoy one tiny scene between her and her girlfriend (Leilani Sarelle). In it, Michael Douglas is walking through a nightclub looking for Stone. It's Hollywood's idea of decadence, so everybody's gyrating, and queers are making out while on the soundtrack an ominous disco cacophany is overlaid with a glandular woman voice, ululating at intervals. Douglas spots Sarelle and follows her into the men's bathroom, where more godless creatures are making out. She opens a stall door to reveal Stone sitting fully clothed on a toilet and snorting coke. The soundtrack ululates again, and Sarelle straddles Stone as if she's gunning a motorcycle. Stone smiles greedily. The soundtrack lets loose another high, nasty caterwaul as Stone spots Douglas, smirks, and kicks the door shut in his face. The scene is a glorification of pure female carnality, and for me it has more serious cunt energy than Stone's famous flashing scene. It's not about real women in a flesh‑and‑blood sense ‑it's not trying to be- but it does refer to one aspect of real female identity, albeit outsized and glamorized, in a fun and playful way.
I'll bet there'll be plenty of such moments in Showgirls. Eszterhas says that when he and Paul Verhoeven went to Las Vegas to see the lap dancers, he was struck by their almost giddy sense of power. “They could touch the men all they wanted and the men couldn't touch them at all,” he says. "The power was mostly on their side and they were almost tickled by it."
As he talks, I again get the impression of a feisty imp; he speaks as if he's not only identifying with the girls, but is expressing some part of himself through them, perhaps a part he can't bring out in a male character. Indeed, whether you like them or not, most of his lead characters have been women. "I have more fun with female characters,” he says. "On a personal level, I like women much more than I like men. In all‑male company I'm very bored and I want to get out of there. Men are held in, they're not in touch with their instincts."
Such sentiment will probably not mollify the many women‑feminist and otherwise‑who would say that the power he sees in vulnerable young women is ultimately an illusion and that to validate that illusion is exploitative and dishonest. Well, but that depends entirely on the situation. I was a stripper for two years, twenty years ago, and I certainly experienced a very pleasing kind of power in that environment. True, it was superficial, but it was nonetheless an almost entirely benign experience for me. If Showgirls portrays that kind of experience, I haven't got a problem with it.
Still, I don't completely dismiss feminist complaints as P.C. Mrs. Grundyism. I think some women were offended by Basic Instinct not because of its sexy and evil female characters, but because Sharon Stone's killer queen is so ethereal, so refined, so antiseptic, she's like a mean‑ass Barbie doll. Her beauty is so stylized, it's as if everything gross, weak, ugly, or even just emotional has been stripped from her. So where does all her passion and violence come from? Violent sexuality is connected to deep-down gut feelings and those feelings aren't always a pretty sight; they're definitely not about poise and control. Presenting this Apollonian creature as a sex beast seems phony, like trying to get the sizzle of the deep-gut feelings without giving them their due. And women find this kind of phoniness irritating. I ask Eszterhas what he thinks about that opinion. "I don't know," he says. "It's an interesting point?' Well, if he doesn't know, Showgirls could easily strike the same false note if it presents "sex work" only in its most superficial and titillating aspects.
Showgirls: Power games.
I'm reminded somehow of the way Eszterhas characters often banter with each other about game playing. "You like to play games, don't you?" is a line in both Jagged Edge and Basic Instinct; and in Sliver the young voyeur (Billy Baldwin) charms Sharon Stone with talk of illicit games. "Games make life fun," Eszterhas says, "teasing, sexual, and intellectual games stop us from getting bored. Most people have that missing from their lives and it's a shame." I don't know about that. It seems to me that more people know how to play games than know how to stop playing them. I agree that games can be fun. But they're also one‑dimensional. Ezsterhas may understand the heady charge of power games that a teenage lap dancer can experience, but I wonder if he also understands the experience of confusion and humiliation she might also have. Not as a brutal and dramatic denouement, but as a mundane experience of pain. He may know about how the scaly thing comes jumping out of the closet, but I wonder what would happen if he decided to go into the closet and take a closer look.
Occasionally, he has. There is a striking moment in Betrayed when the neo‑Nazi militiaman (Tom Berenger) is lying in bed with his lover (Debra Winger), knowing that she's an FBI informant intent on trapping him. He has plenty of opportunity to kill her, but he can't because he needs to believe in the passion he's experienced with her. He is completely ensnared in compulsive hatreds, yet he so longs for real feeling that he'll destroy himself to preserve even an illusion of it‑and that shows on Berenger's face. This tension between compulsion and feeling is the best thing in Eszterhas's work; even Basic Instinct's manic compulsivity is like a desperate attempt to shock itself into feeling, and that underlying sense of desperation is what gives the movie a charge.
I asked Esztethas about something he'd once said about not wanting to know himself too well. "I trust that twisted little person inside," he says. "And I wouldn't want to define that person too exactly in my own mind. It's a very fragile process and I wouldn't want to know it too well.” My first reaction was to think, Well, if you don't want to truly know yourself, of course you're not going to really know anybody else. And the more you refuse to look, the scarier those "unknown parts" will become. If you ever did take a better look, your work might be more real.
Then I thought No, that's not fair. Realness, after all, has a lot of different faces. Realness includes games and compulsions and one‑dimensionality and things jumping out of the closet. Reality includes the superficial, and the superficial often reflects the depths in baroque and interesting ways.
At one point during our conversation, Eszterhas took umbrage when I referred to Roman Polanski's Bitter Moon as if it were the director's project entirely, not giving the writer enough credit "You're a writer," he scolded, "and you should know better." "But," I said, "Roman Polanski wrote Bitter Moon.” There was a pause, and his wife said, "Good answer." Eszterhas met my eyes and gave me a smile that was so deeply warm, it was startling. I smiled back and there was a burst of feeling between us. It wasn't flirtatious, it was more a small moment of recognition and mutual delight; a full hit of the impish playfulness I'd sensed before. I got a tiny whiff of what it was like in his world‑and I was surprised at how much fun it was.
Mary Gaitskill is the author of Bad Behavior and Two Girls, Fat and Thin.