A clueless 'Basic Instinct' glorifies male virility, power while denigrating women

March 22, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

It's an irony far too exquisite and far too subtle for the makers of "Basic Instinct" to have managed on their own, since they manage no other ironies: The homosexual community is outraged at the film for its negative portrayals of lesbian women as ice-pick wielding murderers.

What is so odd about this is the movie's distance from anything remotely authentic about homosexual life or culture and the filmmakers' basic lack of interest in it. They can't begin to imagine such a thing and have no clue how to represent it. Their "assault" on homosexuals is clearly a smoke screen; it only disguises the true agenda of the film.

Instead, the basic instinct that "Basic Instinct" celebrates is men's hatred of women; it is the most arrogantly misogynistic film to come down the pike since the outlaw oeuvre of Sam Peckinpah, where raped women repeatedly learned to love their violators. In Peckinpah's defense, he was a great American film artist if a sick, sick puppy; and he was working before feminism had done much to reinvent the way men could think about women.

The makers of "Basic Instinct," which opened last Friday, aren't artists by a long shot; and, more disturbing, they haven't got ignorance as an excuse. Before it's anything else and after it's everything else, it's the prime mover in what Susan Faludi has called the feminist backlash, an expression of fear and terror toward women, particularly now as they are beginning to assume power in society. Writer Joe Eszterhas, star Michael Douglas, director Paul Verhoeven: These boys are really scared. (What's the line about men of quality not being frightened of women's equality?)

In fact, "Basic Instinct" is fundamentally a $50-million dramatization of the oldest and ugliest of prejudices that men unleash in locker rooms about the "difficult" women in their lives: What she needs, they'll say, and I can't pretend I've never said it myself or at least felt it, is a good ----. A good ---- will straighten her out.

The last time I can recall such a thesis being advanced in a mainstream movie was in the benighted year of 1967, so long ago that Sean Connery was still playing James Bond, and as James Bond, an application of his magic powers "cured" Honor Blackman (as "Pussy Galore") from her lesbianism and turned her straight and patriotic to boot. The movie was "Goldfinger," but the golden body part it celebrated certainly wasn't a finger. As absurd as the conceit was, at least Connery had the dark and ruthless magnetism to make such a thing believable . . . but Michael Douglas?

"Basic Instinct" is an encomium to masculine power, and it makes a disturbing connection between sexual power and the willingness to deploy a firearm haphazardly.

Douglas is a hotshot cop who has beaten a rap in which he accidentally -- and clearly without remorse -- shot two "tourists." Thus when he's assigned to investigate the brutal ice-pick slaying of an ex-rocker whose body is found splayed and bound on a posh bed, punctured a half-dozen times by an ice pick (note the crude phallic symbolism in the choice of murder weapon), his presence and his history sexually excites the twisted libido of ace suspect Sharon Stone. She likes boys who kill. He responds to her crude come-ons, all of them choreographed as rawly as the set-up scene in a classic stag movie.

This connection has its ramifications: First, it inflames jealousy in Douglas's ex-girlfriend, a beautiful police psychologist (believe that if you will!), and it also ticks off Stone's beautiful female lover. And just to make things interesting and sink the plot into hopeless murk is the fact that Stone and the psychologist once had an affair!

Consider: There are three women in "Basic Instinct" and each is bisexual, treacherous and violent, and each pines for the Douglas magic as the cure-all. (He should have payed them $15 million to play the part!) Male sexuality is held out as the world's most potent vitamin: A shot of vitamin D-for-Douglas can make them feel good all over.

Of course, such nonsense only remains credible in a world utterly bereft of reality, which is why so much of "Basic Instinct" seems to take place in other movies, and why the dialogue has a maddening banality to it, as artificial and unconvincing as the clean part of dirty movies. In other words, it's simply marking time to get to the hot stuff. (On video, this baby will be the champion fast-forward item of the '90s.)

It is therefore both appropriate and inevitable that its vision of "bisexuality" or "lesbianism" has nothing to do with reality. Rather, it's the "lesbianism" of pornography.

It may surprise some readers, but the truth is lesbianism is a

constant motif in heterosexual, male-oriented pornography. In fact a whole subgenre of "girl-girl" tapes may be found in any adult section of any mom and pop video store in America.

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