Acting on her instincts

When Sharon Stone raised $1m in Davos last week, she set the seal on her new role as a charity cheerleader. David Usborne unravels a story of redemption, Hollywood-style
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The Independent Culture
The Celebrity Economic Forum in Davos is over and the Celebrity Executive Officers have packed up the mountain sunblock and rabbit-fur jackets and returned to their homes, confident they have put our planet back on track. Thank you Richard Gere, Angelina Jolie - and, especially, thank you Sharon Stone.

We all know the society we live in, where celluloid fame, however shallow, captures the imagination in the way any amount of clout in the real world of corporations and governments (all right, last week's shindig was actually the World Economic Forum) cannot rival. Gordon Brown has the power of the Treasury behind him when he demands more aid for Africa but - let's face it - he doesn't quite have the goods.

Not like Stone, anyway. She stole the show in Davos when she hijacked a session on saving children in Africa from malaria. The actress, who burst on to the world stage with her portrayal of a sexy, leg-crossing (more of this in a moment) murderess in the hit 1992 film Basic Instinct, had been listening to the President of Tanzania, Benjamin Mkapa. He was appealing to the attendees to raise money to buy mosquito nets for his nation's children when she decided to take matters into her own hands.

Standing up, she said: "I'm Sharon Stone. I was particularly moved by President Mkapa and by his urgent need of today, so if you don't mind, I would like to offer you $10,000 to help you buy some nets today. Would anyone else like to be on a team with me and stand up and offer some money?"

The chairman of the meeting, the US Senator Bill Frist, asked her to sit. Obviously, the senator didn't know who he was dealing with. One by one, the suited businessmen rose and made pledges. Five minutes later, Frist spoke again: "Sharon, you got $1m already." That's pounds 530,000.

To say that Stone, 47, "has the goods" might sound a little loaded. It is time to revisit that leg-crossing thing. As anyone with even the vaguest interest in Hollywood will remember, there's a scene in Basic Instinct, which also stars Michael Douglas as a police detective with carnal aspirations, in which Stone swings open her lower limbs to reveal that, well, she wasn't wearing underwear. They called it the Stone pussy-shot.

Even the briefest of episodes can set the course of a star's reputation for a long time. For years, Stone was cast as a siren with powers of seduction to make even the cockiest man tremble. It did not help that with her blonde hair, slim 5ft 8in frame and tiger eyes, she is preternaturally beautiful. And she seemed disinclined to soften her image, uttering such memorable aphorisms as: "I've got the biggest balls in Hollywood," and: "If you have a vagina and an attitude in this town, that's a lethal combination."

Stone, a former McDonald's waitress who was a model and Miss Pennsylvania before knocking on Hollywood's door (her break came with a small part in the 1980 Woody Allen comedy Stardust Memories), was never interested in playing the demure studio superstar. The late Katharine Hepburn, who had her own brazen years, put her down hardest: "It's a new low for actresses when you have to wonder what's between her ears instead of her legs," she snarled after Basic Instinct hit the screens.

If anything, Stone's image dived further in the Nineties. She did a string of awful movies, with the exception of Martin Scorsese's Casino with Robert De Niro, for which she was Oscar-nominated. There was the incident when an ex-boyfriend (two marriages had already ended by then) told reporters that she was the "Antichrist" and, in turn, she told of how kissing another

ex-lover had been akin to sucking mud. Worse was to come when the man who wrote the Basic Instinct screenplay, Joe Eszterhas, scandalised Hollywood with two semi-fictional novels that portrayed Stone as a pot-smoking, man-devouring, super-diva monster. At this point, you'd imagine that any PR representative - and all the studios - would have given up on her.

So where, you may wonder, did this humanity in Stone come from, surfacing so surprisingly in Switzerland last weekend? In fact, Stone has been deeply involved with America's largest charity for Aids and HIV research, Amfar, for nearly 20 years. And then, there is this: Stone has gone through a great deal in her private life in recent years. A little personal hell, as she would tell you, can make a person mellow.

She changed course most sharply in 1998, when she left Los Angeles as the new wife of the San Francisco newspaper executive Phil Bronstein. They divorced after five years, but their time together was eventful. They adopted a baby, Roan, now five. Bronstein's foot was savaged by a hungry Komodo dragon at the San Francisco Zoo (they had to reattach tendons and rebuild a toe). But most important, in late September 2001, Stone almost died when doctors discovered that she had a leaking artery in her head and embarked on highly risky brain surgery to save her.

"It was almost as if I was shot," she recalled recently of the sudden headache that signalled the problem. "I had two unbelievably painful shots in the left side of my head that physically knocked me over on to the couch. I called Phil and said, `I think I've had a stroke.' I knew something was terribly wrong. I was haemorrhaging into my brain for 11 days before they found out what was going on. I was very lucky to have sustained so little damage."

In interviews since, most recently in Rolling Stone, the actress has been at pains to explain how her brush with death - she recalls losing consciousness and feeling as if she was rising into a "vortex of white light" - changed her perspective on everything. "When I think about how I was before, I have no idea, because everything for me is new now. When my brain exploded; oh, God, it was the best thing that happened to me. A wonderful, wonderful, wonderful thing. I have such a better life now," she told the music magazine. She added: "I thought about new ways I could approach myself, and what I did was, I found my humanity."

There are limits to all personal conversions, of course. Fans of the old Stone, who shares custody of her son with Bronstein, will be relieved to have heard the news last month that, after more than a decade of trying, she is on track to star in a sequel to the movie that made her so famous. It will, simply, be called Basic Instinct 2 and, instead of Douglas, it will display the talents of the British actor David Morrissey.

In the meantime, she seems to be making good on her resolution to live a life less bitchy, more giving. A few months ago, she found herself at a public auction in Los Angeles raising money for Project Angel Foods, a charity that supplies free meals to people with HIV and Aids. In return for a pledge of $50,000, she stood on stage and gave the bidder, another woman, something special for her money. She kissed her (well, she was bisexual in Basic Instinct) full on the lips for what was a carefully recorded 45 seconds. Earlier this year, she used the internet to become an ordained minister with the authority to preside over marriages. She has already married two of her friends in a ceremony at her Hollywood Hills home, with Jack Nicholson as a witness.

The episode in Davos does not make her Saint Sharon, of course. In fact, even the money she raised, albeit in just five minutes, will barely make a dent in the needs of Tanzania and other African countries, which are seeking $550m for mosquito nets alone. Tony Blair said on Thursday that Britain would donate $85m for bed nets to fight malaria.

But Davos was a start. And if Stone is serious about taking on such a role, she can seek advice from another screen siren, Angelina Jolie, who has said that her work as a goodwill ambassador for the UN brings her more satisfaction than acting.

Jolie, who was in Davos with Stone, was encouraging - up to a point. She described Stone's gesture as "wonderful" - it certainly caught the attention of the world's press - but cautioned that film or rock stars have to be careful in trying to wave a magic wand over the world's poor. "I think you can do damage," Jolie said. "Celebrities have a responsibility to know absolutely what they're talking about, and to be in it for the long run."

Stone may or may not be in it for the long run, and who knows what turn her reputation may take after Basic Instinct 2. But, in Davos, she eclipsed all the suits and did a thing that surely was good. And, in villages across Tanzania at least, she may attain a new kind of fame that will have nothing to do with her legs and what is between them.

CELEBRITY GIVERS:

THE A-LIST

Stone is among many generous actors who have proved that beauty (even in Hollywood) is more than skin-deep.

Paul Newman jointly founded "Newman's Own" food products in 1982. It gives all its after-tax profits to charity. Since the formation, Newman has donated more than $150m to thousands of charities, most notably The Hole In The Wall Gang Camp, which cares for children suffering from cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.

Elizabeth Taylor is not one to do anything half-heartedly. The Founding National Chairman of the American Foundation for Aids Research (amfAR), she was one of the first celebrities to voice her support for Aids sufferers. In 1993, she created the Elizabeth Taylor Foundation for Aids. By 1999 she had helped raise an estimated $50m to help fight the disease.

Jane Fonda has long been a political advocate determined to speak her mind. From supporting the Black Panthers to speaking out in favour of women's rights and against the Vietnam War, Fonda has been willing to risk her reputation to fight for causes in which she believes. In March 2001, she donated $12.5m to Harvard University's School of Education, the largest amount ever received by the school.

Sandra Bullock has also been doing her bit. Recently she donated $1m to help survivors of the Asian tsunami, the same amount she gave to the Red Cross after the September 11 attacks.

Katherine Nicholls

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