Film Studies: If only Sharon could get back to basics

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The Independent Culture

It has always seemed that Sharon Stone could look after herself. She had come up the hard way, she had paid her dues, she had waited her turn... The cliches go on and on, but what they really mean is that Ms Stone had to take a vast amount of exploitation, humiliation and plain dirt in getting to be a movie star. She had a tough, cheerful grin that seemed to understand her own pact with the devil, without asking for our sympathy - or rescue. Nevertheless, Basic Instinct 2 is enough to wipe the smile off anyone's face.

As a San Franciscan, I have tenderness for Ms Stone. The original Basic Instinct was set in our city - 14 years ago - and it was somehow comforting to think that such an insane, blazing sexpot, with an ice-pick waiting under her bed, was sleeping in our neighbourhood. She moved up here. She married Phil Bronstein, publisher of the city's newspaper. I have been dining in quiet restaurants on a Sunday night and seen her a few tables away, often with her mother. And she was beautiful.

I knew people who knew Sharon Stone and they reported that she was fun, grown up, unsentimental, fully aware of the journey she had made to stardom and of how quickly it could end in ashes after the age of 40. She worked for charity. She had a smashing dress sense. She had more humour than half-a-dozen actresses. She even gave one great performance, enough to show that she was more than just a beautiful woman. That role was Ginger in Martin Scorsese's Casino - a driven slut, a junkie and an addict for jewellery, money and pushing "fuck" and its variants into every sentence. There aren't many great performances by actresses in Scorsese's work, and Ginger looks better over the years. Neither that film nor her character were funny, but the hint was clear - that Sharon Stone was equipped to play smart comedy and eager to do it.

Alas, the American film industry has lost the habit of smart comedy - comedies of manners, in which class, sex, taste, money and style are all at play. At the same time, that kind of movie is central to how we remember Katharine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, Barbara Stanwyck and Carole Lombard. If only in terms of possible re-makes, you could imagine Sharon Stone doing My Man Godfrey, The Lady Eve, The Awful Truth or Bringing Up Baby. I suspect she knew that and did everything a career in manipulation had taught her to get such parts. But nothing came of it - nothing except Basic Instinct 2.

Of course, Sharon Stone is 48. To my eyes, she looks terrific, though the New York Times review of the new film noted that her face is a little more inclined now to take up set expressions. It is not as mobile as Ginger's face in Casino. And that can be the result of cosmetic work that seldom stands up to the camera's unkind scrutiny. She has some nude shots in the film, too, that are splendid, and which reveal that Catherine Trammell has put on no more than ounces since 1992, just as her writing style has gathered no sophistication. And there may be worse films than Basic Instinct 2 - just.

What's most to the point is that in 1992 - mounted on the different testosterone drives of Joe Eszterhas, Paul Verhoeven and Michael Douglas (major league hard-ons) - Basic Instinct was a trash masterpiece, deliriously inventive, hatefully uncorrect and exhilaratingly sure of its bad taste. Its great coup - the interrogation scene where Ms Stone crossed her legs - was an insolent confidence trick, sustained by wide-eyed protestations from Ms Stone herself that she'd been tricked. It was exactly what stupid, sex-mad consumers deserved and the film was a big hit.

It was a gamble not to be repeated. Michael Douglas - a respectable family man now - would have nothing to do with Basic Instinct 2. But Sharon Stone had nowhere else to turn. No one has the heart to laugh again at this joke; no one is going to see the film. Yet everyone now marks Sharon Stone down as the chump who enabled them to do the re-make. The sexual adventuress has been buried in a plot so full of trite deceits that nothing is real. The supporting cast was tough and earthy in 1992. Today it is feeble and pallid - in that connection it is a great sadness to see the excellent David Thewlis driven to this work.

And Sharon Stone, for the first time in her life, has been publicly disgraced. Now it is hard to see where she can go - except to the kind of roles Joan Collins played when television had soap operas. Is that what she was agonising over with her mother on those Sunday evenings?

'Basic Instinct 2' is on general release