Profile: Skinned alive by Hollywood: Kim Basinger, fading sex goddess and dollars 10m loser

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The Independent Online
A CIVILISED Hollywood producer, having just met Theda Bara, the first Vamp, then in her fifties, said: 'Take away the eye-shadow, the lip- paint and the provocation, what is a sex symbol? Just skin.' Flesh to be filled out by the imaginations of others. From Garbo sulking to Monroe wetting her lips in expectation, they were all in solitary confinement waiting for something to happen, and inside the Hollywood community (ha]) they were all equally loved and execrated.

In the sexscape of the the past 20 years, Kim Basinger fits the double role to perfection. Her body is her commodity, her face its price-tag. The body has been described as 'strapping', 'like one of Hitler's ads for Strength through Joy'. It is part Nordic and part Cherokee say Kim's bios: and, to be sure, voluptuous, satined, sizzling and many other such Hollywood words. As for the face, 'lopsided' will do: a big mouth, big teeth, lips as pouting as Mick Jagger's and, most of the time, a lot of hair. Hence the Hollywood boss who said that most people thought of her as 'a pig with big hair'.

You can make all sorts of feminist arguments about Hollywood goddesses, sexploitation and the like, but the truth is that in most cases skin and sex is all the ladies in question have to exploit, that the choice is theirs. Well, not if, like Kim, you've reached the dreaded 40, you've made a cock-up by allowing yourself to be caught by a verbal contract to star in a lousy film, you owe dollars 10m and you've got a tigerish lawyer and a cheapo independent film company gnawing at your vitals. They are insisting (a) that you shouldn't be allowed to start a family 'as a way of avoiding payments' to them and (b) you should be forced to make any film you're offered, however cheesy, to the same end. It might be asked how (a) could be enforced, but after what happened to Michael Jackson in the same state of California, don't wonder too hard. In America there are no limits

to litigation.

Luckily, a judge allowed Kim to go from receivership into liquidation, which allows her to dispose of her assets. But none of this is much help to her in trying to make the transition from skin and sex to art and mind, a switch most sex goddesses try to make when the bloom begins to fade and they're past the casting couch, the drink, the drugs, the failed marriage and the rest.

Kim Basinger plunged hell-bent into that traditional Hollywood routine. She was born one of five children in Athens, Georgia (1953), a place of clocks, classical antebellum homes and the university which swallows up the town. 'Too tall and uncomfortable with myself', the one thing she wanted, when at 17 she won a beauty contest, was 'to get out of there.' And get out she did. She became one of model- queen Eileen Ford's 'girls' in New York, where her wet and savage look almost but not quite made it: even then, she couldn't really obey - or make clothes obey her. She was too much, and there was too much of her.

The early Basinger was rough-hewn, awkward and prole. She did TV time on Starsky and Hutch and Charlie's Angels, but she never looked fetching; she looked liked a treasure ship you'd have to board and tow home. Her problem then and now (and sex symbols are doomed to stereotypes) is a lack of come-on. She did her skin-flicks and turned thousands on, but it wasn't because she really wanted it; it was because, like Everest, she was there. In a remarkably sympathetic recent portrait, Julie Burchill put her finger on the difficulty: Basinger was woman, not girl. That is, she was that illusion- destroying thing in a world of fantasy: she was real.

And sometimes she just couldn't act. There are plenty of examples of that, from The Natural with Robert Redford (1984) through My Stepmother is an Alien and Nadine, with Fool for Love and 9 1/2 Weeks along the way. These flicks were the natural result of posing in the buff for Playboy (which got her sacked from her Revlon contract) and doing a stint as a James Bond girl in Never Say Never Again - the ultimate humiliations for any woman with an aspiration to be human, or at least no genes to be anything else.

Along the via crucis of the Eighties, Kim made the usual stabs at having a normal life, if you call being in Batman and marrying into Hollywood (Ron Britton, son of Marilyn's last make-up man, Whitey Snyder; he still gets dollars 10,000 a month alimony) normal. Normal Hollywood ain't. That vacant look that you see on Marilyn's face, as you see it on Rita Hayworth's (except when dancing) and even on the young Elizabeth Taylor (who, remember, first made love to a horse), is the realisation that no one's really seeing you, they're seeing what they want to see in you: big bucks and sex.

Small wonder then that Kim Basinger's highs have to come off-screen: with coke ('It made me smarter'), with tantrums, with on-stage scenes, agent- fights and, as consorts, hunks and gooks: Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton among the former and Prince ('an interesting little man') among the latter. By the end of the decade she was in Impasseville, that strange hick town in which you're supposed to change careers as you might change trains.

Why would you change careers? Well, for one thing, ageing requires a greater effort to put out the same sexual energy, to feign the same bloom. For another, it was plain that for all her status as a mega-sexpot, Kim was not a corresponding hit at the box-office. And third, because a girl can only take so much of this sort of crap.

Here's where Kim tripped up. She wasn't ill-advised (she had some of the best agent-therapists in the business), but she had the kind of mulish small- town-girl in Tinseltown mind that couldn't face doing bigger (better?) things than she'd done: not until she was sure she could do them and still be the big, blowsy sexpot. Thus she turned down leads in three films that, had she made them and made them well, would have enabled her to make that great leap from android to actress: Sleeping with the Enemy, Basic Instinct and Sleepless in Seattle. Instead we got The Marrying Man (with current husband Alec Baldwin, who made his name in The Hunt for Red October), Too Hot to Handle and other flops.

Along the way she got involved in a nasty little property called Boxing Helena, directed by Jennifer Lynch, which was about a doctor who cut off a womans' arms and legs to create his own baby doll sex-toy. Kim made a verbal agreement that she would star in it, only to walk out of it four weeks before filming when her agent said all she would get for her part would be 'rotten tomatoes thrown at the screen'. It was a sick movie and, amputated of all but schlock, it bombed.

Poor Kim Basinger got caught up in a classic Hollywood insider story. The makers of this ampu-flick were a set of small-time independents for whom Kim's name was a guarantee of financing. When she pulled out, they lost half of it and sued her for the loss and damages. 'I wanted artistic nudity, not just gratuitous sex scenes,' she said. 'Once I was powerless and had to put up with being treated like a piece of meat; now I'm not and I don't'

While many a star has appeared on the basis of a verbal agreement, as many have reneged. A 'big' star, however, is not going to be sued; a big star may be needed again. Likewise, a smaller star such as Kim wouldn't renege on a big studio: 'It would be a cold day in Hell before Kim ever worked there again,' said one studio executive. Small star, small company, equals lawsuit.

Kim lost it big. It cost her more than she'd saved of her lifetime earnings. It also cost her a lot of reputation. The insiders of Hollywood were delighted with her comeuppance; the public, sick of Hollywood brats and the Reagan years, was the jury. She got hit in the pocket-book and in the ego. Ms Lynch said Kim could 'no longer play the cute babe and wonders what to do next'. A juror said loud enough for Kim to hear: 'She's no spring chicken.' A Hollywood lawyer pointed out that, 'Your person on the screen spills over into the courtroom.' Thus, a Clint Eastwood would be believed 'as opposed to someone who plays sluts'.

Retrenchment is on. America is PC. That's the route of today's slimmed- down androgynous waifs - Michelle Pfeiffer, Mia Farrow - all fey intellect and not much corpus, the kind of actresses who want to please Parisian critics. In the past two decades sex has become such a readily available commodity it no longer has to be connected to a would-be goddess like Kim.

But she too is into retrenchment. Her flamboyant on-the-set affair with Alec Baldwin - his chucking telephones at the walls, her sitting sprawled on a director's chair between takes with her parts showing and talking dirty ('Think of the dirtiest things you can think of,' reported one member of the crew) - turned into a mutual-support society known as the Save Kim Fund. The girl who bought a town outside her native Athens for dollars 20m (and didn't do very much to improve it) is learning to cut down on her monthly dollars 5,000 for clothes; she and Alec are starring in a remake of Steve McQueen's The Getaway to get some cash, and Kim's image (she who gave names to each and every plastic duck in her swimming pool) is being refurbished by her PC claim to be a lifelong vegetarian and a new campaign to take on the Brigitte Bardot animal-lover mantle: 'Furs are violence against animals, an inhuman crime in the name of elegance and beauty.'

We will be forgiven for thinking we've been here before: among the ageing beauty queens. But the devoted and dogged Alec counters that Kim is a very thoughtful, caring woman, 'a giver, not a taker'. It's probably half true. She gave of her beauty and took a long drubbing. 'Beauty,' she says, 'takes your ID bracelet away from you.' That's right. It makes you into something you don't recognise yourself as being. As she says to a bunch of bar- room boys in Katie - Portrait of a Centerfold Life, watching her body on film: 'Look at this] It's just skin] Skin]'

And it's tough that inside the skin there was always a woman trying to get out . . . but that's Hollywood.