Basic Instinct (1992): Revisiting Paul Verhoeven’s Controversial Erotic Thriller

Though a blockbuster, made for a budget of $50 million and grossing over $350 million in the US alone, Basic Instinct stirred outrage and controversy–albeit for different reassons– while in production, and especially after its theatrical release, in March of 1992.

The film generated controversy due to its overt sexuality and graphic depiction of violence.

During principal photography, in San Francisco, the film was protested by gay rights activists who felt that the film followed a pattern of negative depiction of homosexuals in film. Members of the lesbian and bisexual activist group LABIA protested against the film on its opening night. Others also picketed theatres to dissuade people from attending screenings, carrying signs saying “Kiss My Ice Pick”, “Hollywood Promotes Anti-Gay Violence” and “Catherine Did It!”/”Save Your Money—The Bisexual Did It”.

Director Verhoeven himself defended the groups’ right to protest, however he criticized the disruptions they caused, saying “fascism is not in raising your voice; the fascism is in not accepting the no.”

Influential film critic Roger Ebert mentioned the controversy in his review, saying “As for the allegedly offensive homosexual characters: The movie’s protesters might take note of the fact that this film’s heterosexuals, starting with Douglas, are equally offensive. Still, there is a point to be made about Hollywood’s unremitting insistence on typecasting homosexuals—particularly lesbians—as twisted and evil.”

Feminist scholar-author Camille Paglia denounced gay activist and feminist protests against Basic Instinct, and called Sharon Stone’s performance “one of the great performances by a woman in screen history”.

The film was also widely criticized for glamorizing cigarette smoking. Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas was later diagnosed with throat cancer and publicly apologized for glamorizing smoking in his films.