MOVIES : The Brazen Instincts of Sharon Stone : Not afraid to assert herself, she shed a decade’s worth of bimbo roles by going for the part that others shunned--the bisexual murder suspect in Verhoeven’s thriller
She leans forward, tucking her Dutch-boy blond hair behind her ears, peering at a silver-framed photograph.
The woman all Hollywood is watching, an actress who wrenched free of a decade’s worth of bimbo roles to win the lead in one of year’s most controversial films--”Basic Instinct,” director Paul Verhoeven’s upcoming thriller--is raptly studying a picture of comedian Richard Lewis inexplicably displayed in the lobby of Hollywood’s St. James’s Club.
She spends a minute, a long minute, tilting her head at the 8x10 glossy, until you start to wonder what exactly Stone is seeing. This is, after all, the same Sunset Boulevard club whose over-the-top hipness quotient appeals to aging British rock stars and Japanese businessmen, where two years ago Stone shot her soft-core Playboy spread--the largest billboard the actress could find for her own personals ad. If anyone should be turning heads, it should be Stone.
But the time she has spent studying the photograph is just long enough to suggest that the 33-year-old actress, a former art student and Eileen Ford model, has posed herself--a thought that is all but cemented a few minutes later in the St. James’s “Members Only” dining room where Stone halts in front of several photographs of Salvador Dali, leaving her pony-tailed waitress en pointe awaiting the inevitable Evian and black coffee order.
“Nice,” she finally murmurs, settling in at a corner table, shaking off her private reveries. No one has yet dubbed Stone the thinking man’s sex symbol. However, she is considered the latest in a long line of actresses--Jane Fonda, Jessica Lange, Michelle Pfeiffer, Melanie Griffith, among others--to haul themselves from the ashes of their early careers.
Her debut was promising. She was an eager acting student and bored model when Woody Allen picked Stone out of a casting lineup to play a shiksa French-kissing a window pane in “Stardust Memories.” She followed that with a deft parody of Cybill Shepherd in Michael Apted’s 1984 comedy “Irreconcilable Differences” and a savvy turn as Robert Mitchum’s randy daughter-in-law in the TV miniseries, “War and Remembrance.”
But such performances were not sufficient ballast to prevent Stone from veering into a career swamp playing the blond love interest in such short-lived films as “Action Jackson,” “Police Academy IV,” “King Solomon’s Mines” and “Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold,” among others. The latter two movies, which Stone dubbed the dreaded “African pictures,” not only cost the actress her 22-month marriage to producer Michael Greenburg but earned her a reputation as a graduate of the Sean Young charm school. Rumors flew that Stone was so despised on the set of “Allan Quatermain,” that prior to her shooting a bathing scene, some crew members urinated into the water.
It was not until Stone landed the role of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s kick-boxing wife in the 1990 “Total Recall”--and turned in an eye-catching performance in a role that could have been merely pugilistic--that the actress began to right her career. It is a position Stone is expected to solidify when “Basic Instinct,” which also stars Michael Douglas, opens this week. It will be her first performance since posing for Playboy, and already the actress has earned good advance word-of-mouth for her performance as Catherine Tramell, a bisexual author with a fondness for ice picks and exhibitionism.
She has also managed to remain above the fray that has dogged the film since Joe Eszterhas’ script fetched an astonishing $3 million in a bidding war in 1990. Disputes over the movie’s sexual explicitness between Irwin Winkler, the film’s producer, and director Verhoeven led to Winkler’s departure. That was followed by protests during the film’s shoot last spring in San Francisco, when gay activists objected to the film’s depiction of lesbian killers. Last month, the Motion Picture Assn. of America’s classification and rating board warned Verhoeven that an early cut of “Basic Instinct” would receive an NC-17 rating. Verhoeven--at the insistence of Carolco, which produced the $40-million film and TriStar, the distributor--recut the movie, eliminating 47 seconds for its current R rating.
That Stone has emerged from the controversy not only relatively unscathed but with her resume resuscitated, has given rise to the opinion that if the actress does not hail from the Meryl Streep talent pool, she does belong to the school of calculated moves, a self-made survivor not unlike such other loved-hated members of the industry as Barbra Streisand and Joel Silver--successes despite the criticism.
“She has a brazenness and a belief in her own starlet quality,” says one director who worked with the actress. “Sharon has completely created herself.”
And Stone has not been shy about publicly footnoting her own accomplishments. Even before a frame of “Basic Instinct” had been screened, the actress, already known as a flamboyant and outspoken self-promoter, began showing up on the cover of nearly half a dozen magazines. She scoffed at the many A-list actress who passed on the film by growling into a reporter’s microphone, “Be afraid, don’t turn on the juice. I’ll do it.” And on this homestretch interview, Stone leans over her bottled water with this update: “If you have a vagina and a point-of-view, that’s a deadly combination.”
In her Talbot’s-pert hairdo and cheerleader’s grin offset by a pair of lacquered-on leather pants and Mick Jagger-esque silk shirt opened to a sternum startlingly visible even by the St. James’ standards, Stone spends much of the morning’s conversation attempting to tread the fine line she has drawn for herself.
She says she has been misunderstood, that beneath her former beauty queen physique beats the heart of a feminist who misperceived the depth’s of Hollywood’s sexism. Yet she dismisses questions about exploitation in “Basic Instinct” with, “like Michael’s character is a good guy?” and laughingly adds, “even with the R rating, it still has tons of sensationalism.” She recites questions from her high school “Mensa test”--”We had to list the states and their capitals, alphabetize them and do it to a stopwatch”--as well as the particulars of one of her college English papers. “I wrote about the chair I had sat on all semester,” she says, her voice the temperature of a hot tub. “I got an A.”
More personal subjects, such as why an honor student enrolled in college on a writing scholarship with the career goal of becoming a lawyer would drop out to model, Stone waves off with “my greed and avarice. I was making $500 a day.”
And finally this: “I posed for Playboy because everybody said I wasn’t sexy.”
“I don’t think I was reconciled with my superficial appearance until now. I didn’t have a clue that I impacted people as a life-size Barbie.”
She was so convinced she would never get the part she didn’t even read the script. One look at a pirated copy of the Eszterhas screenplay about a millionaire bisexual murder suspect engaged in an obsessive affair with a trigger-happy San Francisco detective and Stone tossed it atop her refrigerator. They’ll never pick me, she thought, I can’t put myself through this again.
She had played the also-ran so often--”Batman,” “Havana,” “Dick Tracy,”--that every time her manager, Chuck Binder, called after an audition, she was braced for the runner’s-up litany: “What a heck of a gal, but. . . .” Stone figured that “Basic Instinct,” with that Guinness record-breaking script, co-star Douglas and director Verhoeven fresh from “Total Recall,” looked to be no different. And she was right.
“In the beginning the names that came up were Michelle Pfeiffer, Julia Roberts, Geena Davis,” explains Verhoeven, the Dutch-born director who still speaks in heavily accented English. “It was like a package. You don’t think character, you think names. ‘Who would work with Michael Douglas?’ We had seen him with Kathleen Turner and Glenn Close. Now who?” Stone, says Verhoeven, didn’t make the cut. “Basically her name wasn’t good enough.”
She decided to ambush the director into testing her. She arrived at a looping session of the airplane version of “Total Recall” dressed like Catherine Tramell--”French twist, a Grace Kelly suit, the works,” says Stone. “The Eszterhas script hadn’t gone to a bidding war for nothing . . . and I had gotten very far away from fulfilling myself as an artist. I was making between two and three movies a year, and I decided I wouldn’t work again unless it was something I cared about.”
It was during that looping session that Verhoeven thought, “Why don’t I test her? I thought she had been degraded (in her career), fallen into the hands of people who abused her like a bimbo and that she had lost her confidence. But what I saw with her in ‘Total Recall’ was that there was much more possible.”
Unknown to the “Basic Instinct” producers, he made an audition tape of Stone, a tape that might never have seen the light of day if the first-string actresses under consideration for the role had not begun sending in their “not interesteds.” Five months later, Stone was called in to test with Douglas.
“I think a lot of stars didn’t want to consider it because it was about a bisexual killer, which involved a lot of violence and explicit sex,” Verhoeven says.
“Between the hype of the script and the nudity, a lot of actresses we had hoped for were put off by the part,” Douglas adds. “Women are often caught between politics and a (particular) role. But I thought that as dangerous as the film was, it was also that good of a women’s part. The irony is that for many male actors, playing a good heavy has made their careers.”
Stone describes “Basic Instinct” as “a love story, a dark, twisted sick love story, but a love story”--a premise she bases on the fact “that I’ve been told by psychiatrists that two people who kill together share the deepest bond.” Catherine Trammel, she says, “is a power-hungry megalomaniac who just uses sex as another means to get where she wanted to go.” Stone also adds that ‘any personal fear I had (playing the part) was over when Paul said ‘Action.’ It was like ‘this character is going to control, manipulate and own this guy.’ Once the cameras rolled, he was mine.”
Although Douglas concedes that Stone was not originally considered for the role “because it was a question of a billing combination,” he says he found the actress ‘very professional with a good sense of humor and, God knows, she’s paid her dues. I thought she was extraordinary in that test she made with Paul. She just pops off the screen.”
Despite the graphic nature of the sex scenes with Douglas--and despite rumors that that the two actors did not get along--Stone says she found the scenes “easy. I wore this glue-on cover thing, I don’t know what you call it. And Michael was very chivalrous and the crew was unbelievably (supportive). . . . The first time I did (a nude scene) in ‘Irreconcilable Differences,’ where I dropped this cape and showed my breasts, I heard this sound that I realized was my heart pounding in my temples. It was so bizarre. Now, it’s kind of, well. . . .”
The more difficult scenes, Stone says, were the ones that required her to display great emotion or involved violence. One scene required Stone to “be naked on top of a guy she didn’t know at all and she had to stab hard with an ice pick to make it look realistic and we spurted blood all over her breasts, which is not the most fun situation,” Verhoeven says. ‘I’m not sure why she identified with that scene so much, but she had a bad time there.”
“I was like passing out,” says Stone laughing at the recollection. “I’d do it and the blood stuff would come out and they’d have to bring the paramedics in and lie me on the floor and give me oxygen. My best friend, Mimi (Craven), who always comes when I have to do the scary parts was there, lying next to me telling jokes and I’m breathing oxygen and laughing my ass off. We had to loop the whole thing later.”
It was that scene, and others, that contributed to pickets by San Francisco’s gay community, protests that Stone dismisses as “uninformed” and “pin the tail on the celebrity” publicity stunts. “I don’t think any one character represents a whole gender,” she says. “There are two genders to pick from and this psycho just happens to be a woman.”
“Look,” Stone says leaning forward. “I didn’t think it was that important of a movie. It’s a thriller and my main thought through the making of it was ‘Play it to the fullest.’ Now, everyone has a different angle on it, what it means, what its message is.”
Suggest to Stone that her response is belied by the actresses who turned down the role and she stiffens. “I don’t know if their concerns were social or if their reasons were about not wanting to confront something in themselves,” she says. “It’s really easy to say that I made a political choice, but as an artist I don’t think you make political choices, I think you make artistic choices and I can tell you from going there, that (playing this character) is a very dark trip.”
Indeed, Verhoeven says he lobbied for Stone to play the role because of what he considered to be her intuitive grasp of the character. “I thought Sharon could capture the evil and the charm of the character in one performance because these two elements are strongly present in her. I wouldn’t call her evil,” the director says, “but she has a lovely side and a shadowy side and in the film she has to play someone who is in control of those parts of herself but Sharon, I don’t think is in control of them in her own life so much. She is very volatile, very shadowy.”
“She can be so goddamned mean. She really knows what buttons to push to get to you. She’s manipulative. I don’t know if it’s a feeling of power or if some man hurt her although that’s a little bit of a cliche. But Sharon is very hard to know.”
Ask Stone about her childhood and her quip, “I was a poor black child,” is the first of several evasive answers the actress offers about her upbringing. She was the second oldest--”but the most mature” she says--of four children born to Dorothy and Joseph Stone of Meadville, Pa., a small town in the far northwestern reaches of the state where, as the actress says, “being an artist was not that supportable of an idea.”
Her father worked in a tool-and-die factory, her mother was a homemaker who studied bookkeeping at night “and went back to high school, graduating with my class,” says Stone. “They had this idea of opening their own tool-and-die business when the kids were gone so they would buy one machine at a time and put them in the barn.”
It was the kind of household, “four kids in the country with a dad who worked a second factory shift,” where money, “even $100, was a huge question,” explains Stone. She was a self-described “nerd, an ugly duckling” who attended nearby Edinboro State College on a writing scholarship. Her family’s financial circumstances are also what contributed to Stone’s pursuit “of the whole beauty pageant trip, because it would pay more of my school.”
She was asked to participate as a contestant in Meadville’s annual Spring Festival Queen, an event that Stone says “just devastated me. I was sure it was some sort of ugly joke.” It was not until Stone’s uncle offered to pay her $100 if she won that she agreed. “That made it about something else,” she says.
She did a dramatic reading of the Gettysburg Address--”I’m like 17 and it’s the county fair and they’re judging cows”--and attracted the attention of representatives of the Miss America Council who invited Stone to compete in the Miss Pennsylvania pageant.
“So I went and within the first four hours I realize the horror of my position, that I didn’t have a prayer,” Stone says laughing at this recollection. “The only thing I could do to get through it was to act like it was funny, so I just blew down the runway, did this big spin--I had on this cape that went like this,” she says, throwing her hands in the air, “and the audience thought it was hilarious. Afterward one of the judges came up and said ‘Look, we both know you aren’t beauty pageant material but you could be a model.’ ”
After her mother, who spotted Eileen Ford, the head of the model agency that bears her name, on “The Merv Griffin Show,” Stone set off for New York, “where I learned I could start out making $500 a day,” says Stone.
She worked at it for three years, living in New York, Paris, Milan, mostly making television commercials. “Clairol, Maybelline, Burger King, it was endless,” says Stone, adding, “I was a very bad model. I had no ego fulfillment at all. At the end of the day, what do you have? A Polaroid?”
She studied acting on the side, won her first bit part in “Stardust Memories” and in 1980 set off for Los Angeles, where Stone says she arrived as a 21-year-old “with very specific but very naive goals. I thought I’d get off the bus and everyone would go ‘It’s her, our new movie star.’ ”
It was the same naivete that Stone says led to her spending most the next 10 years accepting roles in that series of career-stopping films. “I just didn’t get it,” she says. “My agent (at Creative Artists Agency) kept telling me, ‘You are carrying the female lead.’ I believed them at the time.” She changed agents, continued to study acting, primarily with Roy London, and in 1989, she was auditioning for “Total Recall.”
“I made a tape of her throwing Arnold to the ground,” recalls Verhoeven. “It worked very well.”
Stone says that any reputation she has earned for being a temperamental actress was due to her awareness “that most of the movies I made were horrible and the more it went on the worse you knew it was.” It wasn’t until she arrived on the set of “Basic Instinct,” where “I was suddenly working with the greatest people, that I was thankful I had done those other movies, that I had paid my dues and learned my craft.”
If Stone has also had to wrestle with what seems to be the de rigueur sex-and-drugs rumors that accompany many actress’ climb to the top, she chooses to ignore them, dismissing such talk as the fodder of an industry “where the men are different here than in any other business and I’m not the kind of actress who likes to spend a lot of time socializing with leading men.” Her Playboy spread, she says, was largely a career decision designed to increase her visibility in a town that does not lack for good-looking actresses. “It worked great,” says Stone, who adds that she is now seeing “tons” of scripts.
“I’m not a sucking-up type person,” she says. “Do I think it’s hurt me? It may have slowed some things down, but no, I never think it hurts you to say what you honestly feel. It keeps you on the path that is yours. When I first got here, I didn’t know anything about anything. Now, it’s like ‘Yeah, this isn’t out of the blue.’ I’ve been plodding along and I think it’s having an effect on people--they talk to me differently now.”
While Stone awaits the release of “Basic Instinct,” she’s mulling over her next project--maybe a comedy, maybe a play--relatively unconcerned about the industry complaint that roles for women in their 30s and 40s are a dying breed. “Let’s face it, people are more interesting in their 30s and 40s,” she says.
She has also finished renovating her house in the Hollywood Hills and is dating “somebody not in the business. I tell him I have a job just like he has a job, only the window of my office is bigger than his.” Most of her spare time she spends in the company of her closest friend, actress Mimi Craven, who resembles Stone so closely they have been mistaken for twins.
Stone fiddles with the bagel that has been lying on her plate for the past two hours. Her coffee is cold and two photographers are waiting to photograph her. Stone takes one more minute to describe her reaction to seeing her face on the bus-stop posters for “Basic Instinct.” “Mimi and I were so excited we just had to pull over and look at it for a while,” she says with a smile. “We were getting pretty animated in the car until some guy recognized me.”
Suggest to the actress that her career plan has worked and she pauses. “I knew when I did this movie that it would either ignite a new career for me or totally end it--there would be no gray area,” Stone says quietly. “And from the time I started testing for it and until now I never really looked up. Last week, I went to get a haircut in New York and when I was changing into those robes I started to cry. I was just so relieved it was over.”
The actress looks up, not a wet eye in the house today. “I’m too old for this,” she says. “This is supposed to happen when you’re new, not after 15 years.”
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