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Feminism after the fact

Times Staff Writer

DID “Basic Instinct” gross more than $350 million at the box office in 1992 because it was a clever erotic thriller that featured a major male movie star dueling naked with a knockout blond in a career-making performance? Or did it largely owe its success to a few shocking seconds in the infamous interrogation scene, the crotch shot seen round the world?

Beyond the nudity, the titillating bisexuality, the stylishly photographed bedroom tangos and the devilish pairing of violence and carnality, perhaps “Basic Instinct” was more than a guilty pleasure. It may have struck a nerve by dramatizing the state of war between the sexes in the early ‘90s.

With a new edition of the film, unrated, remastered and packed with special features just issued on DVD, it’s easy to review the sexual politics at its pulpy heart. And with the long-awaited sequel coming to theaters this week, we can see how well Catherine Tramell, its iconoclastic bitch-goddess, has held up.

In the 14 years between “Basic Instinct” and “Basic Instinct 2,” the rest of us have fallen in and out of love, had babies, gained and lost weight, adopted dogs, changed jobs, cleaned out our closets, remodeled houses, played the market, switched to shorter, parabolic skis and taken up yoga.

Catherine, again played by Sharon Stone, has developed a serious addiction to risk. At least that’s the opinion of a psychiatrist appointed by the Royal Courts of Justice when she runs afoul of the law in London, her new home. She still writes murder mysteries, still likes sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll often and with a hefty dose of danger. That much is immediately clear: She has her first extravagant orgasm, in a speeding sports car, no less, before the opening credits are over. By the end of the wild ride, her black-widow status is established. Catherine climaxes, her male companion dies.

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The event barely registers as an inconvenience. She’s become harder and meaner. When a lover betrays her, she isn’t hurt, just angry. And he’s not really a lover, merely a conquest. Way back, she learned that talking dirty to male authority figures would unnerve them. What was once a useful tactic has devolved into a habit. She used to flirt. Now her come-ons are as subtle as crotchless panties. Where once her bluntness was bold and surprising, now it’s cringe-making.

Catherine has become a full-on sociopath. Without giving too much away, she’s nudged into Hannibal Lecter territory. Or has she? The sequel includes the ambiguity that enriched the original, including a late-breaking twist and an ending that makes who done it an intricate three-way contest with no clear winner.

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Hoped-for happy ending

WHEN we first met Catherine in “Basic Instinct,” glimmers of vulnerability shone through her tough facade. Michael Douglas, as the troubled San Francisco cop who fell for her, was undoubtedly drawn to her naughty side, but he and the audience hoped he might redeem her by loving the needy woman within. Wondering whether love might triumph over whatever had wounded and warped Catherine in the past contributed to the suspense.

The question of whether a femme fatale is bad to the bone or misunderstood is as old as film noir. Jessica Rabbit’s defense was “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” Wouldn’t we and the guy caught in her web love to believe that? Many of the screen’s most compelling temptresses -- think Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn Cross Mulwray in “Chinatown” -- were less evil than misunderstood. When “Basic Instinct” came out, the abuse excuse hadn’t yet worn out its welcome, and the sort of cynicism that imbued “Match Point” hadn’t gone mainstream. “Basic Instinct’s” central romance was steeped in happily-ever-after optimism, the wish that Douglas would get the girl and she wouldn’t be a monster after all.

Early in “Basic Instinct,” Douglas and his partner take note of a Picasso on the wall of a murder victim, who they learn was Catherine’s boyfriend. Next they go to her house to question her. “They got his and hers Picassos,” the detective observes. Douglas glances at the painting and says, “Hers is bigger.”

More than anything else, “Basic Instinct” was a study of sexual combat. Women had been demanding equality since the second wave of American feminism hit the shore in the mid-'70s. By the early ‘90s, countless formerly male preserves had been invaded. With women as their bosses, their financial equals and more, and with Title IX and sexual harassment laws on the books, men couldn’t really complain much, could they? But in the dark of night they’d ask themselves, “Whose Picasso is bigger?” Who’s the better man?

“Basic Instinct” wasn’t the first movie to tap the tension between the sexes. In 1987, “Fatal Attraction” was a huge hit. In addition to being the ultimate parable of dangerous liaisons in the age of AIDS, it dramatized more of what terrified each gender: Women feared men would use them and leave them; men worried that women scorned wouldn’t passively accept their fate. No longer constrained by deference, these liberated gals might boil up some bunnies.

By the time “Basic Instinct” hit theaters, the message was sex is war. It can be mysterious, tantalizing, even temporarily rewarding. But a woman with power can’t be trusted. If she’s strong, she could be fierce enough to castrate you. Eeeek!

Not to get all Freudian about it, but isn’t that the basic male nightmare? The current crop of high-profile alpha women -- Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Martha Stewart -- survive by appearing sexless. (There are exceptions who combine success with a sexy image. But for every Judith Regan, there are far more Carly Fiorinas and Meg Whitmans, vestal virgins in power suits, even if they’re married.)

In 1992, who’s on top, men or women, was still a question. In the “Basic Instinct” sequel, there’s no contest. Catherine today is a man-eating cartoon. She’s smarter and more dangerous than any man she encounters. And she definitely can’t be trusted. Although the script was written by a husband-and-wife team, the film has moved from a tale of masculine backlash to one of capitulation.

In her recent book, “Are Men Necessary?,” Maureen Dowd writes, “Little did I expect that the sexual revolution would have the unexpected consequence of intensifying the confusion between the sexes.” Judging by “Basic Instinct 2,” the way to counteract confusion that’s gone from bad to worse is to abandon all nuance and portray a hyper-potent woman as a Grand Guignol exaggeration. Just to be safe, it might be good to lock up your ice picks.


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