Sharon Stone

A valentine to Sharon Stone, Hollywood's last real movie star.

Published June 20, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

i used to hate her, like so many do. In fact, I've hated her several times -- when she was as grating as a car alarm in the cheesy Indiana Jones rip-off "King Solomon's Mines," an annoyance in the lame Eurothriller "The Year of the Gun" and of course the horrid animatronic wife in "Total Recall" -- without even realizing it was the same actress. "Total Recall," however, made her unforgettable. She was worse than the snottiest cheerleader ever, her performance so loathsome it triggered a kind of gag reflex and left a stronger impression than anything else in that Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle. I remembered her name because I never, ever wanted to see that woman again: Sharon Stone.

Then "Basic Instinct" changed everything. I first saw it on video, long after the controversy (from gay and lesbian rights groups, about the film's depiction of bisexual women as murderous) and the box office bonanza had died down. It's a mess, with its typically muddled Joe Eszterhas plot and laughable attempts to capture seamy nightclub life and a score so flagrantly stolen from "Vertigo" that the estate of Bernard Herrmann ought to sue. That doesn't really matter though; the movie intended only to offer the spectacle of Michael Douglas' reptilian everyguy being tortured yet again by some emasculating aspect of modern life. Stone's character, Catherine Tramell, wasn't meant to be more than the perfect flowering of his paranoia made spectacular flesh.

She was decidedly more than that, and how Stone did it still mystifies me. Certainly, she managed it entirely on her own. Screenwriter Eszterhas and director Paul Verhoeven are deeply stupid about women; in their fantasies, foxy babes treat sex like professional wrestling, a sport based on taunting and attitude. Stone's performance floats so far above their conception of Catherine that it seems only tenuously attached to the movie itself, as if she had just dropped by on the way to someplace much more interesting. It's more persona than performance, really, which is what movie stars are all about.

I knew people who theorized that "Basic Instinct" represented a Madonna backlash, people who argued that it was misogynistic rather than "biphobic," while still others insisted that it was really an example of male bashing. I didn't care about any of that. I just marveled that I liked her now, this actress who once repelled me. She became instantly famous, interviewed and photographed, and the more I saw of her the more I liked her, wished her well, admired her even. Every movie she's ever appeared in since has been bad in some fundamental way, but, to my mind, she never is, however wretched her surroundings. She has learned to concentrate her essence in some way that makes her splendor impervious, another sign of bona fide movie stardom.

Before "Basic Instinct," Stone was only a very pretty starlet; afterwards, she was beautiful. She still plays femmes fatales, but by some peculiar alchemy, they're no longer villains. Now they seem like the only sensible people on screen. She's brought us over to her side.

There's no clue to the source of Stone's transformation in Frank Sanello's "Naked Instinct: The Unauthorized Biography of Sharon Stone." In fact, having the likes of Sanello write about her is precisely the sort of thing Stone has acquired the habit of rising above. Sanello, who has also penned biographies of Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg and Eddie Murphy (you get the impression he can crank out a new one every six months), studied dozens of back issues of Variety and the Hollywood Reporter and made at least two phone calls in researching the definitive work that is "Naked Instinct." (Studio head Sherry Lansing -- "not only the most powerful woman in the movie business, she's also one of the nicest" -- talked to Sanello, while producer Mark Rydell, we're told repeatedly, "wouldn't even return my calls" despite the author's tireless, and thoroughly documented, cajoling of "his assistant, Debbie Leonard." Sanello's preface reads like an excuse note to an unsatisfied editor.)

"Naked Instinct" -- there must be some way, in the public interest, of suing Sanello for that title -- is less a book than a 204-page-long series of remarks. Unaccustomed to celebrity bios, I anticipated Sanello's breathlessness, even relished kitschy expressions like "flop after flopola." But who can plan for a sentence like "the plot sounds as though Luis Buquel had been given two and a half million bucks to make 'The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeois Unabomber'"? Huh? I found myself puzzling over some of Sanello's attempts at wit as if they were lines of cuneiform or Derrida. "Stone is positively Mr. Billious here, suitable for laming," he writes of her role in 1994's "The Specialist." You figure it out.

With no access to Stone and an underfurnished imagination to boot, Sanello can't offer much insight into the movie star's inner life. Instead, between cryptic quips, he hauls out "Beverly Hills psychologist Dr. Brian Miller" to deliver moth-eaten, rent-a-shrink pronouncements about "self-sabotage" and "dysmorphic body image." Stone, a famously good interview, provides the sharpest commentary on herself. Even if all the quotes from her that Sanello uses are lifted from old magazine articles, they're still the best stuff in the book.

Sanello has all the usual preoccupations of mediocrity. He loves numbers, supplying us with not only Stone's IQ (154) and cup size (36-B), her salaries, of course ($300,000 for "Basic Instinct," $2.5 million for "Casino," $7 million for "Diabolique"), but also how much the sultan of Brunei paid for the Beverly Hills Hotel, where a minor anecdote occurs ($400 million). He's positively obsessed with nude scenes, particularly as an indicator of an actor's clout (the more clout, the less nudity). His amusing quirks include a high opinion of Michael Douglas' butt and flouncing asides like "Los Angeles magazine, whose editorial board I know from personal experience was staffed by male chauvinist pigs." But Sanello has no nose for the deeper story. He can report that Stone asked her best friend, Mimi Craven, to lie on the floor out of camera range and hold her hand during the filming of the sex scenes in "Basic Instinct" and never bother to explain who Craven is or the nature of this extraordinary friendship.

Stone has described her childhood as that of "a nerdy, ugly duckling who sat in the back of the closet with a flashlight and read," distorted by experimental "gifted child" educational programs that made her a misfit among her peers. Perhaps it's in those memories of standing apart that she finally located the sang-froid that's carried her through so many bad films. Stone's particularly bracing to watch when you can practically hear her thinking "Christ, this is idiotic, but nothing surprises me anymore."

In some of her earlier roles ("Stardust Memories," "He Said, She Said"), Stone played hallucinatory dream girls. The bland, WASP-y perfection of her youth reminded those filmmakers of a blank screen, ideal for projection. Stupid directors thought they were being clever when they cast her as face-of-an-angel/soul-of-a-grasping-tramp paradoxes ("Irreconcilable Differences"). As long as Stone tried to play along -- or, even worse, pose as a regular gal -- she set everyone's teeth on edge. It wasn't until she embraced her own freakishness that she finally became extraordinary.

In the iconography of the movies, good women are beautiful but don't know it and bad women are beautiful and use it, but Sharon Stone is beautiful and doesn't give a shit. It's no accident that Stone didn't hit her stride until the age of 34, when most women are confronted with the disastrous transience of their sexual power. That's when you realize that if you are your face, you're in big trouble. Stone -- who not only doesn't lie about her age, but makes a point of mentioning it in every interview -- seems to have made that leap with exceptional grace. The potency of the interrogation scene in "Basic Instinct" doesn't come from that notorious flash of Stone's naked crotch -- it's rooted in the way she eyes the men questioning her and telegraphs, "I know each of your tired little fantasies -- bitch, goddess, tail -- all too well, and fellas, they're your problem, not mine."

In the otherwise inane "The Specialist" there's a scene that epitomizes this, the way Stone invites us to see how beautiful women bear witness to the blind narcissism of men. Eric Roberts -- playing a preening, brutish mafioso, unaware that his mistress, Stone, is the daughter of a couple he once killed and is plotting his death -- gazes at her covetously and says, "I see something I like when I look at you. You know what that is? I see myself." He can't see, as we can, how much she despises him; he's too busy dreaming of how she looks on his arm and in his bed.

Chronic irony may be one source of our current moral malaise, but Stone is ironic about our last sacred cow, the importance of appearances. She wears her beauty well because she wears it lightly, ever aware that it's just passing through, that (in therapeutic parlance) it's not about her. Her face is her fortune, but that's all it is. Fawning celebrity journalist and Esquire contributor Bill Zehme once wrote that "women took to her with instant disdain and distrust" because Stone brazenly pursues her own desires and for "reasons perhaps more petty," a coy way of saying we envy her beauty. I couldn't disagree more, but to really appreciate Stone, strange as it sounds, a woman has to have digested the fact that looks and sex are never going to nab you anything really worth having. Or, as Stone put it so tartly, "You can only sleep your way to the middle." And once gravity wreaks its havoc, what have you got left, sugarplum? Like the silent film star Louise Brooks, Stone's going to make a great old lady -- can you really say the same for Winona Ryder or Michelle Pfeiffer?

I like Sharon Stone for other reasons, too: for letting me savor a female Clint Eastwood in "The Quick and the Dead" (she even gets to ride off into the sunset, leaving a woebegone Leonardo DiCaprio yearning in a doorway), for channeling the spirit of Bette Davis in "Diabolique," for turning in the only top-notch performance in "Casino," whose director referred to her as "the girl" on the set. But most of all, I admire her for being impossible to degrade, although sometimes it seems that she's paid for her invulnerability in loneliness (then again, what did vulnerability ever do for Marilyn Monroe?). She's often a sex object, but even when imperiled, she's never that truly contemptible thing, a rescue object. When she's on-screen, the audience gets all the glamour and charisma we demand from a movie star, but she doesn't sell her soul. She never begs to be loved. She gives us just enough of herself to suggest how much more we're not getting, and can never get from a phantom of light and shadow. She reminds us of how much less a movie star is, after all, than a real, live woman.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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