It's 1992, and a certain erotic thriller directed by Paul Verhoeven is causing a huge stir all over the world. Its star, Sharon Stone, has become the new naughty sex symbol for the 1990s, a woman whose carnal power and command has gripped moviegoers from every corner of the globe. Verhoeven had used Stone's seductive power two years earlier, to mess with Arnold Schwarzenegger's head in the mad action sci-fi hit Total Recall, and knew that she had it in her to properly portray Trammell's wicked ways.
The plot itself seems so- so today in the light of subsequent copyists and clones. Stone plays Catherine Trammell, a successful writer accused of the murder of her boyfriend. She winds Michael Douglas (Detective Curran) up to the point of near madness and utter obsession, finally relieving the volcanic pressure in their epic sex scene together. The fact she clearly is the killer and gets away with it is the most chilling thing of all. Worse still, Curran is in bed with her again in the final scene as she reaches for the ice pick. She hesitates and moves her hand away, suggesting that perhaps the black widow has settled down...
Of course, the moment that attracted most interest and outrage was the leg crossing scene. As memorable as it is, I feel it undermines the rest of the film and gives those who perhaps haven't seen it the completely wrong idea about what a deeply thrilling story it is. The sexual element, although at times admittedly explicit, is just a tool in Trammell's method of beating the police, distracting and belittling them in their own environment.
Almost 25 years on, some of Basic Instinct's former sexiness looks dated and at times a bit creaky. The main sex scene in particular is overcooked so much that it isn't even sexy anymore, if it ever truly was, with Douglas' rigid chin and Stone's exaggerated moans and howls. It's a prime example of how sometimes less is , and in this case they went for the complete opposite. Still, in the context of this slightly over the top film, it works, even if it isn't anywhere near as steamy as it thinks it is. The build up is genuinely well done though, as Stone teases him, tortuous in her sexually manipulative ways. In this case, the chase was better than the catch.
Even though it was such a huge hit, it still attracted its fair share of negative criticism. Gay and Lesbian rights protestors found it offensive and boycotted the film, claiming Trammell uses her bisexual tastes to manipulate Douglas' character. Basic Instinct "won" numerous awards at the alternative Oscars, The Razzies. Even Sharon herself won the Worst New Star Award, which is odd in itself, seeing as she also earned a Golden Globe nomination for her work in this picture. Hollywood is indeed full of baffling contradictions.
Importantly, it made a boat load of money at the box office, and Hollywood had its latest, most lucrative formula all ready in place; the steamy erotic thriller with explicit sex scenes and a female lead that no man can resist. A simple premise, but one which would be repeated over and over again through the 1990s and up to modern day. If Basic Instinct seems a little over the top now, you still cannot deny its cinematic influence.
A film which surfaced only a year after Basic Instinct has gone down in history as one of the most ridiculed and panned movies of the genre, or of any genre for that matter. Body of Evidence was written by Brad Mirman and directed by Uli Edel. Edel had shot several movies before this, but it was the adaptation of Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn which won him the job for this Dino De Laurentis production.
The plot concerns the death of an aging millionaire, who passed away due to erotic asphyxiation. The suspect in the case is Rebecca Carlson, who is being defended by lawyer Frank Dulaney. During the trial, Frank gets reeled in by Carlson's sexual tractor beam, and the pair descend into an erotic and sadomasochistic relationship beyond the court scenes, and behind Dulaney's wife's back.
Against all odds and likelihoods, Madonna was cast as Rebecca Carlson, a decision which stunned critics and movie observers. Filling the role of the lawyer was none other than Willem Defoe, an intense actor known for his attention to detail and intense method approach to roles. When Empire Magazine asked him why he decided to take on such a "dodgy movie" (their words in the May 1993 issue), Defoe replied, "Lots of reasons. Madonna became attached to it, then Uli Edel and then they proposed it to me. I read the script which wasn't perfect, but there were many things I wanted to do. I see courtroom stuff... I see I wear a suit - that'll be fun. The erotic scenes - that'll be interesting. It appeals to my sense of adventure., Then you look who you're working with, and Madonna... I knew she could fill this bad girl persona perfectly."
The Bad Girl persona, as Defoe calls it, was something Madonna could do perfectly indeed. In December of 1991, she recorded a song called Bad Girl, a song eventually released on her Erotica album in 1992, then as a single in February of 1993. The song describes a chain smoking, heavy drinking woman who goes from one man to another. In the video, she is a well dressed business woman, waking up in a different bed each morning, all the while being observed by her guardian angel, played by Christopher Walken. In the end, he gives her the kiss of death, and subsequently one of her one nighters strangles her to death. She is set free. In the very cinematic video (directed by none other than David Fincher, he of Seven and Fight Club), Madonna projected how hedonistic life choices can lead to negative, and eventually devastating results. Here, she reflected on the self destructive nature of someone with so little self respect. On other songs on her classic Erotica album, she had celebrated sexuality, especially on the likes of Where Life Begins, her ode to oral sex, and the title track, where she adopted another role, that of Dita, the record's erotic host and conceptual compère. With Bad Girl, she saw the pitfalls of the sexually obsessed, someone who uses sex in an almost bored fashion, to fill the void of emptiness within. While Rebecca isn't bored by sex, she is driven by it, and is so in tune with her control of all things erotic, that she uses it to get whatever she wants in life.
Dulaney finds out for himself that Rebecca is indeed a very intense lover. After one stressful day in court, they go for a meal, and he gives her a lift home. When she walks towards the door of her lavish apartment, Defoe waits and watches. When she leaves the door open, he knows it's his cue to enter. The long white, thin curtains blow in the breeze, beckoning to him in the night. In entering her door, he is also taking his first real step into her world. Dulaney then finds himself entangled in a passionate sexual odyssey where fears and desires become blurred. She opens sensual opportunities previously unthought-of, pain and pleasure combining to an intense mix.
Madonna's Rebecca is intent, as she says during their sex scene, on doing things her way. In truth, though it's not her dialogue, she sounds exactly like her Dita character from Erotica, who tells the listener to give it up, do as she says and let her have her way. "I don't think you know what pain is," she considers, "I don't think you've gone that way." So if Body of Evidence is a visual accompaniment to Erotica, then the receptacle of her erotic dialogue on the album certainly gets to experience it "that way" during the film's most intense moments. Is Body of Evidence attempting to be everything that Erotica promised, suggested, and skirted round on an audible level? If so, it didn't entirely succeed. Body... is jus too camp to be taken totally seriously, but none of this is Madonna's fault. (More of this later.)
Building up to the film's release, it was clear that the focal point of the whole film was Madonna, undoubtedly one of the most well known women on the planet. She would have killed to get the Trammell role in Basic Instinct, but Rebecca Carlson was her chance to out-do the previous year's big steamy hit. If Stone, Verhoeven and Douglas did it to 10, then she'd turn it up to 11. If they partook in a bit of light bondage (with Stone tying Douglas to the bed), then she was going to go one further; even burn her lover with candle wax if need be.
As you would expect, given the way she takes on any project, Madonna took her role very seriously indeed. Julianne Moore, who plays Defoe's deceived wife in Body of Evidence, later commented that she thought Madonna went a little "methody" during filming. She also revealed that in the scene when she slaps her after learning of their carnal activities, she was incredibly nervous before shooting. If one thing can be agreed upon, there is an intensity to Madonna's performance. Though many would say the film is almost universally bad, few could say that Madonna herself didn't give the film her all.
"I think I play the shit out of it," Madonna told the Today Show upon the film's release. "There's a lot of other actresses that could have done a good job. I made it mine. She (her character in Body of Evidence) is a very secretive person that doesn't reveal a lot about herself and I am completely the opposite, very forthcoming. I wear my heart on my sleeve and I don't think she does."
In retrospect, the years of 92 and 93 were the great sex obsessed era in Madonna's career, where she explored sexuality from every angle and viewpoint. Never judging or praising the situations she was presenting, critics took the moral high ground and butchered her for revealing everything to the public, whether they wanted to see it or not. In this regard, the Sex book goes hand in hand with Body of Evidence, and compared to that now out of print publication, Body of Evidence was tame stuff.
"I didn't think the script was so great," she said in one TV interview, "and I kind of ignored it. But then Uli and Willem said they were gonna do it, so I became interested. They were going to make it something different. I went to court with Willem and watched murder trials and people who were convicted for murder, how they acted, their facial expression and how they dressed. I watched a lot movies from the 40s, film noir, court room dramas, Hitchcock movies."
Madonna took the role seriously as you can tell by her research, and like Defoe, she overlooked the script's flaws, choosing to focus on the more positive aspects of the project. Madonna was getting a lead role here, something she hadn't enjoyed since 1988's Who's That Girl, a film which disappointed fans, critics, and perhaps most importantly, Madonna herself. Body of Evidence was her chance to stand out front and carry a picture on her charisma alone.
Body of Evidence, very quickly though, became something of a joke to many people. The film as a whole was widely panned, mocked even and went down as one of the big turkeys from the erotic thriller revival era of the early to mid 1990s. It was so savagely torn to shreds that it's impossible to find a single good review of the movie in the archives. Even Madonna's biggest fans, though enjoying the camp qualities of it, had to admit it was a misfire.
Roger Ebert gave the film half a star, and was unrelenting in his hatred for the film. "I've seen comedies with fewer laughs than Body of Evidence," he said, "and this is a movie that isn't even trying to be funny. It's an excruciatingly incompetent entry in the Basic Instinct genre, filled with lines that only a screenwriter could love, and burdened with a plot that confuses mystery with confusion. The movie stars Madonna, who after Bloodhounds of Broadway, Shanghai Surprise and Who's That Girl? now nails down her title as the queen of movies that were bad ideas right from the beginning. She plays a kinky dominatrix involved in ingenious and hazardous sex with an aging millionaire who has a bad heart. He dies after an evening's entertainment, and Madonna is charged with his murder. What about the story here? It has to be seen to be believed - something I do not advise. There's all kinds of murky plot debris involving nasal spray with cocaine in it, ghosts from the past, bizarre sex, and lots of nudity. We are asked to believe that Madonna lives on a luxury houseboat, where she parades in front of the windows naked at all hours, yet somehow doesn't attract a crowd, not even of appreciative lobstermen. What does she dedicate her life to? She answers that question in one of the movie's funniest lines, which unfortunately cannot be printed here. When it comes to eroticism, "Body of Evidence" is like Madonna's new book. It knows the words but not the music. All of the paraphernalia and lore of S & M sexuality are here, but none of the passion or even enjoyment. We are told by one witness that sex with the Madonna character is intense. It turns out later he's not a very reliable witness."
The main issue with the critics seemed to be Madonna. Though they voiced their concerns for other aspects of the film (especially the plot), Madonna seemed to get the brunt of it all. Had she not been Madonna the pop superstar and provocateur, the film might have got bad notices, but could have escaped relatively unscathed. Starring as it did the most famous pop star on the globe, a woman who was and still is adored and detested in equal measures, it was time for a hatchet job. Off with her head seemed to be the main sentiment. The critics had given her due credit on Desperately Seeking Susan, but refused to weaken for any other film, save perhaps for her small turn in Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy. Now though, they could pin all the flaws in Body of Evidence on Madonna herself.
The critical backlash could be seen as a kind of verbal revenge, for all her supposed crimes against public decency, the youth market, sex, music and literature. It seemed that from here on in, Madonna was the target and cause for all of the world's problems. It sounds over the top, but some of the rubbish thrown at her for the past thirty odd years has been vile. Such hatred for someone who merely pushes a few buttons, and hasn't even hurt anyone, is a symbol of our sexist times. A man like Paul Verhoeven, he of Basic Instinct and Showgirls infamy, the very man who admitted to getting an erection while filming sex scenes, comes away from the 1990s as a controversial movie hero, sailing on the sidelines of the business. Madonna comes away as a damned whore. Clearly, something about this stinks...
Though the film is rarely, it ever at all, sexy in the truest sense, the scene involving the infamous candle wax burnings is admittedly quite steamy, and is certainly strong. Much more shocking than conventionally sexy, it's a scene that few people could ever forget once watching it. The way Madonna leads him to the bedroom is darkly alluring, and as they make their way up the stairs, the mounting tension is felt burning off the screen. When she dashes off quickly, Defoe catches her lying on the bed, where she turns to him. Defoe gets close to her, kissing and attempting to do things the traditional way. But Madonna is firm, she pushes him back and says, quite firmly, "My way." And so, Defoe/Dulaney gets to fully experience sex her way. After the teasing candle burning, she straddles him and rides him to a climax. Unlike the ridiculous sex scene in Basic Instinct, with a howling Stone killing any eroticism stone dead, this scene is seen through a silky black curtain. There glimpses of Madonna on top of him, all in one camera angle, as if we are watching from a doorway, peering in at their passionate union. It is by far the most erotic part of the film, and none of the other sex scenes measure up to it, either being too comical (the car park scene in particular) or unsexy all together (the masturbatory scene on the floor for instance). Had things been kept to this minimum level, the passion aspect of the film might have actually worked. Still, it was the script that let the whole thing down.
In defence of the film, though obviously far from perfect, I do believe that many reviewers missed the humour, the camp tongue in cheek aspects which can be picked up on frequently throughout the movie. To take a movie seriously which contains a line such as "I fuck, that's what I do," is a big mistake.
Madonna felt cheated by the film, and especially how the director decided to end the picture. By killing off Rebecca in an almost stuffily old fashioned movie finale, her bulleted corpse floating in the water with lifeless eyes gazing up at the camera, the filmmakers resorted to a predictable conclusion. While in Basic Instinct, the empowered Trammell was allowed the last laugh, bagging her man and beating the rap, Madonna's femme fatale was punished. Though she did plot the death of her rich lover, and deserved of justice, the clichéd ending still jars with the rest of the film to this day. If the ending could be seen as sexist, you could argue that the very feminist and self empowering Madonna didn't get the treatment she truly deserved. Made into a cartoon villain, she becomes the perfect target for all male frustration; the whore goes too far, and she must be punished with death.
The unsatisfactory manner in which her character finished up triggered something in Madonna. In the future, if she could help it of course, she would try and get more control over her roles and the films she was making. Forming Maverick Films that year, she would attempt to do so in her next starring picture, Dangerous Game. Again, she proved that she had to have full control of every aspect of her career. Movies were no exception.
Further down the line, Madonna was still stung by the film's reception. In an interview with Cosmopolitan in 1996 after the release of Evita, they asked her if she might have more control over her movies in the future. Alluding to her past film work, Madonna said, “Until I’ve had more success in films, there’s little I can control. I can try to choose wisely as far as hair and makeup are concerned. But film is a director's medium. In other words: Try not to work with a director who hates women. In my case, that usually means I’ll be photographed badly and end up dead in the end.”
Pressed to say whether she was referring to Body of Evidence and Dangerous Game, Madonna smiled and replied, “Well, I ended up dead as dead can be in both films… Look, it will be a cold day in hell before any director gives me any consideration on something as important as, let’s say, the final cut. I’ll only experience that sort of control when I direct and produce my own movies.” One day of course, Madonna would do that too.
Madonna was not only dissatisfied with how she looked in the movie, but also the tone of the ending. There were two versions to close the film with. “Of course, they went for the misogynistic ending, where I die," Madonna recalled. "But, you know, it’s in the past. I learned from both experiences. And I survived. I mean, if I could survive what was said about me after Body of Evidence and my Sex book…"
I really do feel that Madonna gives a brilliant effort as the icy femme fatale. Out sexing and shocking Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, there is a lot more to the role than straight faced seduction. There is, as if it's a big surprise, a lot of camp humour in here too.
Looking at the other things Madonna was doing around the time Body of Evidence was released does clear the film up a little. This over the top bonk fest was undoubtedly holding its tongue in its cheek throughout, but a lot of critics missed it all. Empire Magazine however, in their year review of 1993, did say the film was quickly becoming a camp classic; which for me, pretty much sums it up.
Even now, twenty odd years on, people seem to recall the sex scenes more than anything. They are handled well, it has to be said, and the director stages them expertly. In my view, the most interesting thing about the bedroom scenes is the way they are shot. Usually in Hollywood, especially around that time, all sex scenes were the same. They were sound tracked by corny saxophone, the pleasure noises all sounded as if they were done by the same two voice over artists, and the angles always showed mere hints of bare flesh. The writhing was often slowed down, paced at an almost balet-like level to ensure every major movie sex scene was the same. There would also be the obligatory slow motion throwing back of the female's hair, the grinding of hips etc. etc. While Basic Instinct shook this formula up, it still was nowhere near as sexy or imaginative as it thought it was.
A look at the epic, central sex scene in Body of Evidence though shows that Edel, Defoe and Madonna were keen on doing something quite different. Note the way the cameras stays stuck on them as they experiment with the wax. It keeps us right in there, not showing us hints of sex, or a montage of wild orgasmic delight (yawn), but something quite outrageous in itself.
"The love scenes were never meant to be like some MTV break," Defoe told Empire, deflated by the fact that some of the sex scenes had been snipped down, "where you get pieces of shoulder and a load of kinetic cuts and titillating images that drive the audience into a frenzy. We shot them fairly matter-of-factly, lingering, so that things transpire in real time. The American version didn't give it time to unfold like that, it was much quicker cut, so the scenes look less like sex, which I guess is the intent. You realise things have been cut for commercial reasons."
Contrary to theories that Madonna was not in control of her situation through the film, the director himself loved working with her, and felt she was her own woman. "When I first met Madonna," Edel told Empire back in 93. "I told her what the erotic scenes would be and she said how ever far we went, she would go a little bit further. We shot all our erotic scenes at the very end when Madonna and Willem knew each other. There was a chemistry between Willem and Madonna, and I think that's the most important thing, that they can trust each other, and that they can trust the director because they cannot control the final image as it appears on screen. We sat down and choreographed them so we knew exactly what we were doing, but there is spontaneity when you know what you're doing. We improvised some of the scenes - the handcuff scene, the wax scene. I always feel very uncomfortable doing sex scenes because you have to repeat the scene. I mean, the audience see it once but the actors have to do it over again. It was more comfortable for Madonna because she knew and liked Willem, and Madonna came up with some ideas - the masturbation scene, that was her idea."
All these years on, you can see the parallels between Body of Evidence and the more famous Basic Instinct, and one can even get to the believable conclusion that Madonna's screw fest is a spoof of Paul Verhoeven's ludicrous hit. At the time, the comparisons were well noted indeed. Rolling Stone wrote a lengthy piece on Madonna's new feature, and frequently compared it to Basic Instinct.
"The Basic Instinct parallels include the Germanic directors and the convenient battles to get an NC-17 rating changed to an R and reap lots of free press," they wrote. "But let's stick to the trailers. Fattal & Collins, no fools they, know that Basic Instinct grossed $330 million world-wide. So they milk the Basic Instinct trailer shamelessly. Stone is a blonde suspected of multiple murder; ditto Madonna. Stone uses a handkerchief for bedtime bondage; Madonna uses handcuffs. Stone seduces Nick (Michael Douglas), the cop who protects her; Madonna seduces Frank, the lawyer who defends her. Douglas has a jealous girlfriend (Jeanne Tripplehorn) who warns him about Stone; Dafoe has a jealous wife (Julianne Moore) who slaps Madonna in a rage. These femmes fatales even sound alike. Stone: "Have you ever fucked on cocaine, Nick? It's nice." Madonna: "Have you ever seen animals making love, Frank? It's intense." The dialogue is interchangeable. When Dafoe says to Madonna, "I must have been out of my mind to get involved with you," we don't hear her retort. But Stone's line to Douglas in Basic would fit just fine: "Nicky got too close to the flame. Nicky liked it." The Body trailer trades on associations with other hit thrillers that Body would desperately like to be. Anne Archer turns up for a close-up that seems purposeless except to remind viewers that she was the cheated-on wife in Fatal Attraction. Likewise, Moore appeared as the sassy friend in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, for which "Body's" composer, Graeme Revell, did the score. As the images add up — hands being tied, clothes being ripped, the smirking Madonna being forced to act — you have to marvel at the energy being expended to sell the same old sadism. But the job gets done. Anyone who wants to see more of Body of Evidence after this trailer is a glutton for punishment."
Entertainment Weekly were not afraid of voicing the similarities either, writing that Body of Evidence is "a preposterous erotic thriller from the Basic Instinct fingernails-ripped-my-flesh school, Body of Evidence is shamelessly - and on occasion amusingly - unadulterated trash. The movie is studded with sadomasochistic sex scenes that are meant to be daring and outré but that come off as merely frigid (call me a fuddy-duddy, but watching Madonna pour hot candle wax on Willem Dafoe’s genitals didn’t exactly get my pulse racing). Madonna plays Rebecca Carlson, a Portland, Ore., art-gallery owner whose rich, older lover has died of a heart attack following a night of strenuous sex. Dafoe is Frank Dulaney, the hapless defence attorney whom Rebecca introduces to the dark delights of bondage, pain, and sex in abandoned parking garages. In the will, Rebecca is listed as chief beneficiary, and she admits she pushed her lover into wilder and wilder bedroom antics. As a result, she is dragged into court. On what charge? That, among other things, she literally screwed him to death. The whole premise is ludicrous. How could killing somebody through sexual intercourse possibly be illegal?"
Despite all this, the internet reveals pockets of guilty fandom. The writer at Reel Rundown snuck out the confession that, yes, they really liked the film. But not for conventional reasons of course. "Ok, first things first: this is a bad movie. It deserves the Razzies as well as its flop status. Released on January 15, 1993, the movie was made on a $30,000,000 budget and grossed only $13,000,000. It stands at a 6% critical approval on Rotten Tomatoes as I'm writing these lines. However, as a die-hard Madonna fan, I find it strangely entertaining and I watched it probably many more times than I should have. She always has a strong screen presence and I can't help but look at her when she is in a scene. She dominates every frame, just like in her music videos. Also, I can't review this film without mentioning how great she looks in it. She's absolutely gorgeous and is terrific during the sex scenes. Fans of the Erotica-era Madonna might enjoy seeing her create a character that acts as kind of an extension of her Mistress Dita persona from the Sex book and the album."
So then, is that the answer as to why some of us enjoy the film? Is it the same reason why Paul McCartney fans enjoy Give My Regards to Broad Street? Why David Bowie fans love Labyrinth? Perhaps so. As Madonna fans, do we (I shamelessly include myself in this) accept that high camp is guaranteed, that we don't need to take everything totally serious to enjoy it? After all, the term "guilty pleasure" never applied to a film as correctly as fittingly as it does to Body of Evidence.
Even though the film was massacred, and remains to some an embarrassment to this day, Madonna went and made her femme fatale erotic thriller. She acted the shit out of it, as she proclaimed, and though it's no classic, others regard it as an important entry in her artistic output during the early 90s. When Basic Instinct was busy taking itself ultra seriously as an exploration of sexual politics (male castration by power), Body of Evidence camped it up. As she was prone to do so at the time, Madonna made it cheeky, unconventional and funny. Sure, she could have been involved in a more straight forward erotic thriller, with clichés and all, but this was never going to happen. As she says in the film, it had to be "my way", and that is the only way she could have done it.
READ MY FULL ANALYSIS OF THE FILM HERE: