Paul Verhoeven remembers a party he and a buddy attended in the Netherlands in the ’60s, where they met an attractive blonde who, it quickly became apparent, was not wearing underwear. Verhoeven’s friend, more audacious than the future director of Showgirls, spoke up: “You know, we can see your vagina.” The woman smiled, “Of course — that is the reason I do it.”
Almost 30 years later, Verhoeven took his Basic Instinct star, Sharon Stone, to dinner and told her that story, suggesting a similar act would transform the scene where Stone’s maybe-murderer Catherine Tramell is grilled by a roomful of sweaty cops. Stone, he says, was “really excited by the idea”. It was something shocking, yes, but in every sense revealing.
You would have to use a microscope to really know what you saw.
What followed became one of the most talked-about images in modern movie history, as Tramell, mid-interrogation, calmly uncrosses her legs and reveals to the room (and the watching world) she’s gone commando.
In truth, Joe Eszterhas’ script contained no flashing of the holiest of holies; the shot was dreamed up by Verhoeven mid-shoot. To his mind, it amplified how Tramell had total control of the situation. “She is victorious!” he says. “She used sexuality to defend herself. And attack — it made them into drooling males.”
At Stone’s request, filming was left until the very end of the shoot. Those reactions (none better than Wayne Knight’s terrified gulp) were shot beforehand. The actors were never there. “I sent them home at the end of the day,” explains Verhoeven. “And we did that shot with my DP, Jan de Bont, and sound and script.”
There were two angles: wide and close(ish)-up. He might have done two or three takes of each. “That’s all there was to it.”
It lasts four frames, a sixth of a second, and as Verhoeven says, “You would have to use a microscope to really know what you saw.” Even assistant editor Teresa Longo was never sure. “If you take the time to look at it,” concludes the director, “it is probably her vagina.”
Today, Stone is philosophical (“There’s something about being the one who did it that protects you from the reaction”), but at the time claimed she’d been misled. Throughout the shoot she’d fretted she was “pushing ethical boundaries”. The director says she knew his intentions all along. “You cannot do that shot without somebody knowing. On top of that, she gave me her panties as a gesture of confidence.”
Verhoeven wonders if, because of that moment, her “phenomenal” performance was overlooked by the Academy. “It is too much for the Oscars,” he concedes.
This article first appeared in issue #329 of Empire magazine (November 2016). Basic Instinct is out now on DVD, Blu-ray and download.