At the 1961 Academy Awards, Billy Wilder became the first person ever to receive three Oscars--as the producer, director and co-writer of The Apartment (1960). "This is the moment to stop, Billy," whispered Moss Hart as he handed him the award for Best Original Screenplay. Fifteen years later--having squandered his talents on Avanti (1972), Fedora (1978) and Buddy, Buddy (1981)--Wilder told his biographer that he wished he'd taken Hart's advice.
Sharon Stone has never won an Oscar, but she was nominated for her role in Casino (1995) and, in retrospect, that's when she should have stopped. It's not quite accurate to say she hasn't made a single good film since--Broken Flowers (2005) received some favourable notices--but she has tarnished her own legend. For a brief period in the early 90s, Stone was the biggest sex symbol in the world. Now she's been reduced to taking bit parts in movies like If These Walls Could Talk 2 (2000). People occasionally wonder what would have happened to Marilyn Monroe if she hadn't died in 1960, but, judging from Sharon Stone's recent spate of films, her death was probably a good career move.
No doubt one of the reasons Stone has gone on plugging away, making B-movie after B-movie for the last 10 years, is because, until she finally hit the big time with Basic Instinct (1992), she'd made nothing but B-movies. True, she made her film debut in Woody Allen's Stardust Memories (1980), but that hardly counts since she was on screen for such a brief period of time. Before appearing in Basic Instinct, she'd made eighteen movies, including The Vegas Strip War (1984), Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol (1987) and Action Jackson (1988). According to Joe Eszterhas, the writer of Basic Instinct, she had "scratched and clawed for more than a decade" in her effort to land a decent part and something of this hunger comes across in the film. She looks at Michael Douglas in their first scene together as if to say, "I've been waiting all my life for this role, so don't you dare try and upstage me."
In his autobiography, Hollywood Animal, Joe Eszterhas claims to have "created" Sharon Stone, but, in fact, her first proper break came in 1990 when the director Paul Verhoeven cast her as Arnold Schwarzenegger's wife in Total Recall. Verhoeven isn't a particularly gifted dramatist, just as Stone is no great technician, but he's a superb stylist. Verhoeven's breakthrough picture, RoboCop (1987), is a trashy, comic-book masterpiece, a violent exploitation movie tricked-up into a pop classic by sheer brio. Total Recall, though not in the same class, has the same combination of cheap, eye-popping thrills and breath-taking élan--and the film's ironic sensibility suited Sharon Stone. By exaggerating her B-movie style, rather than abandoning it, she managed to turn in something more than a B-movie performance.
But it wasn't sufficient to guarantee her the role of Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct. Stone was kept waiting five months while the screenplay was messengered back and forth along Hollywood Boulevard. If the rumours are to be believed, the part was turned down by Julia Roberts, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ellen Barkin and Greta Scacchi before it was reluctantly given to Stone.
The reason they passed on it, of course, was the nudity. For many Hollywood stars, making it means earning the right to keep your clothes on. What is unique about Sharon Stone is that she is the first actress in the history of Hollywood to earn the industry's respect by taking her clothes off. With one or two exceptions, American actresses have always been extremely uncomfortable with nudity, at least compared to Europeans. Actresses like Julie Christie, Jacqueline Bisset, Charlotte Rampling, Isabelle Adjani, Greta Scacchi, Isabella Rossellini, even Julie Andrews, have proved far more willing to remove their clothes than their American equivalents. But Sharon Stone is different. She's not merely comfortable with nudity; she actually seems more comfortable, the fewer clothes she has on.
This made her ideally suited to Basic Instinct. Catherine Tramell is a peculiarly American woman, a cool, intelligent, dangerous blonde. She is a Hitchcock ice queen, a direct descendent of Grace Kelly. No European actress could have played the part. When Stone first tested for the role she grasped this immediately. "I read the script thoroughly and I bought a Grace Kelly-like suit because I understood they wanted a Kelly-like Hitchcock blonde," she told an interviewer at the time. "I got the suit, called my hairdresser and said, 'I want you to watch Rear Window and give me that hairdo when I come in.'"
Yet Stone is a Hitchcock blonde with a difference-the curtains match the drapes. The interrogation scene in Basic Instinct, when Catherine turns the tables on her inquisitors by crossing and uncrossing her legs, is the closest we'll ever come to seeing Grace Kelly in the nude. What makes the scene so effective is not just the look of amused superiority on Stone's face, but the sweaty-palmed discomfort of her interrogators, particularly Wayne Knight. In a flash, as it were, the tables are turned and the tormentors become the tormented. It's a pivotal moment in the history of cinema--and not just because it's more explicit than anything we've seen before in a Hollywood film. It's memorable because it achieves this without seeming to exploit Sharon Stone. On the contrary, showing these men her vagina seems like an act of empowerment.
The star that Stone was most often compared with, back in her heyday, was Marilyn Monroe. Indeed, she once turned down an offer of $6m to play the actress, a decision she must be regretting now. Like Monroe, Stone became a star in spite of her technical limitations. Stone never asked us to believe in the characters she was playing, any more than Monroe did. But whereas Monroe camped it up, batting her eyelashes and puckering her lips, Stone said it all in a knowing glance. She might have been hacking away at her lover with an ice pick, but her eyes were always smiling.
So how did Stone manage to squander her stardom in such a short period of time? In part, it's because she's made so many poor choices. After playing the aggressor in Basic Instinct, she decided to play a victim in her next two pictures, Sliver (1993) and Intersection (1994). After they both tanked at the box office, she reverted to type, playing a sexy blonde in The Specialist (1994) and The Quick and the Dead (1995). They, too, proved to be box office poison. She hit a career high with Casino (1995) the following year, but after that it was all down hill. How could she have gone from such a memorable, career-defining role, to appearing in a crappy remake of Diabolique (1996)? It's almost as incomprehensible as Halle Berry's decision to star in Catwoman (2004) following her Oscar-winning performance in Monsters Ball (2001). Stone, of course, was also in Catwoman, one of the biggest bombs of 2004.
Stone's career wasn't helped by two bizarre pieces of misfortune in 2001. In June of that year, she arranged for her then husband, San Francisco Examiner editor Phil Bronstein, to stroke a Komodo dragon at the Los Angeles Zoo. He'd always been fascinated by these Indonesian lizards, apparently. Unfortunately, the dragon mistook his foot for a white rat and sank its teeth into it. Later that same year, she suffered a subarachnoid haemorrhage--an incredibly rare event--and was hospitalised for eight days while she underwent emergency brain surgery.
More or less the only good publicity Sharon Stone has had in the last 10 years has been in connection with the work she's done for charity. She hit the headlines last year when she managed to raise a million dollars following an impromptu appearance at the World Economic Forum at Davos. After Benjamin Mkapa, the President of Tanzania, launched an appeal to buy mosquito nets for his nation's children, Stone leapt to her feet and pledged $10,000. "Would anyone else like to be on a team with me and stand up and offer some money?" she asked. Within five minutes she'd raised $1 million. On a previous occasion, she raised $50,000 for Project Angel Foods by auctioning off a kiss.
Basic Instinct 2, which is due to be released later this year, seems unlikely to re-establish Stone as a movie star. Sequels which take this long to materialise are always a bit suspect. Think of The Two Jakes (1990), Texasville (1990) and The Godfather: Part III (1990). Not only that, but at 47 Stone seems a bit long in the tooth to be playing such a sexy part. It's almost as if, after a 14-year hiatus, Brigitte Bardot had decided to reprise her role in And God Created Woman. The situation isn't helped by the fact that, this time round, the policeman Catherine Tramell seduces is played by David Morrissey, an actor six years her junior. Basic Instinct 2 has the whiff of desperation about it. After 26 years in show business, it looks very much as though Sharon Stone is playing the last card left in her hand.