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Sex sells – that much we know. The 1992 murder mystery Basic Instinct – starring Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone – most certainly understood just how to sell its sexual content to audiences. Everyone who has heard of Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct will instantly recall the iconic scene of Sharon Stone slowly opening and closing her legs in a police interrogation. The film’s content could most certainly be described steamy, but it required the inclusion of more dramatic elements to keep an R-rating.
In a new interview with Rolling Stone, Verehoeven opened up about how he got away with showing such raunchy sex scenes in Basic Instinct:
Because it was a thriller, the idea that Sharon Stone could kill him during sex was always an element of protection. So we could show sex and nudity much longer than normal, because there was another element there — the element of threat.
By contrast, Verehoeven’s film Showgirls received an NC-17 rating almost exclusively for the amount of nudity it features. The story of Las Vegas strippers does not even include much in the way of actual sex or violence, but its sheer amount of full frontal nudity garnered it such a severe rating. The inclusion of the threat of violence allowed the filmmaker to elevate the sexual content of Basic Instinct beyond mere gratuity and gave Verhoeven more freedom to extend the sex scenes.
This revelation also sheds an interesting light on the way in which our society perceives its taboos. In general, we seem to have a much more lackadaisical attitude towards violence – and potential violence – than we do about sex. Just think about it, filmmakers can easily maneuver their films’ violent content into a PG-13 rating, but frontal nudity will all but guarantee an R rating. In the Rolling Stone interview Verhoeven even went so far as to address this as a distinctly American phenomenon, and that a school teacher in Holland once explained to him that the female breast was the most beautiful thing in the world. PG-13 films even allow for one or two F bombs before the MPAA draws the line – see: X-Men: First Class. Debate on which creates a bigger detriment for society can be left for another day, but it’s an interesting contrast to keep in mind.
Basic Instinct remains a classic to this day for its balance of sensuality with visceral thrills; aspiring filmmakers looking to push the envelope should refer to it as a way of obtaining a more favorable rating.