Hollywood movies

[Only IN Hollywood] It’s been 30 years since Sharon Stone uncrossed her legs

Ruben V. Nepales
[Only IN Hollywood] It’s been 30 years since Sharon Stone uncrossed her legs
We recently talked via video call to Joe Eszterhas, whose $3-million pay for 'Basic Instinct' made headlines as the biggest amount ever paid for a script at that time

LOS ANGELES, USA – It has been 30 years since Sharon Stone infamously uncrossed her legs in Basic Instinct. The notorious blink-and-you-miss-it crotch scene has not been forgotten, especially as Basic Instinct’s March 20, 1992 release date is marked.

Directed by Paul Verhoeven and written by Joe Eszterhas, the film defined the erotic thriller genre in the 1990s and propelled Sharon Stone to stardom.

We recently talked via video call to Joe, whose $3-million pay for Basic Instinct made headlines as the biggest amount ever paid for a script at that time. With that screenplay and several more afterward, Joe helped push the envelope on sexual content in cinema.

But first, Joe, a Hungarian native who was initially raised in an Austrian refugee camp until he and his family immigrated to the US, said, “I would like to say something before we begin. I would like to express my solidarity with the Ukrainian people everywhere. I am myself a refugee to this country from Hungary when I was a little boy.”

“My parents always told me to refer to the Ukrainians as my cousins. I am really proud of my cousins today. I feel great pain for them. And I ask everyone to join me in a prayer today for the Ukrainian people.”

JOE. Joe Eszterhas on his ‘Basic Instinct’ star: ‘Sharon Stone jokes and says that I created her. I would never have presumed to even raise that possibility because she is such a unique and dynamic creature that I couldn’t have created her at all. But I did write a good part for her. That, I will say.’ Courtesy of Naomi Eszterhas

Joe called from Cleveland, Ohio where he grew up since he arrived as an immigrant at six years old. He started as a journalist for the local papers. In 1974, his nonfiction book Charlie Simpson’s Apocalypse earned a National Book Award nomination. Then, he worked as Rolling Stone’s senior editor for several years.

But Joe’s path veered from journalism to screenwriting when a United Artists executive read Charlie Simpson’s Apocalypse and found it “cinematic.” Marcia Nasatir got in touch with Joe and encouraged him to write screenplays, leading to his first one, F.I.S.T., for which Sylvester Stallone, who starred, got a co-writing credit.

Joe’s subsequent screenplays included Flashdance and Jagged Edge. But it was Joe’s Basic Instinct screenplay, which caused a bidding war among the studios, that made him the highest-paid writer in Hollywood in the 1990s.

The macho, tough-talking Joe, long-haired and bearded, then in his late 40s, was described as a rock star of screenwriting.

Sharon starred as Catherine Tramell, an author being investigated by a detective, Nick Curran (Michael Douglas), in a sexual murder case. The investigation scene where Sharon uncrossed and crossed her legs and tormented the cops in front of her became the most paused in film history.

ICONIC. Sharon Stone’s blink-and-you-miss-it un-crossings legs scene has not been forgotten, especially as the March 20, 1992 release date of ‘Basic Instinct’ release is marked. Courtesy of TriStar Pictures

Basic Instinct earned $352 million worldwide and was the fourth biggest hit in 1992.

Three decades later, Joe, now 77, still praised his film’s feisty actress. Kim Basinger, Michelle Pfeiffer, Melanie Griffith, and Geena Davis had rejected the part.

“I don’t think the movie would have been the same without Sharon,” he said. “I thought she was wonderful. She has a quality that is almost like a cuddly little girl quality.”

“Then there is something in the shadows and the parentheses where you can see darkness. I wouldn’t use the word evil. I’d use darkness. I thought she was brilliant.”

“And her performance was critically underrated because it was so daring on a sexual level. Box office-wise, in terms of its huge worldwide success, it was certainly because of her acting performance and the combination of sexuality that Paul really brought to it.”

“But I can’t overstate how important she was to the film and how she made it work.”

“The movie still trends all over the internet and it does really well. I can always tell from my residuals how well it really does.” (A deluxe new 4K restoration was released in time for the film’s 30th anniversary.)

“There is a lot of ‘porny’ movies in the world that don’t do that. The clear indication that this is very special is how it continues year after year to trend with different generations and to be one of the best-selling things in civilization.”

Joe added about Sharon, who went on to become one of the finest actresses of our time and also one of the most passionate HIV/AIDS activists, “Sharon and I are friends. She jokes and says that I created her. I would never have presumed to even raise that possibility because she is such a unique and dynamic creature that I couldn’t have created her at all.”

“But I did write a good part for her. That, I will say.”

Joe recounted the roots of his most well-known script. “When I was a young reporter for The Cleveland Plain Dealer, and before that for the Daily Journal Herald, I covered what they call the police beat. I met a lot of policemen and some I got very close to.”

“There was one cop who was charismatic, charming, and smart, but he had been involved in three separate shootings. Two of those people had died. They were ruled justifiable homicides.”

“I got to know him. I began to take that he liked the shooting. He enjoyed it. His nickname was ‘The Shooter.’ And he stuck with me.”

“A little bit before, I had a relationship with a woman who was about 10 years older than I was. I was about 18, 19. She was a beautiful woman but I thought she was the smartest and the most manipulative.”

CHEMISTRY. As written by Joe Eszterhas and directed by Paul Verhoeven, ‘Basic Instinct,’ tapping the sexual chemistry between Sharon Stone and Michal Douglas, defined the erotic thriller genre in the 1990s. Courtesy of TriStar Pictures

“She enjoyed the manipulation, the game playing, both on intellectual and sexual levels. I liked her but there was a part of her that was very dark.”

“Somehow or other, during the course of time, those two different images came together in my head. Keith Richards of The Stones is a friend of mine. I blame him for it because I listened to their music constantly.”

“So, the two characters intertwined. I wrote the piece right after my disagreement with Michael Ovitz (more on this below). I had written some cop killers before but this thing just came out almost full-blown.”

“I wrote it in 13 days, to the point where I would wake up at three in the morning. It was like they were channeling me as I wrote lines of dialogue down. I had never written anything that quickly.”

“So, it was 13 days from the time that I began writing it that I sent it down to Guy McElwaine, who was my agent.  All the way through the writing, I called it Love Hurts. As I was walking out the door, on my way to Damascus, a bolt of lightning said, change this to Basic Instinct.”

“I went back into the house, put a new title on it and sent it to Guy. Three days [later], we sold it for $4 million, a million of which I gave to Irwin Winkler who had produced two things with me because I really wanted him to be my producer.”

“So, it was a very good price and we got the headlines. I thought some great power, benign or not, had been messing with me to pull it out of my head so quickly after all that time (laughs). That’s how it came out.”

Love Hurts definitely doesn’t have the same ring to it as Basic Instinct does.

STONE. Sharon Stone, according to ‘Basic Instinct’ writer Joe Eszterhas 30 years later: “Her performance was critically underrated because it was so daring on a sexual level…I can’t overstate how important she was to the film and how she made it work.” Photo by Ruben V. Nepales

Joe wrote more screenplays, including the critically panned Showgirls and Basic Instinct 2, which reunited him with Sharon, but it was a flop.

Asked if there was anything left to expose in cinema, Joe quipped, “Well, if there’s anything left, I’d like to see it.  I was actually startled by something that was streaming on Netflix [actually HBO] called The White Lotus.”

“Certainly, it was the most daring thing I’d seen on streaming. There were four images that I am not sure that I have seen in that kind of detail and that clearly anywhere else.”

“When I wrote Basic and when you write this for Paul Verhoeven, you are writing and forget it, he’s not going to listen.” Joe explained that he did not write the sex scenes to be explicit – more like, “It was dark. You can’t see clearly…But when Paul got involved…”

Joe recalled, “Paul did an early Dutch movie. It’s a good movie, but imagine this – over the first credits, there was an image of a penis cut off and then it went up into the air. When I saw that, I said, oh my God, there is nothing like this in Basic.

“Paul has such a vivid and provocateur-like imagination that I wound up being the conservative one, which I never would have imagined. He is a daring, provocative filmmaker. Even in his last movie Benedetta, he just won’t stop.”

“And it’s like, Paul, stop, be cool. He will be like that until the day he dies. But I will always really want to see his movies, that’s for sure. Maybe Paul Verhoeven can show us what we haven’t seen.”

Joe also memorably stood up to Michael Ovitz, then one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, when the latter was the head of Creative Artists Agency (CAA), a top Hollywood talent management firm.

Joe recounted that his growing-up years prepared him to stand up against Hollywood’s bullies.

In this case, the screenwriter claimed in stories that when he told Michael he was quitting CAA and moving to the rival International Creative Management to return to his longtime buddy, Guy McElwaine, as his agent, it didn’t end amicably.

Joe claimed that Michael made threats. He wrote a letter to Michael, strategically leaked, in which he claimed the powerful agent said to him, “My foot soldiers who go up and down Wilshire Boulevard each day will blow your brains out.”

“My greatest education on how to deal with Hollywood was, I grew up in Cleveland on the Westside in a refugee area, in a tough neighborhood. And because I was a refugee, I was called a greenhorn, DP [displaced person] and all of those things a lot, which gave me a lifelong affection for underdogs, black people, Jewish people, gay people.”

“But the moment that taught me how to deal with Hollywood, I had to get by this place every morning called Nate’s Diner. All those guys hung out at Nate’s Diner.”

“I had to go by there to get to the bus, which would get me to a Hungarian bi-language school. But I had to fight. You couldn’t negotiate so I got the shit beat out of me sometimes.”

“So, I learned to combine negotiating with fighting. That’s basically my entire Hollywood career in different ways. Both lessons stuck. It didn’t feel good to get the shit beaten out of me so I almost did it by reflex.”

“In Michael Ovitz’s case, he behaved like a real thug. There was a dynamic to Michael Ovitz. Screenwriters, historically in Hollywood – we are always at the bottom of the totem pole and were treated that way.”

“So, it was my Hungarian nature probably, my refugee background and being a screenwriter, I would just really get pissed off and hurt and it reminded me of my childhood. Michael Ovitz wound up on the wrong end of that particular totem pole with that incident. That’s the only way I can put it.”

Hollywood declared that Joe won this battle.

ROCKSTAR. The refugee camp-raised boy who was beaten by bullies as an immigrant kid in the US learned to stand up to a powerful Hollywood figure. Courtesy of Mark Sennet/People Magazine

After leaving CAA, Michael became president of the Walt Disney Company, but he was forced out after over a year.

Joe expressed concern about the cancel culture pervading in all fields, including Hollywood.

“I think that our ‘woke’ culture is one of the greatest threats to our democracy,” he began. “It squashes free speech, it’s almost like the old-time inquisitions where people were turned into witches and they were taboo creatures.”

“Because creativity demands you to be brightened and not ‘canceled.’ I have always considered myself, because of my background, to be very open and inclusive in my own mind and my own art.”

“I was very involved in the civil rights movement. I went to jail in the civil rights and the anti-war movements. Underdogs were always the people that I really liked and that I gravitated to.”

“And the entire world culture and the entire cancellation culture is an abasement of all of that, in my mind. It’s a real threat. We’ve taken a step back to some of the things that went on in the Iron Curtain countries like Hungary, up to the communist countries.”

“It frightens me. I remember when Basic Instinct came out. We had a controversy over a racist word that one of the characters used. He came from a blue-collar cop background.”

“It was realistic in my mind that a character like that would use that kind of word. I took the word out of the script after meeting with a community of gay people because I saw the pain in their eyes when we talked about the word.”

“And I didn’t think it was a key for me for the character. The character was formed without that word. I didn’t think taking out the word hurt the character at all.”

“But since then, I have thought a lot, especially in the days of the cancel culture. It could be very abused and entire characters could be censored in the same period. It’s a very dangerous thing that’s happening.”

Looking back, Joe reflected on his family life and financial fortune, beginning with his Basic Instinct script which led to more record-setting sales of his work.

The colorful writer was married for 22 years to Gerri Javor Eszterhas, with whom he has two children. Since 1993, he has been married to Naomi Baka Eszterhas. They have two sons.

“I grew up really poor,” he recalled. “Poor enough to go through pockets of bums.”

“But in terms of my writing ambition, I never wanted to have huge amounts of money. I wanted to have enough money to buy a little house for my wife and our two kids and a little square in Sonoma, California.”

“I had bartended on the side to make enough to support the kids. Rolling Stone didn’t pay a lot of money in those days when I worked there.”

“When I did screenwriting, getting $100,000 for a script was like getting a million. It was a fortune. This craziness started happening and the big money started coming in, like $500,000, which at the time was a record price for a spec script, for one of my earliest scripts which was called Big Shots.”

“That was unimaginable. When Basic Instinct happened, I sold another script for $3 million and another one for $4 million. It was miraculous. It wasn’t real – it’s the best way I can put it.”

“We bought bigger houses and the cars were a little nicer. But in terms of our lifestyle, I don’t think there were huge differences. The only time that I really looked at it in terms of money can do bad things to you, is I got divorced and a lot of the money was gone (laughs).”

“That happens and that is real. Maybe that is a price, justifiable when you have been married for 24 years and have two children and all of that. I get it.”

“I don’t think I’ve changed. I have two daughters. I have been blessed with my first wife who I lived with for 24 years.”

“Naomi and I are in our 27th year. That doesn’t mean in any way that I was a saint in my relationships. I never aspired to sainthood.”

“I like all sides of women and so the best I can answer for you is I don’t think I’ve changed at all. I’ve always been ornery.”

The man who survived constant beatings by bullies in a bus stop said, “I’ve always been a refugee and going by Nate’s Diner. That was the biggest lesson.” – Rappler.com

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Ruben V. Nepales

Based in Los Angeles, Ruben V. Nepales is an award-winning journalist whose honors include prizes from the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, a US-wide competition, and the Southern California Journalism Awards, presented by the Los Angeles Press Club.