Writing Sharon

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Sharon Stone appears to be renegotiating her image: one minute she's a dangerous blonde in a jet-black jeep, the next she's a stately, politically concerned vision in tweed. Lloyd Grove gets several takes as Stone basks in the praise for her Oscar-caliber Casino performance and buffs up her credentials as a serious artiste.

(Vanity Fair, March 1996: 156)

The being-in-public of Sharon Stone offers a good example of the new configuration of stardom. It is useful to begin with authorised biography - if an assured sense of identity is not accomplished here, where could it be (Munn, 1997)? Regarded as exceptionally beautiful, Stone has claimed lineage with Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe. But the 'dumb blonde' stereotype is immediately qualified. As her press cuttings unfailingly remind us, Stone has an IQ_of 153 and is very intelligent. In casting herself as the clever blonde, Stone can be read as attempting to sustain the cultural capital of a traditional motion picture star when Hollywood itself is a kind of quotation. Her efforts reveal the troubles that afflict the linear equation of place, activity and being that underwrote 'old' movie stardom, when overexposure and the excessive ramification of the realm of the 'personal' are pervasive realities.

Stone's persona is intimately connected with the contradictions of gender. No surprise here, but it is important to understand what this means in terms of her public biography. Stone, who began her professional career as a fashion model, has cultivated the look and appearance of a 'human Barbie doll', the better to manipulate men. As she put it, 'If you have a vagina and a point of view, that's a deadly combination' (Guardian Weekend, 5 December 1998: 25, 31).

Of course, the persona implied here of a sexually attractive but dangerous woman, is intimately connected with Stone's character in the erotic thriller Basic Instinct (1992, USA), the role that made her a star. As Catherine Tramell, a successful novelist who carries out murders based on the plots of her best-sellers, Stone's performance with star Michael Douglas stretched the limits of explicitness in the mainstream cinema. Scenes in which an underwear-free Stone 'flashed' a group of interrogating police officers, or the opening sequence in which a naked blonde (later revealed to be Tramell) takes herself and a trussed-up male to orgasm then kills him with an ice pick, have a legendary status. Indeed, the ice pick, with its overtones of seizing the phallic initiative, might well be regarded as Stone's trademark. With three female leads who are either lesbian or bisexual, Basic Instinct only served to deepen the association between Stone's physiognomic capital and alternative (media conventions imply deviant) sexual practices and psychopathology. Protests by lesbian and gay groups during filming only served, inadvertently, to cement this association and generate spin and controversy.

Serviceably equivocal, the plot of Basic Instinct does not actually condemn Tramell for her behaviour. No extenuating circumstances such as a history of childhood abuse are offered. Tramell delights in manipulating others, shows evident enjoyment in 'perverse' sexual practices and at the end, apparently appeased by the sexual prowess of Detective Nick Curran (Douglas), is unpunished for the murders (Cohan, 1998). Despite the evocation of Monroe, Stone entered the public domain as a sexually aggressive femme fatak or 'bitch goddess'. Her breakthrough role in Total Recall (1990, USA) as a kick-boxing assassin disguised as the wife of Arnold Schwarzenegger, seemed retrospectively to affirm that these qualities were resident in Stone. The mixture of aggression, sexual explicitness and latent misogyny served to align her with sex, rather than film, stardom.

As a starlet supporting an established star, it can be argued that Stone had no choice but to accept the moral and psychological content of Tramell's character as central to her persona - and to play this content for all it was worth on-screen and at press junkets. She subsequently voiced concerns about being typecast and sought to make amends for the negative aspects of her breakthrough role. One tack was to deny the realism of Basic Instinct. Thus her stated intention in accepting the lead in the erotic thriller Sliver (1993, USA) - again written by Joe Eszterhas - was to use her sex appeal to correct the erroneous view of female sexuality projected in her first hit:

Basic Instinct was about fantasy. I mean who, who makes love like that? All back-bends and an orgasm every second! And who has such confidence to rip off all their clothes? ... This time, my character is more real, and women will recognise all her insecurities. She has spent most of her life with one man and she is frightened about making a new relationship. She is shy and scared about making love with someone else. I have tried to do it in a way women go about their private lives - me included.

But the character of Carly Norris in Sliver - 'vulnerable, insecure about sex' - still replays elements of Tramell's bitch goddess persona. In one scene, set in a posh restaurant, Carly exposes her breasts and removes her panties, which she passes to her lover (played by William Baldwin). Other scenes involving nudity, masturbation, covert surveillance of sexual activities, and sexual dialogue, although less explicit for Stone, draw on the graphic scenography of Basic Instinct. Carly Norris may not have, like Catherine Tramell, 'deep psychological and sexual defects, which affect her mental stability', but she is nonetheless placed by design at the centre of a game of voyeurism and pathological desire. The main difference is that we are invited to see her as victim rather than a predator.

This commercially driven tweaking of persona (ultimately unsuccessful at the US box office) was soon followed by a star as auteur policy of casting in and out of type - for example, Intersection (1994, USA), The Quick and The Dead (1995, USA), Last Dance (1996, USA), Diabolique (1996, USA), The Mighty (1998, USA) and Gloria (1999, USA).10 This policy - involving inter alia playing a wronged spouse, a prisoner on death row, a reveng ing cowgirl, the simple mother of a gifted child - is meant to prove that she is capable of characterisation in depth. As she freely admits, she needs to develop her range in order to accommodate the ageing process. These efforts have been uneven in terms of acting quality and box office. It may be as she said, that her one critical acting success to date (her Oscar-nominated role in Scorsese's Casino (1995, USA)) has wiped out the Tramell legacy. But her performance as Ginger, a coke-snorting hooker, still draws on elements of the bitch goddess persona (Hollywood Online, 1998).

Rather than examine the critical reception of these efforts (or Stone's actual performances which are seldom less than striking), I would suggest that they serve notice on the general public and Stone fans, in particular, of an interactive rule. All concerned must recognise a gulf between the 'real' Sharon Stone and the characters which she portrays. Such an existential bracketing signals the value 'actor', not 'sex symbol'.

Although she has insisted on an unbridgeable gulf between what she feels and how she is required to act, on-screen and in promotional settings, the Tramell legacy is often deployed for purposes of ingratiation. It may be a 'stupid objectification' but it has a solidarity value with women in late modern capitalist societies.

You just cannot be a blonde with a good body and pretty looks and have any options in Hollywood. ... To the boys who run things, you're just a dumb blonde, so you better know your place.

Such stereotyping is part of the symbolic annihilation of women:

Even though women are not a minority, we are treated like one. So many female characters are written the way men experience women or would like to experience women, and that's not the way women really are.

Far from being a winner, Stone is a victim of patriarchy and proof of its pervasiveness. Her decision, after Total Recall, to do a centrefold for Playboy magazine, rather than contradicting her femininism was part of a larger career strategy forced upon her by her 'Barbie doll' image and a history of insubstantial parts:

I'd have liked to have been Meryl Streep or Glenn Close and be accepted on the integrity of my work, to have been able to do a performance like Basic Instinct without taking my clothes off. But Hollywood wouldn't let me do that so I had to make a decision. Was I willing to strip to save my career? Ultimately I decided I was.

Women my age do not get leading roles and you need to be sexually appealing for parts in movies you might be right for. It's a man's world, and when you look like I look, that's what it is. I'd taken my top off in three movies and nobody noticed. I felt I was reclaiming my femininity.

The perspicacious (and seemingly valid) thrust of these observations sets the real Sharon Stone at an existential distance from her persona. It is not difficult to discern, and this may be intended, the notion of femininity as a masquerade - a decorative layer which conceals a non-identity (Doane, 1988). Stone has embodied, on-screen and in auditions, the script of masculine desire, the better to gain control of her career and, it is tempting to assume, her personal life. 'Being a blonde is a great excuse when you're having a bad day' - even if as she subsequendy admitted, she is definitely not a natural blonde.

Such observations do not stand alone. It is not difficult to find others that threaten the cordon sanitaire between person and persona. A persistent theme is that the persona of Tramell enables a certain kind of professionally and interpersonally efficacious role-playing:

When I first got famous, the image of the movie [Basic Instinctl really protected me. Everyone thought I had so much bravado and was so wild. So I could continue to be that. It was a blast.

Indeed, the depiction of a woman using her sexuality to manipulate might be seen as an empowerment metaphor:

It is so rare that a female character is more than an appendage to some guy. But I never thought of Catherine as bisexual or even sexual. Sex is just the currency she uses to get what she wants.

She has said that it is a tribute to her artistry if men believe (hope?) she is Tramell (Berlin, 1996: 204). But this artistry is not entirely a façade:

People who are sophisticated enough to know that I'm not Catherine are sophisticated enough to know that I could be, if I wanted to.

(Premiere magazine, May 1993: 65)

For the reader, of course, Stone's 'real' self is only what is available in the media. So assertions such as these may be taken as evidence of an out-of-sight primal bonding. Even if pre-release publicity had not played the ambiguity for what is worth, it is a small step from appearing to be to being taken as being, especially if playing a character is represented as a process of self-discovery and re-definition. Although publicity has countered that 'basic Sharon' is really more like a cuddly toy than a sexual tigress (Premiere magazine, May 1993: 65), the star's reported sexual affairs — probably far less extensive than rumoured - suggest that the image of a sexual predator is not entirely undeserved. Even quotes in authorised materials failed to dispel this implication, discussing for example her very messy 'fling' with producer Bill MacDonald during the making of Sliver, or informing the reader that Stone's willingness to 'show all' in a Playboy centrefold surprised even a hardened photographer. Her reported musings that Basic Instinct did not go far enough since anal sex was not depicted, seem to hint at a greater sexual sophistication than Tramell's. Even her protest about being exploited by Paul Verhoeven in the 'flash' scene hints at inhibition, since the issue is respect rather than impropriety:

As a mature artist, I agree that shot was the best for the movie. I really disagree with the way he got it. Because it made me look incredibly stupid when I was very, very willing to do what it took to be that character.

(Guardian Editor, 12 December 1998:10)

If Stone is prepared to 'go to the limit' in pretence and masquerade, readers may wonder how different is she from Tramell? Allowing that Tramell is a fictional construct, might the erotic energy and imaginativeness not arise from Stone herself? Certainly her fashionable adherence to 'method' underscores the rule that convincing characters spring from personal experiences.11

As a character actor, Stone's authenticity would not be an issue since the purpose of technique is precisely to impose a distance between each fictive incarnation and the person of the actor. But because she is a star, the commercial value of diminishing the social distance between herself and the public renders technique a means towards an epiphany. Stone's claims of deep bonding with successive characters might seem contradictory - she is apparently deeply in every role and yet outside of any role; a champion of authenticity and a smooth manipulator of appearances, including of course her own. There is another way to construe it, which has commercial efficacy - if acting is a process of self-development and self-discovery, then each role is a step on the road to actualising the real Sharon:

I had certain rules. I'd have to be a better actor when I came out of each role and every other one had to be a potential hit.

(Guardian Weekend, 5 December 1998: 25, 31)

But if this reasoning is applied, then surely the audience is entitled to suppose that her most successful 'hit' is the privileged site in which she succeeded in 'being' herself. It is a short step to conclude that the narrative existence of Catherine Tramell is simply an activation of qualities that Stone has in real life. Her authorised publicity may reassure interested male fans that this is not the case. Stone is really an ordinary, small-town girl who falls for guys who are 'regular' like her father. But she protests too much - if she is unlike Tramell, why is it necessary to fix her up with a non-threatening interest in the pipe and slippers brigade? Nor can her advanced physiognomic capital and professional determination be counted for nothing. The self-actualisation features of Basic Instinct are attested to by those who have observed first-hand: Paul Verhoeven has said on record that Stone is Catherine minus the killings; for Robert Evans, the producer of Sliver, she has 'Balls like Mike Tyson' (Entertainment Weekly, 21 May 1993: 16-21). If we step across the threshold of authorised biography, the threshold between the fictive and the real turns into a virtual freeway. The unauthorised biography, Naked Instinct, opens with an 'eye-witness' account of lesbian sex in the powder room of the Beverly Hills Hilton (Sanello, 1997). The action with Stone as predator and an unnamed, overwhelmed woman reads like a director's cut from Basic Instinct,12 William Baldwin, who starred with Stone in Sliver, has referred to her as a 'paean to Lipstick Lesbianism' (Cagle, 'Sliver', Entertainment Weekly, 21 May 1993: 16-21). Stone herself fuels speculation: 'I have to straighten out my karma I've become a sex symbol, which is an absurd thing for me. Particularly since I symbolise the kind of sex I don't believe in' (Premiere magazine, May 1993: 59).

Ambiguous statements such as these, interfacing with proclamations of heterosexual desire, serve to reinforce the perception that Stone is bisexual. But if this is true then Tramell is, again, an apt extension of 'herself.

In official literature, Stone is like a star in the sense that her on-screen performance is only weakly metaphorical, she relies on metonymic resources. For those who find her fascinating, this is good news despite her claim to be acting on metaphor. Her fans - or, at least, the journalists who stand as the nominal surrogates for them - want the person revealed in the husk of the role. The endorsement of 'method acting' easily spills over into imaginatively richer pastures (Naremore, 1988).

As an example, consider the scar theory website found on the Stone webring. This site is ostensively dedicated to solving the riddle of the cause of a scar on Stone's neck.13 Interested surfers can log in to offer their 'theory' of its cause. It has been 'explained' by bizarre sexual practices involving overzealous asphyxiation, intercourse with or on a horse in a wire-fenced paddock, transsexual plastic surgery to remove an Adam's apple, surgery during alien abduction, and a poorly executed head transplant, for Stone is really a cyborg.

This is disturbing stuff, but it also reveals a deeper gloss on the Tramell persona with its 'queering' of categories. What is revealing about the scar theory site, apart from what it says about the intellectual level of e-mail, is that it constitutes an attempt to force Stone deeply into the Tramell persona. To this extent, this ever-expanding discourse becomes, under the rubric of free speech, a popular demand that Stone be who she really is. But such a demand is also problematic because it writes in the kinky overtones of that persona to excess. Intercourse with a horse indeed! At least the Tramell persona has the protective bracket of being a fictional performance, a nominalising site of selfhood where Stone can say she is or is not acting. Let her temporise, fans know better. Basic Instinct 2, if it ever happens, is the necessary eternal recurrence of what made her a star, of what she really is.14

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