In those gentle days before internet pornography there was a book you could buy which listed the precise moment in each Hollywood film when the sex scene began, or when the leading lady – very often Greta Scacchi – got her kit off, thus enabling one to buy the video, or rent it from Blockbuster, and fast-forward to the, uh, important bit.
Apparently the most requested fast-forward was of Sharon Stone in Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct: a film as dumb as pretty much everything else the Dutchman has committed to celluloid, even if his reputation has lately been rehabilitated (for reasons I do not understand). Stone played a bisexual novelist suspected of murder and the scene in question comes during her interrogation by the police, when she uncrosses her legs, thus revealing to the detective – played by Michael Douglas – the briefest glimpse of her vulva, the shot lasting one-sixth of a second. In other words, the merest snatch.
Verhoeven, a man with form in this area, had apparently told the relatively unknown Stone – about the 25th choice for the part, although she is probably the only good thing about the film – that she should not wear knickers for this particular shot as they were giving the most terrible glare off the camera. Don’t worry, he added, you won’t be able to see anything. He wasn’t wholly wrong. I saw the film first in the cinema and, either because of my already declining eyesight or the grainy texture of the film, saw nothing at all. Nor did I when I watched it on video on an admittedly small TV much later, nor later still when I got a bigger set. Luckily Basic Instinct has recently been remastered, imbuing this one-sixth of a second with much greater visual clarity, to Stone’s chagrin.
I haven’t seen the new version and doubt I will as the film has ropey dialogue, a typically sweaty performance from Douglas and a stupid denouement. The interesting thing is that Basic Instinct has been reclaimed by feminists as an example of the portrayal of a ‘strong female’ figure, despite the fact that it exemplified the exploitation endured by many actresses at the time (1992).
Stone, incidentally, is a terrific actress, especially in blue-collar roles – her father was a factory worker in Pennsylvania – and more than deserved the stardom this film bestowed upon her as a consequence of that one-sixth-of-a-second shot.
I mention all this in the cause of context. The deputy leader of the Labour party, Angela Rayner, has been accused by some unnamed Conservative MP of wearing a short skirt to Prime Minister’s Questions in order to capture Boris Johnson’s attention and somehow discombobulate him. The Basic Instinct precedent has been mentioned. And so now all hell has broken loose and this was, for a couple of days, the most important story in the world for the BBC (and indeed Times Radio). Not the third world war, but Angela Rayner’s legs. They never made the same allegations about Bessie Braddock, did they? Anyway, the reaction has been the usual stuff of exponentially accelerating outrage, with every politician and journo commentator trying to outdo each other when reaching for the adjectives.
So, one Labour frontbencher described the comments as ‘horrific’. They are not really ‘horrific’, are they? The Holocaust was horrific, the murder of a child is horrific. But not the facile observations of some mentally challenged Tory member. They are stupid comments and – yes – sexist and yet more evidence that the Conservative party still has a sizeable contingent of sexually repressed former public schoolboys who should really be doing something else for a living, such as grouting the tiles in my bathroom. But I think Angela and the rest of us will be able, in time, to rebuild and carry on, no? The Prime Minister has apologised. And now we hear that Rayner herself had made exactly the same joke on the House of Commons terrace – and is busy being aghast that such a thing could possibly be said. Surely, you might think, we can now get on with the important issues of the day, such as whether or not the Prime Minister ate some cake with some other people when he wasn’t supposed to be eating cake with some other people?
No, not a bit of it. Wreathed in a newly discovered cloak of immense pomposity, the hitherto rather likeable Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, has ‘summoned’ the editor of the Mail on Sunday, David Dillon, to appear before him and provide some sort of explanation for having run the story in the first place. It is a matter of grave disappointment to me that Mr Dillon didn’t immediately tell Sir Lindsay to piss off and mind his own business, although he has done so now. I do not fully understand Hoyle’s annoyance with the newspaper. Is he really saying that the Mail on Sunday shouldn’t have run the story? That we should have been denied the opportunity to learn about the latest gobbet of idiocy to come from within the ruling party?
Hoyle is overreaching. How the newspapers report politics is up to the editors of those newspapers – and we should never be in the position where readers might fear that a newspaper has muzzled itself because it doesn’t want to get on the wrong side of Sir Lindsay. It is true that parliament takes itself very seriously indeed, rather more seriously than does the average man in the street. That is why the actualité of parliamentary debates and speeches must not be used for satirical or comedic purposes, despite the wealth of excellent material they provide. But is Sir Lindsay going to clamp down on the sketch-writers too? He has gone too far and someone should tell him, in case it all goes to his head and he does it again.
Best Sharon Stone performance? Arguably in Martin Scorsese’s Casino, but her youthful nastiness in Verhoeven’s idiotic Total Recall is also worth seeing for more than a sixth of a second.