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Nineteen ninety-two saw Paul Verhoeven unveil his erotic thriller, Basic Instinct, to the American cinema going public, which Carolco Pictures produced. But getting the film onto the silver screen was not an easy task due to the film's
boundary-pushing content, and in this edition of the series we'll be taking a look at the story behind Basic Instinct's time at the hands of the American censors, the MPAA, as well as taking a look at the changes that were made for the sequel that
followed in 2006.
Paul Verhoeven was no stranger to dealing with censorship, both in his native Holland and later in the
United States, with his previous films RoboCop and Total Recall both suffering cuts in America to attain R ratings, to name but two. By the time Verhoeven came round to shooting Basic Instinct, he was well aware that the film may cause issues with the MPAA, particularly since he was
contractually obliged by Tristar (the distributor) to deliver an R-rated film. As one anonymous source close to the film remarked at the time:
This is a movie about a female character who kills people at the moment of orgasm. That's a very tough concept.
As a precaution, Verhoeven shot some softer, alternative material for several scenes that he felt would be problematic for the ratings board; thinking that if changes were needed, he could simply use this alternate footage without the need to remove
footage outright. On the other hand, in an interview with Rolling Stone in 2015, Paul Verhoeven felt that he had some leeway with how far he could go with the film's sexual content, remarking:
Because it was a thriller, the idea that Sharon Stone could kill 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.
Cut for an MPAA R rating
By the late January of 1992, Verhoeven submitted a first cut of Basic Instinct to the MPAA. Following two initial screenings, the MPAA told Verhoeven that the film was an NC-17; a rating that had been introduced in 1990 to replace the old X certificate.
This, of course, was unacceptable to the filmmakers and Verhoeven was not too pleased to say the least. As a source close to the film remarked at the time:
I know he did plenty of yelling... but [the MPAA] had a vise grip to his head.
At the time, the MPAA were keen to promote the new NC-17 as a viable option to filmmakers. One of the main reasons the NC-17 had been introduced was to do away with the connotations of the old X rating being associated with pornography. According to
Verhoeven, Basic Instinct was a great example of the kind of film that was suited to this rating; an adult thriller intended for adults, with Verhoeven claiming that the MPAA were eager for the studio to accept an NC-17 rating without cuts:
After showing the MPAA the first cut, they said this is great, please don't change it, it's an NC-17. They wanted a big audience movie to be NC-17 and still be a good movie, not a work of exploitation. They wanted to legitimize the NC-17.
Basic Instinct was submitted to the MPAA seven times, with Paul Verhoeven making around 42 seconds of cuts to the film. Around 22 seconds of footage was eliminated entirely, with the remaining cuts involving the substitution of less graphic footage that
had been shot for safety during production. After all was said and done, Verhoeven was pragmatic about the cuts that were made, remarking:
I knew we would have problems... I hoped that I would get away with as much as possible, and in certain cases I got away with some things... I feel the MPAA has been fair and has always been. Perhaps I shoot scenes a little more graphic than I want them
to be because I know that I'm going to fight. I might have a tendency to push it a little bit, and say, 'Well, let's see what we can do here.'
Four key scenes in the film were cut for an R rating. Let's take a look at the differences between the original- and R-rated versions of each of these scenes. In the following discussions, we'll be referring to the NC-17 version as the 'uncut version'.
Cut Scenes: Picking her first victim
The opening scene of the film which shows Catherine murdering Johnny was the first to receive MPAA cuts, and Verhoeven pulls no punches with the content. The key issues that needed addressing for an R rating in this sequence (and indeed in other similar
scenes in the film) were sex, nudity, and the combination of sex and violence. In particular, the minimizing of sexual thrusting (or 'grinding' as the MPAA refer to it in their classification reports) was something that had to be addressed.
The cut R version loses sight of Catherine straddling Johnny, as well as reducing her breast nudity after she ties him to the headboard. Johnny's murder is also heavily reduced, losing all sight of the ice pick penetrating his nose and profile shots of
his heavily-bloodied torso as he is stabbed repeatedly. The cut version elects instead to play the murder mostly off-screen, focussing instead on Catherine's body:
The later sight of Johnny's naked dead body, with his genitals clearly on show, was allowed to remain by the MPAA because the image was one that lacked any sexual connotations. Verhoeven had this instance of full-frontal nudity cleared with the MPAA
before the film was submitted.
Cut Scenes: Nick & Beth
The second scene that was cut was the scene of rough sex between Beth and Nick. The scene is a complex one thematically, since Beth and Nick were previously in a relationship together, and it can be read in a multitude of ways. Some commentators have
suggested that the scene shows an act of date-rape, particularly with regards to Beth's pleading to Nick that is clearly audible in the uncut version. Verhoeven's point of view on the scene was made clear in an interview after the film's release, where
A date-rape would really be that she is raped and that at no moment is there any consent. There is consent and there are moments when you feel it's going too far, and then she consents anyhow for whatever reason. He pushes her into a situation that
ultimately I don't know if she enjoys, but she seems to accept it to a certain degree.
Actor Michael Douglas, who plays Nick, firmly disagreed that the scene depicts a date-rape:
That was not a rape. It was aggressive sex between adults.
In any case, the R-rated version is much tamer and cuts the scene by around half, eliminating both the sight of Nick removing Beth's underwear and entering her from behind; reducing Nick's thrusting into her and Beth pleading with him to stop and
generally reducing Nick's rough treatment of Beth as they have sex.
Cut Scenes: Nick & Catherine
The most heavily-cut scene (and the most problematic for the MPAA) is the lengthy initial sex scene between Nick and Catherine. Many changes were implemented here, starting with the very brief sight of Nick's penis in long shot, which was digitally
removed in the R-rated version. The initial sight of Catherine reacting to Nick performing oral sex on her is truncated, using a shorter wide shot in place of the original medium shot which showed Catherine running her hands over her naked breasts.
Further close-up shots of Nick kissing Catherine's leg were substituted in the R-rated version in place of a wider angle that showed Catherine's naked body, and the sight of Nick performing cunnilingus on Catherine was also removed; focussing instead on
Catherine's pleasured face. The sight of Nick kissing Catherine's breasts is also replaced with less explicit footage in the R-rated version, and the following sight of Catherine kissing Nick's chest is played in close-up in the R-rated version, whilst
the uncut version contains slightly more nudity in medium shot. Further cuts in the R-rated version remove some of Nick's groaning as he has fellatio performed on him and reduce the sight of the couple in the overhead mirror, as well as Catherine
grinding atop Nick as she climaxes.
Cut Scenes: Elevator murder
The last scene edited for an R rating was the murder of Gus in the elevator. The differences are extremely minor, with three or four frames having been removed for the R-rated version during the stabbing sequence.
After Paul Verhoeven had made all of the changes mandated by the MPAA, the ratings board passed Basic Instinct with an R rating on February 7 th 1992 for:
Strong violence and sensuality, and for drug use and language.
This cut of the film was released in American cinemas, with later separate releases on VHS featuring the R-rated version and the uncut version; the latter of which was released as the "Original Director's Cut" without an MPAA rating which
restored all of the previously-censored material. Basic Instinct was later released on DVD in its uncut form in 2001, and again in 2003 and 2006. Some international releases of the DVD had the added bonus of containing a superior DTS Digital Surround 5.1
soundtrack. The original uncut version of the film is also widely available in the United States on Blu-ray, with the R-rated version having long since faded into obscurity.
Uncut for a BBFC 18 rating
Basic Instinct's release outside of the United States was far less problematic, with the distributors opting to release the uncut version in many other territories. In the United Kingdom, for example, it was passed by the British Board of Film
Classification without incident. Indeed, the film's examiners were full of praise for the film, with one remarking: z
A gripping piece of hokum which bounces the eyeballs from the very start with a scorching sex scene... The plot doesn't bear too much analysis -- but who cares when one is sitting on the edge of the seat for two hours.
Although the BBFC were in no doubt as to what rating the film required:
...sex, sexual violence and splatter... very much militates our '18'.
This opinion was also shared by a second examiner, who noted that the killings of Johnny and Gus were:
...unquestionably '18' on both qualitative and quantitative grounds -- many stabs, blood spurting and gushing, but within general bounds for category.
The uncut version of Basic Instinct was passed with an uncut '18' rating five days after its submission to the Board on March 18th 1992. This same version was released on video and DVD and later on Blu-ray, and has always been the standard version
available to British consumers, with the BBFC noting that the film:
After languishing in development hell for more than five years, Scottish director Michael Caton-Jones was eventually chosen to direct Basic Instinct 2 for Sony Pictures, which was released in the United States at the end of March 2006 following a
troubled pre-production period. Like its predecessor, Basic Instinct 2 also had problems with the MPAA.
Cut Scenes: Removed outright
The film once again needed an R rating for commercial reasons, and allegedly three major scenes were been cited as requiring an NC-17 rating for the film: an orgy sequence, a threesome and a scene where Catherine is raped by Michael Glass (played by
David Morrissey). In order for Basic Instinct 2 to attain an R rating, these three scenes were said to have been removed from the film outright during the classification process in the United States, although Sharon Stone felt at the time that the MPAA
were being too heavy-handed, remarking in an interview with Fox news:
Catherine is a sexy, complicated woman. When is too much sex too much on screen? I never hear the same complaints about violence.
Cut Scenes: Michael & Michelle
Two further scenes of sexual activity were also removed for an R rating due to the amount of sexual thrusting which was involved. The first of these scenes is a sex scene between Michael and Michelle.
For an R rating, around 15 seconds of footage was removed which showed Michael twisting Michelle's hair around his hand before he violently yanks her backwards, as well as a reduction in the amount of thrusting which follows this act:
Cut Scenes: Michael & Magda
Another brief sex scene was also removed around 50 minutes into the film, which showed Michael having sex with a waitress named Magda in a coffee shop. This scene immediately follows a scene which shows Catherine ending her ongoing therapy sessions with
Michael. Not only was the sexual activity removed for the R-rated version, but the entire scene in the coffee shop which precedes it was also cut for continuity reasons. As a result, the R-rated version loses around a minute's worth of footage, cutting
directly from Catherine leaving Michael's office to Michael calling Catherine on the phone.
After cuts had been made, Basic Instinct 2 was passed with an R rating by the MPAA for:
Strong sexuality, nudity, violence, language and some drug content.
Like its predecessor, Basic Instinct 2 attracted no controversy at the BBFC in the UK, and the R-rated version was passed uncut with an '18' rating for "strong sex" for a theatrical release.
The R-rated version of Basic Instinct 2 was released in the United States on DVD and later on Blu-ray. An unrated version was also released on DVD, which restored the uncut version of the sex scene between Michael and Michelle, as well as the coffee shop
scene with Michael and Magda. The other contentious scenes mentioned earlier that were allegedly removed to avoid an NC-17 rating have never surfaced on home video anywhere in the world.
The DVD release of Basic Instinct 2 in the United Kingdom also features the unrated version and carries an 18 rating; although there appears to be no reference to the uncut version being passed by the BBFC in their database.
To summarise, fans seeking the uncut version of both films can pick up the unrated version of Basic Instinct on Blu-ray and the unrated version of Basic Instinct 2 on DVD. To date, the American and British markets do not have an unrated version of Basic
Instinct 2 on Blu-ray or Ultra HD Blu-ray.
Cutting Edge Video, Season Two, Episode 35: Basic Instinct Special Edition
Viewers in the USA can watch this episode on YouTube
All articles are original works compiled by Gavin Salkeld, with occasional
help from a small team of researchers. Particular thanks are due to the BBFC
for their diligent and helpful explanations of their interventions.