“I have to straighten out my karma,” says Sharon Stone. “I’ve become a sex symbol, which is an absurd thing for me. Particularly since I symbolize a kind of sex I don’t believe in.”
That swirling girl-on-top, biting, moaning, male-fantasy, no-panties, ice-pick-punctuated kind? The instincts-so-basic-that-we-paid-$385-million-worldwide-to-see-them kind?
“That’s not me,” Stone protests. “I’m a girl at home in my glasses and flannel pajamas going, ‘Okay, in the sex scene, should she take her bra off?’ ”
Looking glamorously businesslike in a brown Nino Cerruti suit, Stone is making these curious remarks in the paneled halls of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, which represents a posh Manhattan restaurant in the film Sliver. She’s on a diatribe against our loveless, libidinous society. “We’re leaping at it like cats on the back porch,” she says. She calmly offers her assessment that the sex scenes in Basic Instinct were “ridiculous.”
And yet in a few minutes she will be called before the cameras of yet another erotic thriller written by Joe Eszterhas to embody the male (or is it Cosmo?) fantasy of an elusive blond beauty transformed into a wanton lover.
This is Sharon Stone’s year, and she’s having it her way. At 35, she is the first post-Madonna cinema sex goddess of the ’90s. A brazen and provocative material girl, she proclaims her feminist ideals even as she waxes seductive—in a most charming and tongue-in-cheek way, mind you—to smooth ordinary business encounters. She pledges her allegiance to good karma, condoms (she insisted Sliver be a safe-sex movie), and all else politically correct but will make the most of a scene where she hands her just-shucked panties to her lover in a restaurant.
In Hollywood, what seems to be about sex is usually about power, and Stone has got it. After earning $300,000 tor Basic Instinct, her price for Sliver leaped to $2.5 million plus gross points. She won a coveted costarring role opposite Richard Gere in Mark Rydell’s upcoming Intersection (no, she didn’t want a part of the home-wrecking babe—she’ll play the wife, thanks and has also signed on at a reported $5 million-plus for producer Mario Kassar’s Manhattan Ghost Story, putting her alongside Julia Roberts and Whoopi Goldberg as one of the movies’ highest-paid actresses.
Her toughness and her chip-proof beauty—along with her audacity in tackling explicit love scenes—have been Stone’s ticket to fame. In the absurd B-flick Blood and Sand, back in 1989, she was all spit, polish, and cocaine as she intoned. “Men are the easiest animals to tame, dear.” It was director Paul Verhoeven who first showcased Stone for the mainstream. “That’s for making me come to Mars,” she barked as she kicked Arnold Schwarzenegger in the face in Total Recall. And then came Catherine Tramell, the villainess who has put her indelible stamp on our collective notion of the term “interrogation scene.”
“Sharon has crawled the hill of broken glass in this town and has a really tough and realistic attitude,” says Joe Eszterhas.
The lust-stoked, ice-pick-happy bisexual that Stone played in Basic got her way by outfoxing every man in sight. Verhoeven once remarked to this magazine that “Sharon is like Catherine without killing, ja?” While Catherine’s canniness was pure Stone, Sliver’s Carly Norris challenges her to delve into more vulnerable areas. Carly is a frustrated urban pilgrim who trades in her stultifying marriage to an older professor (and their Greenwich Village apartment) for a chancy move into singlehood in a “sliver” high-rise apartment building.
“Catherine kept the men in line,” says Stone, who felt safe behind that character’s bold facade. “But Carly is so fragile that it’s easy for her to get stomped on and discarded.”
Such treatment is Stone’s biggest fear. She’s not the first beautiful blond battling to be perceived as intelligent by the public and the Hollywood power structure. It’s not hard to assess the source of her dread, even as she has flaunted her bravado throughout her career. This is her first shot at carrying a movie, and the pressure is intense. Like it or not, she will be held responsible for the success or failure of Sliver. When she showed up for a cameo in Schwarzenegger’s Last Action Hero in February, she confided her fears to her erstwhile costar. He says that after giving him a hug and accepting his congratulations on her newfound fame, she added, “I didn’t know how scary it would be.”
Even as she credits Verhoeven with giving her her breaks, Stone has publicly claimed, in outrage, that he tricked her into removing her underwear to record the most sensational movie image of 1992. Now, as she dares once again to expose herself emotionally and sexually—in Sliver—her antennae are highly tuned to any hint of exploitation. She’ll be damned if she’ll be made to look foolish. The only person she wholly trusts to prevent that from happening is her longtime best friend, Mimi Craven, whom Stone calls in to consult on difficult scenes.
The cast and crew on Sliver have encountered several different Sharons. There is adorable Sharon, with her endearingly sharp humor, who threw a lavish Christmas lunch for the crew on her own dime, complete with gospel carolers and members of the Cirque du Soleil troupe. There is cocksure Sharon, boastful about how “it takes a while for me to calm the men down” on the love-scene days. And there is apprehensive Sharon, who reportedly was reluctant to come out of her trailer on those very same love-scene days, and who required long, reassuring conversations with director Phillip Noyce about his approach to the story as well as blocking and camera angles.
As she stands under the floodlights on the LAAC set, with her decidedly erect bearing and warrior’s attentiveness, Stone tracks everyone’s comings and goings. When a journalist arrives late to the set in a drenching Los Angeles rainstorm, she roars amiably, “Real hell or high water!” and everyone present is reminded it’s Stone’s world that we’re all just visiting.
While the crew resets and the well-dressed extras loll about the club, Stone takes her break around the corner, her racehorse legs overwhelming a bar stool. She seems to intercept skeptical thoughts about her contradictory stances even before the questions are asked. Sliver will show “what it’s really like for women, not that stupid objectification,” she says, adding that she feels her audience is women and that she is reaching in her work for some truth about the female experience. “The point of the piece is, can love redeem anything? Can Carly become anything she wants to and still be loved?”
Like Basic, Sliver, which is loosely based on the Ira Levin novel of the same name, has been bruited as a psychosexual drama. “But it’s a different kind of movie,” she says. “I wouldn’t insult the audience by going back and making the same kind. Yet they”—presumably she means Paramount Pictures—“want to ride the coattails of that. They’re scared, I guess.”
Still, Stone initially turned down Eszterhas, her great pal from Basic, and Sliver producer Robert Evans, both of whom wanted her for Cady, because she felt it was too much like her last role. “Joe tried to convince her, the studio tried, I tried,” says Evans. After Eszterhas made some script changes and Evans taunted her with the names of competing actresses (including Geena Davis, whom, he says, “I never did send the script to”), Stone finally signed on. Noyce, an Australian who was hot both critically (Dead Calm) and commercially (Patriot Games), had been talking to Evans about Paramount’s The Saint, but directing Sliver took precedence.
The story as Eszterhas rejiggered it features a triangle whose two male legs are part of a whodunit riddle at the plot’s heart. One is Cady’s apartment-house neighbor Jack Lansford, a cynical, horny, up-from-the-streets author of police procedurals. That slot was filled by Tom Berenger, whom Noyce found “so good at conveying the sense that his character is restless, with a short fuse.”
Zeke Hawkins, a chiseled and charming stud puppet of independent means who is much younger than Carly, is played by William Baldwin. “You think you’re too old for me,” he challenges her. She’s a woman who’s up for a challenge, and their lovemaking and sexual game-playing are woven around voyeurism, an overriding theme.
As Cady develops her relationships with the two men, her life descends into confusion and mayhem. She begins to suspect that an unseen someone is spying on her. Stone’s Cady is the key to the believability of this warped triangle. “Sharon so skillfully gets in touch with Cady’s repressed desires and urges,” says Noyce.
“Finding this character was a dangerous exploration,” says Stone. “In Basic, I had to confront a lot of things that were way outside my own personal boundaries. But Catherine had an act. She was big and bold; she was, like, ‘Fuck you.’ But what I’m trying to do here is speak from my most feminine voice, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious. This girl doesn’t have an act. She’s exhausting to play because it just grinds on the core all the time.”
The volume of Stone’s husky voice tends to rise when she makes a point, and by now she’s audible throughout the bar. Ten yards over her shoulder, the crew making Sliver’s electronic press kit has been taping Tom Berenger’s interview, but now her voice is threading in. A publicist comes over to shush her—delicately.
Vaulting off her stool, Stone flounces over to park herself on Berenger’s lap and faces the camera with a feline sexiness. Even as she ruffles his hair and cinches him in a gangly embrace, Berenger plays it straight and continues answering the interviewer’s question, so Stone sets to cooing and moaning. Only when she turns her butt nimbly toward the camera and plants both shins on his thighs does he even crack a smile. He’s still talking in a deliberate, thoughtful monotone as she gives the camera one last lascivious look, flutters a hand under his chin, and vamps off. “Where were we?” she asks with utter composure after finding a new spot in the hallway.
“Sharon is a thousand people,” says Eszterhas, “and one of them is certainly the little girl from Meadville. In those moments of joy we see in Sliver, the little girl comes out.”
Her decidedly humble upbringing as the second of Joe and Dorothy Stone’s four children was a theme of the avalanche of coverage she got when Basic hit big. Meadville is a town of some 14,000, 40 miles south of Erie, Pennsylvania, and her high school district was tiny Sagertown, where she was one of 118 graduating seniors in 1975. Joe Stone’s salary at a tool-and-die factory was around $15,000.
“It’s pretty intense, in a dark factory lifting steel blocks, cutting all night,” says Stone. “My mom and dad met when they were fourteen, fifteen years old, and they had both quit school. My mom went back to school at night—she graduated with my graduating class. My dad worked second shift, which is, like, 3 to 11 P.M. And she would stay up half the night with him and tutor him. My dad kept telling me, ‘There’s great opportunities in engineering.’ ”
A self-described “bookworm and nerd,” Stone was afraid of dating and felt like a misfit. Even at home. “My dad was among those who thought I was an alien,” she goes on. Joe Stone was stern, restrictive. “If l was home one minute late, he was standing in the window. When I was a kid, he was ‘that guy.’ Now I can call him when I have a broken heart or a mini-broken heart.” She was a good student and began college courses at nearby Edinboro University of Pennsylvania while still in high school, reinforcing her separateness.
“Now that I’m a grown woman, I have to encounter some of those experiences I lost by acting like an adult when I wasn’t.” It was during this period that the nineteen-year-old Stone stormed Manhattan—“I walked into a casting office in Times Square and said to the lady, ‘Do you think I have a chance?’ And she said, ‘Well, you know, I’m the receptionist.’ ” Stone made her film debut in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories as the girl who smooches the train window, but she went on to do a discouraging string of stinkers.
Stone was running out of time, slipping career cogs, when Verhoeven cast her as Schwarzenegger’s coolly scrumptious, karate-kicking wife in Total Recall. For the first time in her career, she says, “I got serious. Verhoeven dealt with me as an intellectual and forced me to use my mind. Other people, for most of my life, have preferred me not to think, to just shut up, do my hair, stand over there, and look good. And could you do it in a bathing suit?”
Stone says that when she realized Total Recall was going to be a big hit, she knew she had to seize control of her career. She says she fired her agent, CAA’s Paula Wagner, after Wagner skipped an early screening of Total Recall. “No one [at CAA] would come to see it,” says Stone, and Wagner, who was handling Tom Cruise, “wasn’t very interested in me.” So Stone marched into the Gersh Agency and told them, “I’m 32 years old and I don’t want to be 42 and not have had a chance.”
Around the same time, she slyly showed up dressed Grace Kelly-style for a Total Recall looping session with Verhoeven, just as he was starting to cast Basic. He screen-tested her, then pondered a slew of other actresses—many of whom were daunted by the nudity required—and five months later awarded her the role that made her an icon. After Basic opened big, Stone gave Gersh the boot. “My career went from a little mom-and-pop business to a huge international corporation. I needed people who had an international corporate access of their own as well as an enormous literary department, because I wanted the opportunity to develop projects for myself.” Besides, she adds, “I didn’t have a job, and I couldn’t make my house payments.” She jumped to Guy McElwaine at ICM.
“She’ll set goals months and years ahead,” says Craven, “and everything she does is pointed in that direction. She’s a pit bull. She’ll latch onto something and won’t let go. As far as her business is concerned, she’s the diva queen. And king, I might add.”
Sliver, scheduled to open this month, may well enlarge Stone’s kingdom—in terms of both artistry and clout. Hollywood observers will be watching to see if she can pull off a part that requires vulnerability and range. Noyce, sounding more sincere than a director delivering perfunctory raves about his leading lady, says, “She’s as courageous as any actor I’ve ever worked with—and as good.” Her dogged insistence on defining her own character was demanding, but he says, “You’re crazy if you don’t let an actor take as much responsibility for the story as they can. Sharon has lived Cady’s experience several times over. Only a fool would not consult her.”
Yes, there were moments of friction, like the time she accused him of having no plan for a love scene. (His plan, in fact, was to encourage her into supplying her own, possibly truer one.)
Stone and Baldwin didn’t hit it off from the start, but bad chemistry turned into downright hostility during filming after he accidentally stepped on Stone’s foot, injuring it. Stone was called into Bob Evans’s office for a chat about the matter, which was making the shoot tense. Evans reportedly offended Stone with a tale of how Ava Gardner had kept him in line with sexual wiles on the set of The Sun Also Rises. Despite the problems, Evans says, “every close-up she does is great. A switch just goes on, lights go on. Selfish, maybe. She’s no walk in the park. Charm? Like a barracuda. I wouldn’t want to live with her. But I’d sure as hell want to work with her again.”
“Sharon has crawled the hill of broken glass in this town and has a really tough and realistic attitude,” says Eszterhas, summing up. Stone is philosophical: “It’s a very male-dominated business, movie-making, so it behooves me to behave from the male side of my personality, playing by men’s rules to do men’s work. And when I go back to my acting, then I can be whole in my femininity.
“But I’m sort of in a new canoe, and I think I’m going off in my own direction. And when you take your own path, there are more risks involved. So much of making it is just having the guts to stand there till it happens. It’s a contest of wills. Because it’s not like anybody’s going, ‘Oh, I hope everything fabulous happens for you.’ ”
Late one afternoon, Stone is sitting off to the side of Carly’s apartment set, waiting for Noyce to call her before the cameras. Wearing a brilliant red coat tossed over jeans, she looks to be in arm’s reach of everything fabulous as she offers up her strategy for maintaining control while thriving as a sex symbol in a man’s world. “Are you asking how you drive the car when you’re sitting in the backseat?” she asks. Her delivery is deadpan, but there’s a twinkle in her eye. “You say, ‘Honey, can we turn left? HONEY, TURN LEFT!!’ ”