GLAAD at 25: Working to Secure Fair LGBT Representation in the 1992 Film 'Basic Instinct'

This week, GLAAD will celebrate 25 years of amplifying LGBT voices. As part of that celebration, GLAAD Blog will revisit some of GLAAD’s culture changing work as told by former and current GLAAD staff members and volunteers. Below, former GLAAD Los Angeles Co-President, Richard Jennings, remembers GLAAD’s work to secure fair LGBT representation in the 1992 film Basic Instinct. For more information about GLAAD’s 25th Anniversary, click here! -------------------------------------------------------------------- By Richard Jennings, former executive director of GLAAD LA In honor of GLAAD’s 25th anniversary, and in preparation for the GLAAD event in Los Angeles in early December marking this occasion, I’ve had an opportunity to review our publications and correspondence from the early days of GLAAD. This has brought back to me what a frenetically busy and vital time those days were, and how much we accomplished in a short time, thanks to the prodigious efforts, creativity and smarts of a lot of talented people. As far as GLAAD’s efforts in Los Angeles, working with the entertainment industries, we literally went from being total outsiders in 1989 and ‘90—whom no studio, network or creative team was willing to meet with—to being listed as one of the “100 most powerful” entities in Hollywood by Entertainment Weekly in ‘92. GLAAD monitored and took action on a lot of TV and movie projects in those days, but the one that most epitomizes, for me, the change in GLAAD’s position in the industry, and the ways in which GLAAD’s long-term goals and tactics distinguished it from other ad hoc media groups of the time (groups no longer around to celebrate their 25th anniversary), was the campaign around “Basic Instinct.” Looking back through my GLAAD files, I see it was also the project that generated the most media coverage, both while the project was being developed and then filmed, in 1990 and ‘91, as well as upon and after its release in early ‘92, just 10 days before that year’s Oscars. On reviewing the files, it also strikes me that there was arguably more true drama behind the scenes on this film—in terms of cliffhangers and “reverse twists”—than ultimately showed up on the screen. GLAAD/LA started reporting to its members and seeking meetings on the project 20 years ago, in the fall of 1990, after Carolco paid a record $3 million for Joe Eszterhas’s script that featured three lesbian or bisexual female characters as murderers. In September 1990, we took out a full-page ad in one of the entertainment trades, Daily Variety, to highlight the dearth of positive gay and lesbian film portrayals to counteract the nine highly negative and/or offensive current film projects listed in the ad, including “Basic Instinct.” Thanks to the attention garnered by that ad and our members’ letters to Carolco, the project’s director, Paul Verhoeven, agreed in October of that year to discuss the project with me. At that time, I explained our concerns about the script and Hollywood’s history of depicting lesbians and gay men almost exclusively as murderers and villains, as well as the statistics indicating recent increases in hate crimes against lesbians and gay men. Verhoeven responded by citing his past depictions of gay characters in the Dutch films “Spetters” and “The Fourth Man” as examples of what he would try to do in “Basic Instinct”—i.e., to present the lesbian and bisexual characters as complete personalities and not as stereotypes. He also offered that a redraft of the script was going to make a number of positive changes, including making it clear that one of the bisexual women (“Beth,” the police psychologist) was a sympathetic character and not a murderer at all. At the time, Verhoeven also promised to stay in touch with us. In the following months, writer Joe Eszterhas famously quit the project and then rejoined it, on the eve of filming, when Verhoeven declared he had abandoned rewrites and was going back to Eszterhas’s original script. We asked Carolco for another meeting at that time, but they refused. Since the film was mainly going to be filmed in San Francisco, we alerted the GLAAD/San Francisco chapter. Members of GLAAD/SF, along with Queer Nation/SF and a variety of ad hoc groups, participated in protests during the filming, leading to court actions and lots of publicity regarding the film and its negative gay portrayals in early ’91. Verhoeven and company finally responded to these protests (and negative publicity) by agreeing to meet with representatives of GLAAD and other local groups. That meeting, on April 24, 1991, had a strong impact on Eszterhas, who indicated that he now understood and agreed with GLAAD’s concerns, and that he would re-write scenes to accommodate many of those concerns. Eszterhas delivered his rewrite in early May, but Verhoeven and Carolco rejected it. GLAAD continued to demand meetings with Carolco, but in June 1991, Carolco’s President and CEO, Peter Hoffman, informed us that Carolco would only agree to meet with us after the film was finished. Once the film was finished, Carolco played cat and mouse games with us regarding a screening of the film—inviting us, and then disinviting us on the eve of the screening after claiming to have a copy of a draft GLAAD press release attacking the film. Thanks to the contacts GLAAD had built up with the media by that point, and to many supportive people in the press and behind the scenes, GLAAD was included and quoted in numerous stories in which Carolco claimed GLAAD was trying to “censor” them, giving us a chance to remind the entertainment community and general public about the years of formal and informal censorship of gay and lesbian lives from the screen, and the recent removals of potentially positive lesbian and gay characters from entertainment projects in response to right wing media activism. It felt like the tide was really turning in our efforts to educate the entertainment industry, and it was during this time that I received an invitation from Fox’s CEO Barry Diller and Universal’s President Sid Sheinberg to discuss the possibility of establishing a project, to be funded by the entertainment industry, to address issues of homophobia and AIDS-phobia within the entertainment industry, using industry leaders’ clout and access. That project, eventually called Hollywood Supports, was going to employ resources of both GLAAD and AIDS Project Los Angeles in working within the industry. I was offered the position as executive director of that project and, after initially turning it down in favor of continuing to build up GLAAD, I ultimately agreed to accept the position, with the aim of using the industry access that was being offered to aid and complement GLAAD’s efforts. I started in that new role at the beginning of 1992, while staying on the board of GLAAD/LA, and it was in that role that I participated behind the scenes in GLAAD’s media efforts around the release of “Basic Instinct” in March 1992. That work included continued efforts at dialogue with Carolco (regarding ameliorative efforts, like disclaimers at the beginning of the film and PSAs), informational picketing, press releases and a press conference that included representatives of numerous community groups. I believe those efforts were smart, strategic and effective, and that they were distinguished from some other manifestations of the gay and lesbian community’s growing frustration over negative portrayals (like Queer Nation’s threat to disrupt that year’s Oscar telecast) by being aimed at developing a long-term relationship with the creative community and industry leaders, so as to turn them into allies and champions in the effort to educate the general public regarding lesbian and gay lives. Now, looking back, I think GLAAD did the right thing in both trying to work constructively with the entertainment industries, and to hold them accountable. The gay and lesbian community gained many media allies and champions as a result, as well as a strong and lasting institution looking out for us that we can all be proud of 25 years on.