High school was all about Sharon Stone.
My best friend Heather and I had our ladies and we never missed them: if Michelle Pfeiffer, Demi Moore or Sharon were in a movie, we were there. These ladies were glamorous, they were smart, and they didn’t let anyone push them around. I know we’re all thrilled that Jennifer Lawrence tells everyone over and over again that she’s a normal person, but I was happier when I read a Vanity Fair article in which Sharon said that she got escorted by police sirens when she visited Cannes and she liked it that way (“Don’t you want to cover up? There’s photographers,” Isabelle Adjani once said to her. “Why?” Sharon Stone responded, “I look great.”) Sharon was my favourite of the bunch, and I used to fantasize that one day I’d meet her and she’d tell me all how about how she came to be the most impressive woman in the world, a woman so magnificent that Princess Diana said she dreamed of being her, and Madonna actually had dreams about her. If you’ve seen Basic Instinct, then you know that, in my day, a celebrity didn’t show you her vagina because she was getting out of her limo, she did it because she was telling you a story.
I never missed one of Sharon’s movies (at Casino I was in a packed cinema, at Diabolique not so much), and I have a particular memory of Heather and I rushing to see Sharon in the gender-bending western The Quick And The Dead as soon as it opened. What a big deal this was! A western in which the reckoning in the OK Corral was going to come from a woman. Entertainment Tonight showed footage of her getting chummy with her equine co-star (Sharon said he was the new love of her life, and considering the four husbands not working out, I’d say it was a safer bet). She learned to shoot guns (not all that well, once you’ve watched it), she put on the chaps, she let her gorgeous hair fall naturally out of that big hat, and she was ready to get the hell into Dodge.
The film was a pet project for Stone, who served as producer. When given a list of directors to work with, she had only one choice in mind: Sam Raimi, because of how much she loved Army Of Darkness. Aside from whatever financial reasons would have sweetened the deal, it’s likely Raimi was attracted to the prospect of working on a western, which is not a world he had traversed in so overtly before.
The art of moviemaking began without dialogue and had to transmit a lot of information through visual language; that westerns were the most popular genre in the silent era (and for decades to come) meant that much of our cinematic visual language was made common by them, and Raimi, who was never one to shy away from the most baroque possible way of telling a story, must have loved the opportunity to work these tricks of the trade.
In The Quick And The Dead, Sharon plays a Lady With No Name who shows up in the iconically named town of Redemption, a place run by a corrupt sheriff (Gene Hackman doing a humorous riff on his recent Oscar winning role in Unforgiven) with ties to her past. Redemption is about to begin an annual gunfight that sees its citizens shooting each other in broad daylight, tournament style. Our heroine signs up for the action, hoping to get her revenge on the man who ruined her childhood. Along the way she makes friends with the local gun seller (Leonardo DiCaprio, whom Sharon wanted so much that she paid his salary herself) and a preacher (Russell Crowe, whom she also insisted on over studio objections) who is trying to turn his back on his violent past but isn’t allowed to because sin is the currency upon which this place runs. The contest begins, and Lady watches one by one as contestants are eliminated and she moves up the ranks towards her final destination, while Raimi is somewhat caught between the heroic westerns of the olden days and the more emotionally battered irony of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. Frustration with the original ending, scripted by Simon Moore (better known for the miniseries Traffik that later became the basis for Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning drama), meant bringing Joss Whedon in for a new finale that sticks out like a sore thumb. A film that takes its time enjoying the process of confrontations in bars (touch the barkeeper’s daughter and watch what Sharon will do to you) and the minute to minute details of showdowns (a cut to the ticking clock with each contestant) is suddenly turned into an action film with an emotionally shallow ending and a bunch of silliness with explosives. Raimi’s wild west is a place with no heroism, where little girls are forced to hold guns and blind children are bullied by grown men, and yet we have a happy ending that lights up out of nowhere and settles all scores with too pat a resolution.
While Raimi’s most devoted fans rarely place this one within his pantheon of rebellious horror films, it does bear the hallmarks of his craft, particularly his inventive visual stylistics that take western traditions and blow them up to gorgeous extremes: the vistas are straight out of John Ford, and the sets are never cheap looking; lots of warm reds and browns abound everywhere create a hyper-reality, while the costumes show off rich fabrics and plush leathers, and the weapons gleam with weight and detail (maybe gleam too much, like they were rented from a collector who was promised that they would not be tarnished). Sharon’s hair blowing in the wind as she puts on a hat to go and face the town for the first time is a lovely moment of visual grace, followed by what looks like a Dia de los Muertos celebration in what we have already decided is the same generic Tex-Mex towns that these movies always take place in. Westerns always told more story through pictures than words, the good guys in white hats and bigger guns than their blackhatted foes; Raimi’s heroine keeps her earth-toned duds on while Hackman is always in dire black. “Some people deserve to die,” she says about him in a terrific shot that employs sharp focus in back and foreground. Setting all the fights to the tune of the ticking clock means lots of fun with dutch angles: movies love clocks and time pieces, as it is an artform that exists in time, and this film employs them liberally (though, sadly, not in the conclusion).
The film doesn’t land, however, and it’s not because of the reason many people think it doesn’t. If you’re not taking the movie seriously because it’s about a girl, that’s your problem, and writing it off as a “Revlon Western” (as one writer called it) is not just sexist, but lacks imagination and courage. Having Sharon in the role in all her perfect glamour isn’t the same as if it had been someone grittier (like Susan Sarandon, or even Jodie Foster), and Raimi seems unsure of what to do with his star (and, likely, boss), but she’s more than tough when she needs to be. True, she always looks suspiciously perfect (waking up every morning in a nightshirt and leather boots like she’s in a Danier ad in Vogue magazine), but she doesn’t care about being likeable (she’s always mean to the barkeep’s daughter: “I think you’re great!” “Grow up”) and when she puts on a dress for dinner with Hackman, who might as well be in drag. And since when couldn’t Sharon Stone handle a gown. That said, she is also a bit too icy to sell the redemptive (pun intended) storyline, as she’s a hard-edged actor with bright, cold eyes who doesn’t transmit much emotional depth (which is why she is such an impressive icon). Even her lipstick refuses to be merely mortal, though pay attention and it’s actually sweet that she kisses Fay Masterson after she loses her love in a gun battle at the end.
The cast around her is solid, Hackman having a laughing good time as a cartoon character that never gets too silly, Crowe all floppy-haired charm (he was still a couple of years away from official stardom), and DiCaprio bringing an intensity to his dramatic subplot that seems at odds with the rest of the film’s lighter tone. There are character actors who bring history and legitimacy to the proceedings, including Pat Hingle, Lance Henriksen, the terrific Raynor Scheine (better known for small parts in My Cousin Vinny and Fried Green Tomatoes) and, in his last feature film role, the amazing Woody Strode. Bruce Campbell, stalwart regular in Raimi’s oeuvre, shot some scenes but ended up on the cutting room floor (despite his name remaining in the credits).
The film is an overall frothy affair, and is sometimes aware of it. The genre is lampooned in a plot in which nothing strange is pointed out about an annual contest that involves citizens of the town killing each other like an odd Shirley Jackson-esque culling of the herd. Montages of actors playing against black backdrops and images of giant, non-bloody holes shot through people’s bodies and heads means that the film knows it is silly and doesn’t need you to get all preachy about it. Sassy dialogue helps: “Wanna play poker with me little lady?” “Looks like you’re having a pretty good time playing with yourself.” On the flipside, there are moments of real danger, like Sharon saving the little girl from a lecher who would make a child prostitute out of her, or the drama of a main character’s death scene that is played for real sentiment, that speak to a different kind of movie that perhaps it is unfortunate this one never becomes.
Overall the film, which I later bought on Laserdisc and watched a million times, is a missed opportunity: revenge tales are the best thing that movies have to offer, they add the pleasure of voyeurism to the indulgence of a grave moral reckoning we rarely get to enjoy in real life. Revenge tales that involve women are often an extra treat as they tend to be about power coming from an unexpected place, subverting the oppressive status quo. In this case, that power is also subverting a traditionally male genre, so it’s a shame that the movie doesn’t hit a little deeper and, despite the fun, doesn’t inspire more connection with Sharon’s plight.
The years since have seen Sharon ride into the sunset with less glory than this movie provides. Becoming famous in your mid-thirties means that Hollywood will be done with you sooner than later, relegating her to some bad straight to video movies, an unfortunate television series, and the hopes of a comeback in a Quentin Tarantino film. She is still my go-to for post-golden age glamour, something Charlize Theron can maybe still provide us, but I’m not entirely sure yet. Heather and I are still best friends, so when Sharon is ready to take over the world again, rising like a Valentino-gowned phoenix from the flame, we will be there with tickets in hand.