Unromancing the Stone 

In 2006, the Basic Instinct beauty showed she wasn't just another pretty face.

Like many actresses with a career built on a single splashy turn, Sharon Stone has had almost nowhere to go but back for a repeat performance. Last year's Basic Instinct 2 was so appalling that people forgot how dreadful its predecessor was, and overlooked how very good Stone was in both, with that instinctive gift for intimidation and a beauty that reduces men to gibbering heaps of lustful flesh. Stone is gorgeous — she oozes the golden glow of Grace Kelly crossed with the feline threat of Faye Dunaway — but, to my mind, not memorably so. For all the open invitations extended by those famously uncrossed legs, there is nothing arresting about her regular features, no flaw in her symmetrical perfection to pique our interest. For Basic Instinct 2 she had so much body work done that she looked like a Sharon Stone impersonator or a wax museum likeness, devoid, for all her poised acting, of the expressiveness that had allowed her to spin gold out of Joe Eszterhas' shoddy script the first time around.

As it turns out, the actress may have wasted her money in the plastic surgeon's office. If Stone began 2006 in a fruitless effort to revive her early glory, she ended the year with two small but terrific turns in otherwise indifferent ensemble movies, both of which not only played against her beauty but drove home the fact that she's pushing fifty. In each, she plays, against type, a good woman blinded by her unconditional devotion to others.

In Emilio Estevez' Bobby, a movie in which no characters can open their mouths without explicating the Kennedy years, Stone is restrained and particular as Miriam, a beautician at the Ambassador Hotel in the hours before Bobby Kennedy is due to make his fateful arrival. Harshly made up in black eyeliner and pearly peach lipstick that only emphasize the deep fault line running down her cheek to her upper lip, her bottle-blond hair whipped into a pompadour tailing off into an incongruous ponytail, Stone's Miriam may look like an early-'60s slattern, but she's the very essence of a long-suffering helpmeet. People come to Miriam not just to be made over but to find solace in her attentiveness. Merely by listening and touching, she builds the confidence of Lindsay Lohan's timid young bride-to-be and soothes Demi Moore's sodden lounge singer enough to allow her to go onstage without making an ass of herself. Miriam is a sentimentally conceived character, the cookie-cutter empathic hairdresser. But Stone, in a self-effacing ancillary performance that she never tries to bump up beyond what it is, invests Miriam with Dolly Parton-like good nature and elusive sadness. The very idea of Sharon Stone as the wife of an adulterer — especially one who looks like William H. Macy — ought to be absurd. But the actress won't allow it, and when Miriam's mouth, once the cat is out of the bag, slowly turns down at the corners, we join her in a grief soon to be submerged in deeper sorrow for the third political murder of a wild decade.

Stone plays an initially less sympathetic woman in Nick Cassavetes' fact-based drama Alpha Dog, as Olivia Mazursky, a protective Jewish mother trying to save her credulous teenage son from being sucked into his feral half-brother's drug feud. Olivia is no more than a bookend, but one who undergoes a devastating transformation from an angry, proactive parent to a suicidal wreck whose only reason for living has been cruelly snatched away. Encased in a fat suit, her face a smeared blur of meds and naked suffering, Stone is the opposite of her brashly poised self — a destroyed woman telling an interviewer why she has attempted suicide. There is anguish in her face and the remnants of outrage, quickly canceled by a pitiful plea to be reassured that she has done okay. Stone may be a flaky diva offscreen — there's no forgetting her ditsy offer, standing alongside a blitzed Shimon Peres, to kiss anyone who would promise to promote Middle East peace, or her raising a million dollars in five minutes to provide mosquito nets for Tanzania without realizing that the Tanzanian government already distributed them for free (not to mention her wacky fight with the makers of Basic Instinct 2 for more nude scenes). Still, more than most of cinema's fading lovelies, Stone understands not only the ephemeral nature of her beauty, but its detachability from her gifts as an actress. Given a few more attentive directors who see that too, she can expect to join Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep in the ranks of gracefully aging, happily employed movie stars.


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