WRITING: ELIE CHIVI
Picture it, Dubai, 1996: I’m 12 years old, and very much still in the closet. It’s Friday night and I’m waiting for my brother to come home from the video store with the evening’s entertainment of choice. It’s the new Martin Scorsese film set in Las Vegas and the female lead is not just anyone, she’s that woman from that movie that I’m definitely not allowed to watch. Someone, even at this young age, whose aura I’m preternaturally attracted to for reasons I’ve yet to understand. I’m referring, of course, to Sharon Stone in Casino giving the gays everything they want as Ginger Mckenna. In what feels like Scorsese’s 78th film about men in the mafia, Casino isn’t just set in Vegas, but it’s about the wild characters that call the Sin City home. And Stone isn’t just a mob wife, she’s a capital ‘H’ hustler whose breathtaking beauty is matched by a magnetic ability to twist men around her Bvlgari-adorned finger.
In other words, I stan(ned).
Iconic from the first frame, Ginger is introduced to us dressed in a gorgeous beaded white halter gown (which was pulled from Stone’s own closet and reportedly weighed 45 pounds), accessorized by a pulled back sixties flip. She’s at the blackjack table, playing the role of both arm candy and good luck charm to a well-dressed man whom she also happens to be low-key stealing chips from as he looks away. A few moments later, she’s caught for being a thief and a scammer. Instead of accepting defeat, she makes a scene and throws stacks upon stacks of said chips everywhere, causing a distraction that renders her untouchable. This two-minute intro tells you everything you need to know about her: she’s bulletproof. As we continue to get to know Ginger via a deliciously cut montage, narrated by her future husband, Sam (Robert De Niro), we come to understand that her generosity with guards, valet guys and cashiers, is calculated to keep her in contact with the richest players that help bankroll her life. And how could anyone resist. She’s Sharon fucking Stone.
Central to Ginger’s appeal is her over the top wardrobe of furs, fine jewels, designer silks and other accoutrement that exemplify louche seventies glamour. Casino’s costume designer, Rita Ryack, styled Stone in clothing so decadent that viewers wouldn’t dare question Casino’s reported $1 million costume budget. A chinchilla coat that is bestowed upon Ginger in a particularly poignant scene by her then-adoring husband, was created by a furrier who once made Liberace’s chinchilla blankets. The same coat was referenced in an episode of zeitgeisty teen show, Euphoria, as a similarly poignant gift from Nate to Maddy. Decadence, dependency and dysfunctionality all symbolized in one morally questionable animal hide. Stone gave us fashh-on right up to her death in the end of the film, overdosing while dressed in a Pucci pyjama set.
Bordering on camp but never quite getting there, Stone walks this tightrope brilliantly. In what’s possibly her greatest on-screen work, Stone is electric. Armed with her character’s street-smart grit and feral instincts, she slowly reveals shades of vulnerability hidden beneath the surface as she finds herself stuck in one toxic relationship after another. Taking a role that could’ve easily ended up being one-note, Stone goes toe-to-toe with De Niro and Joe Pesci and turns Ginger into an absolute force.
For her efforts, Stone won a Golden Globe and received her first and only Academy Award nomination. Channeling Ginger’s rebellious on-screen spirit, Stone broke red carpet rules and made history on Oscar night by pairing a Valentino trumpet skirt with a simple charcoal Gap turtleneck from her closet, championing the emerging high-low trend we know today. Unfortunately, she lost to Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking. Ironically, the real-life character Sarandon was playing was a nun, exemplifying Hollywood’s Madonna-whore complex.
Oscar or not, Sharon Stone in Casino left an indelible mark that helped propel Ginger into the pantheon of iconic all-time female characters, and she looked damn great doing it. The fanboy in me still revels in watching Ginger glide through casinos and strip clubs like royalty, sacred temples of unbridled masculinity and excess. In Ginger, Stone and Scorsese—not exactly a director known for great female characters (Anna Paquin’s seven lines in The Irishman say ciao)—create a fully realized character that doesn’t exist purely to further the male protagonist’s narrative. A woman with a past, and her own agenda, we see her try to maneuver her way through Vegas and its dark underbelly, looking like arm candy but never not playing the game.
In retrospect, when lacking positive, if any, representation on-screen, homosexuals such as myself gravitated towards the next best gay thing: fabulous, tortured women trying to survive in environments designed to prevent them from doing so. This affinity with female characters such as Ginger exists because they gave us permission to be whoever and be with whoever wanted to be, even if just for a two hour running time.
November marked 25 years since the film came out and my infatuation with Sharon Stone in Casino has yet to wane.
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