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Kim Basinger Filed for Bankruptcy After Being Sued for Dropping Out of Role

The actor was ordered to pay millions to the studio behind a '90s flop.

The 1993 directing debut of Jennifer Lynch, daughter of Blue Velvet filmmaker David Lynch, began with promise. Early buzz for Boxing Helena—a thriller about a disturbed surgeon who kidnaps and quadruple-amputates the beautiful, contemptuous woman he desires and literally keeps her in a box—suggested an ahead-of-its-times examination of male fragility, objectification, and agency that ultimately attracted 9 1/2 Weeks star Kim Basinger to its titular role. But in an unexpected turn of events, the actor walked away just as filming was about to begin—and that choice ultimately led to her filing for bankruptcy.

The resulting lawsuit over the informal agreement that had bound her to the film led to serious financial consequences for Basinger when a jury found that she owed producers millions for reneging. Read on for details on the early-'90s scandal that challenged Hollywood norms and took the actor to court.

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Basinger signed on to the movie after Madonna passed.

Kim Basinger in 1992
Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Jennifer Lynch wrote the script for Boxing Helena when she was just 19 after a producer approached her with the idea for the story and was also set to direct it. While the psychosexual thriller was hardly mainstream Hollywood fare, it found backing in the indie production studio Main Line Pictures and soon, Madonna was cast in the lead role, according to Entertainment Weekly.

When the pop star backed out due to fear "even she couldn't do justice" to Helena, a fresh-from-Batman Basinger showed interest in the role, which "she believed would be a tremendous showcase for an actress," according to legal documents. Basinger met with the then-22-year-old Lynch in January 1991 to discuss the film, including the treatment of sex scenes involving "sensual" nudity, before verbally agreeing to star in it.

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She backed out just weeks before filming began.

Sherilyn Fenn and Julian Sands in Boxing Helena
Orion Classics

With Basinger attached to the film and a deal memo drawn up, the production company soon arranged more than $6.8 million in foreign presales. But according to the case documents, the actor switched agents that April, which prompted the change of heart. When her new representation read the script and "concluded Basinger should not do the film," the star backed out just weeks before production was set to start, and Main Line Pictures sued her for breach of contract.

When the case went to trial in 1993, Basinger testified in front of a Los Angeles jury that she had never fully approved the script and was not prepared to do the "graphic" rather than "artistic" nudity it ultimately required, according to UPI. Meanwhile, the production company argued that they had wasted months of effort promoting and raising funding for the film with Basinger's name attached to it.

Sherilyn Fenn, who starred in David's series Twin Peaks, ended up playing Helena opposite the late Julian Sands as her captor.

The decision cost Basinger an arm and a leg.

Kim Basinger outside court in 1993
Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Hollywood paid close attention to the trial due to its implications for the long-held practice of getting projects rolling with handshake deals due to the sensitive timing of creative production. After 18 days of testimony, Basinger was found to be in breach of the oral agreement to appear in the film, despite the lack of formalized contract. The jury awarded Main Line Pictures just under $9 million in damages, according to Variety.

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Basinger declared bankruptcy when it was time to pay up.

Kim Basinger in 1993
Shepard Sherbell/CORBIS SABA/Corbis via Getty Images

The damages were later reduced to $7.4 million plus more than $700k in legal fees. But when it came time to settle the debt, Basinger's attorneys revealed that the actor, who had essentially bought a Georgia town for $20 million just a few years earlier (per the Chicago Tribune), was worth less than $5.4 million and therefore couldn't pay the judgment. As a result, Basinger filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy that May. According to a 1995 Variety article, she later settled with the studio for around $3.8 million after the original decision was overturned.

As for Boxing Helena, the would-be big break for the younger Lynch was plagued by issues when the film received an initial NC-17 rating from the MPAA and had delays in finding distribution, according to Entertainment Weekly. Having already achieved considerable notoriety—the poster headline read "The most talked about film of the year"—it went on to flop both commercially and critically, grossing less than $2 million domestically and earning a Golden Raspberry Award for Lynch, who did not direct again for 15 years. Basinger, meanwhile, was able to recover from the blow to her finances and reputation with 1997's L.A. Confidential, which won her the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

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Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller is a pop culture writer living in New York. Read more
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