Film Torments: Showgirls (1995)
THIS TIME on Torments, Dan watches an all-time camp classic.
How do you describe Showgirls to someone who hasn’t seen it? That can be a difficult question to answer – there are so, so many moments and lines of dialogue to unpack that a single answer can almost seem daunting. For me, however, its residing image is of a ginger-haired choreographer, perched above Elizabeth Berkley’s gyrating pelvis, screaming, “THRUST IT! THRUST IT! THRUST IT!” into her vagina.
Showgirls is one of those movies: the kind whose jaw-dropping badness inspires a million acerbic articles like this one, seeking to reiterate a jamboree of mockery for a pop culture eternity to come. It’s the kind of film that a Razzie award lives for, going on to earn a then-record seven ‘awards’ from a current-record 13 nominations. It’s the kind of film that makes you scratch your head in confusion while twisting your testicles into a cringing noose of muted agony. It’s the kind of film whose mystique is so legendary that it eventually prompted a wave of critical re-evaluations positing the same basic question: Is it really that bad?
And we’ve seen this before, haven’t we? In several ways, Showgirls is the Caligula of the 1990s – a lavishly expensive treatise on rampant excess, with strenuous forays into Bacchanalian sexuality that was ultimately torn apart by critics but still broke even on its over-stretched budget. It’s fascinating as it is repugnant; coy as it is demonstrative; bathetic as it is pathetic. Just like Caligula, it’s a bizarre trainwreck that demands its audience’s attention and, just like Caligula, the question remains: Seriously, is it really that bad?
We’re going to answer that in a roundabout way. The reason I posited all those dichotomies is due to the prior careers of Showgirls’ writer and director – respectively, Joe Eszterhas and Paul Verhoeven. Eszterhas, often characterised as a maverick sleazeball, made his name peddling entertaining smut like Sliver and, for all intents and purposes, was the superstar screenwriter of the 1990s. Verhoeven, often characterised as a misunderstood renegade, made his name peddling brilliant action films with a wry, satirical edge: RoboCop, Total Recall and, later, Starship Troopers.
Fittingly, the two had already joined forces for Basic Instinct, the film which catapulted the two men (and Sharon Stone’s legs) into Hollywood royalty. It, too, was a controversial melange of erotic intrigue, but it also did gangbusters at the box office. Much like Showgirls, it was denounced as misogynistic, homophobic nonsense masquerading as noir-ish homage. Much like Showgirls, it was hailed as a progressive, boundary-breaking deconstruction of generic conventions.
You see the problem? Verhoeven is a man known for blurring the lines between taste and tastelessness in order to pass social commentary in a sly, cynical manner; Eszterhas is known for embracing cynicism with a straight face and a bevy of cigarettes, exploiting sexuality and brazen capitalism to please the lowest common denominator of trash-loving gluttons. Trying to untangle the Gordian knot of Showgirls, for many, has come down to deciding how to even approach it: As a subversive masterpiece, or the abomination it was originally condemned for being.
It’s hard to tell. So many elements of the film are open to divergent interpretations that it becomes difficult to extrapolate where to even start. The obvious is the premise: Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley – we’ll get to her) is a mysterious drifter who finds her way to Las Vegas with the ballyhooed dream of becoming a dancer. There, she strips her way through the ranks of the Vegas underbelly before engaging in a battle of wills with Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon), the premier dancer at the Stardust Casino. In the middle of this is a bemused Kyle MacLachlan with a Leon Kennedy fringe and an imperial fuckton of naked breasts.
That sounds absurd because it is. The film does its utmost to barrage the audience with its own absurdity, intentionally or otherwise, and nowhere is this more apparent than Elizabeth Berkley’s bizarre, stratospherically over-the-top performance, which passes Saturn’s rings and pierces the moon with its flagrant hysteria. Her interpretation of Nomi involves much flailing, much gnashing of teeth and much pelvic grinding. When confronted with the mildest obstacle, Nomi responds by pirouetting, hurling herself at the nearest car/window/wall and pouting (all at the same time).
She lurches from snarling belligerence to schoolgirl-glee on a whim, particularly when speaking with Cristal. Gershon plays Cristal as the wily veteran, a femme fatale with a southern drawl, and it’s probably the most legitimately entertaining performance of the lot. Placed opposite Berkley’s rampant scene-chewing, she’s pure, smirking Zen, even when they’re sharing anecdotes about how they both ate dog food as children. No, really. “I’ve had dog food,” says Cristal. “You have?” says Nomi. “Doggy Chow,” says Cristal, “I used to love Doggy Chow.” “I used to love Doggy Chow too!” says Nomi, and they laugh.
That is a verbatim exchange of dialogue in Showgirls. “Man, everybody got AIDS and shit!” yells James (Glenn Plummer), Nomi’s on-off squeeze, completely out of nowhere. “I like nice tits,” says Cristal. Nomi’s reply? “I like having nice tits.” This is how every scene plays out. It is extraordinarily absurd, and so beyond the bounds of believability that we begin to question whether that’s the point. The interplay between Eszterhas’ ridiculous dialogue and Verhoeven’s penchant for satire begins to click, doesn’t it?
So how does one explain the ‘sex’ scene between Berkley and MacLachlan in the swimming pool, where Berkley appears to be having an epileptic fit while writhing on a terrified MacLachlan’s groin? Or the deeply uncomfortable scene where Molly (Gina Ravera), the most level-headed, sensible, genuinely nice person in the entire film, is violently gang-raped? The former is bizarre and hilarious, but the latter is striking for just how graphic and off-kilter it is with the rest of the film, both before and after.
It’s comparable to a very similar moment in Death Wish 3, the difference being that the Showgirls version, however misguided, actually appears to be making – or reaching toward – a commentary on the exploitation of workers within the sex industry. This is where much of the film’s critical re-evaluation comes from – that the film, in all its gleeful, maddening ridiculousness, is actually passing satirical comment in the Verhoeven tradition.
But let’s take RoboCop and Starship Troopers as examples. Both films skewer militancy and marketing, whether in advertisements or actual military propaganda, imagining a dark future where humanity is eroded through systemic, fascistic brainwashing and exorbitant violence. The targets are clearly marked and quite difficult to miss, and the believable absurdity of the adverts in RoboCop or the propaganda in Starship Troopers makes them inherently satirical. It’s also consistent.
Showgirls is constantly heightened, both in its writing and performances, but that’s the only consistency. Relocating All About Eve from Hollywood to Las Vegas doesn’t automatically augment the narrative with the cutting wit that good satire needs, especially when you make a sleaze-scribe like Eszterhas its architect. What happens is barmy, yes, but that’s all it ever is. One nasty sexual assault does not, and cannot, imbue the film with the ‘reality’ it so desperately craves.
That’s what separates Showgirls from Verhoeven’s other films – there’s nothing remotely believable about it. Though undoubtedly hampered by Eszterhas’ laughable script, the director was too overzealous with his approach to the material and over-compensated, resulting in an utterly unbelievable collage of poor decisions with good intentions. Berkley, for her part, should be commended for her willingness to cavort and prostrate herself before the camera, but the performance (and its effect on her career) is so catastrophic it’s unmissable.
Really, though, is it that bad?
The answer is ‘yes’. Obviously, yes. I mean, have you fucking seen Showgirls? Its reputation is not undeserved, and its status in history as one of the best bad movies ever is thoroughly warranted. It’s a laugh-a-minute thrill of apocalyptic misjudgement from almost every party imaginable, from top to bottom, that demands attention even as your eyes bleed and your ears piss. It’ll fuck your brain without fuckin’ it, and that’s why its place in the annals of Hollywood misadventures will be forever hallowed.