The film that ruined a lot of careers, Showgirls has a reputation it only partially deserves (though there is that sex scene in the swimming pool). Since it debuted in 1995 it’s been a soft target for any prurient soul looking for an easy win. Look – naked women! Its actual failings are far less regularly mentioned.
Sleazy, camp, sexist and so on. It’s none of these, but it does portray a sleazy, camp and sexist world in a bracingly honest way, and there are plenty of commentators with an agenda only too willing to deliberately confuse the two.
It’s an A Star Is Born story, with Elizabeth Berkley as the wannabe turning up in Las Vegas and working her way up from lapdancer to chorus girl to star of one of those cheesey Vegas shows that’s all about the dancers’ bodies rather than artistic expression.
Paul Verhoeven directs, with the sort of pizzazz and maniacal gleam in the eye you’d expect from the man who made Total Recall and Basic Instinct. When the film’s meant to be erotic, it’s erotic, when it’s meant to be tender, it’s tender, Verhoeven hits all the emotional beats (though there is that sex scene in the swimming pool). With just enough ironic distance, he presents the big stage spectaculars as the fun, overblown nonsenses they are. Vegas is tacky, and so are the people in it. Shoot the messenger – for his efforts Verhoeven won the worst director and worst picture Razzie. He didn’t deserve to, but he did at least turn up to accept. Pretty gracious, in the circumstances. The film went on to win the worst film of the decade, laughably beating out The Postman.
Verhoeven hadn’t even wanted to make the film. He hadn’t liked Joe Eszterhas’s original script, which Eszterhas rewrote to add an All About Eve thriller element to the existing story. Verhoeven still didn’t really like it, but took the gig to try and help out producer Mario Kassar, whose Carolco production company was in financial difficulty. In the event, the failure of Showgirls and Cutthroat Island in the same year would turn out to be Carolco’s death knell.
The film’s failings are all Eszterhas’s. Whatever he says he did during the rewrite process, the finished screenplay looks as if all the requested All About Eve elements had been simply dropped into what was already there – a formless Pilgrim’s Progress tale of one woman’s journey through sleaze. As in John Bunyan’s 17th-century original, Eszterhas’s pilgrim, Nomi (Berkley), undertakes a journey through her own Slough of Despond, Valley of Humiliation and Doubting Castle before reaching the Celestial City.
As to Bunyan’s chapter on The Delectable Mountains, let’s talk about Elizabeth Berkley’s body, and the film’s nudity. Undoubtedly gifted when god was handing out physical equipment, Berkley is also in her prime here, aged around 22, and we get to see a lot, a-lot-a-lot, of her tits. This is a film about lapdancers and Vegas showgirls, and much of it takes place backstage, where performers often get changed, so in a way it would be odd if we didn’t. Verhoeven takes a European-nudist-beach approach to it all, rather than the usual snickering peek-a-boo approach favoured by the supposedly more moralistic Hollywood mainstream. In Verhoeven’s world, sometimes being naked is normal.
Berkley’s performance is as mad and exaggerated as the lipliner overemphasising her mouth, but it’s deliberate. Nomi is a woman unhinged by events in her past, it turns out, though we don’t learn any of this until it’s way too late – Eszterhas again. The joy of watching All About Eve is knowing that Eve is a sly little minx who is after the star’s top billing. With Nomi we’re not even sure that she’s really the bad hat in this fight, especially when the star whose position she’s tilting at is the brassy and entitled Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon, giving it the full grand dame, as much as you can in sequins with your nipples on display).
It looks great. Shot in lurid, winking Vegas neon by Verhoeven’s regular DP Jost Vacano, it’s soaking in that mid-80s-to-mid-90s cocaine-fuelled, lobster-and-champagne ethos of so many films of the era – see 9 1/2 Weeks or Wall Street. Secretly it sympathises with the bad guys, in other words, or more to the point, it has no time for the little guys. Hence the dismissive treatment of Molly (Gina Ravera), the friend Nomi makes immediately on arriving in Vegas, the only properly decent human being in the film, who’s sidelined by Eszterhas’s screenplay until the time comes for her character to suffer the sort of treatment that is entirely undeserved and advances the movie not one jot.
Other “little guys” – Glenn Plummer as the dick-driven but sweet guy with a thing for Nomi, Kyle MacLachlan as Vegas showrunner Zack – also get toyed with in a half-in, half-out way.
As for the vague lesbian subtext, it’s all a bit tokenistic and feels like a middle-aged screenwriter’s girl-on-girl-action fantasy rather than a genuine relationship borne out of real emotion. There’s not much real emotion in Showgirls.
Ultimately, the film’s real problem is that for all its glorious over-the-topness, the endless buffet of excess starts to fatigue the viewer. What, more tits? More showstopping show numbers? Cut half an hour out – from the second half – and you might have something. How about that, Mr Verhoeven, a director’s cut?
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© Steve Morrissey 2021