Where does one begin with Showgirls? It’s a high budget NC-17 film directed by the excellent Dutch director Paul Verhoeven; it’s also been dubbed one of the worst films ever made, sweeping the Razzies in the mid-1990s (incidentally, Verhoeven showed up in person to collect his multiple, shameful trophies) and performing dismally at the box office. Considering America is struggling with the duality of hyper-sexuality and Puritanical sexual repressiveness it’s no wonder Showgirls was a critical and financial failure – Showgirls features nudity for at least half of the film and touches upon sexually explicit material (primarily orgasms) frequently. Showgirls’ protagonist Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley from Saved by the Bell) is a headstrong, highly sexualized woman who’s dealing with the realization that an entertainer becomes nothing more than a prostitute (especially in Las Vegas); Berkley is also a terrible actress. However, it’s her awful performance that really brings this film together. In essence, her overblown awfulness sells, turning Showgirls from an erotic movie into the best comedy of the 1990s.
Paul Verhoeven’s films, like Total Recall, Starship Troopers, and Robocop, are rife with subtext and critical commentary regarding America in the late 20th century; I doubt Showgirls is any different. Although Showgirls features a litany of nonsense and even contains a good deal of incoherency, I can’t believe Verhoeven went into this film without satirical intent. The fact that Showgirls is so comical doesn’t come across as an accident (which is the case with films like Troll 2 or The Happening) and I truly believe the film’s absurdity is intentional.
I believe it’s best to begin with Verhoeven himself – a Dutch director who spent the first two plus decades of his career making films in Europe. It wasn’t until 1986 that he came to America and made Robocop, a film sharply criticizing America’s obsession with media and a prefabricated, corporate lifestyle. For Verhoeven, the America of the ‘80s was a commercial paradise; it’s interesting that America has become even more so in the following decades, with an intensification of a corporate presence in countless walks of life. Ultimately, I feel Verhoeven’s greatest critique of America argues the autonomous individual isn’t actually autonomous. Of course we have choice when it comes to what to buy and what simulated location to visit; we’re even given the illusion of political agency when we vote for what Bill Hicks calls, “the puppet on the left,” or, “the puppet on the right” (Hicks later claims both puppets are controlled by the same puppet master). However, a film like 1990s Total Recall, where Quaid’s (Arnold Schwarzenegger) environment is potentially a fantastic construction and part of a fictitious implanted memory, attests to Verhoeven’s claim that American life is nothing more than a simulacrum, a construction which should resemble reality but actually is devoid of any meaning and therefore become a simulation. Disneyland or Las Vegas are prime examples.
It’s apropos that Verhoeven picked Showgirls for his next project following Basic Instinct; after all, Vegas is nothing more than America’s playground – the ultimate in simulation and fantasy. Nomi’s dream – becoming a famous Vegas dancer – is also an illusion. She believes it’s all about the fame, fortune, and opportunity to perform for an adoring audience; she realizes it’s a cutthroat enterprise where everybody is basically reduced to prostitution. Throughout Showgirls Nomi responds with intense anger when anybody suggests she’s a prostitute, yet all her actions throughout the film demonstrate that she is one (both figuratively and literally). She begins her Vegas adventure as a stripper and ends up the headline dancer for the popular Goddess dance show. However, although I feel Verhoeven’s film carries a great deal of social criticism, it’s not this which makes Showgirls so entertaining; Showgirls is entertaining because it’s so damn funny.
But what makes Showgirls so funny? Is it the overabundance of nudity; the elaborate and ridiculous dance numbers; Berkley’s horrific acting? It’s all of this and so much more. The sexual tension in Showgirls isn’t tense and the hyper-sexual scenes aren’t sexy. While Showgirls attempts to be sexy it falls short, being the antithesis of sexy. Berkley’s overdramatic sexual maneuvers, especially when with Zach (Kyle MacLachlan), end up being hysterical instead of hot. Its possible Verhoeven was really trying to desensitize his audience to sexuality, showing such an abundance of nudity and sexual movement that it ends up being the exact opposite. Considering Showgirls’ subtext is powerful (even though the film itself is awful) I wouldn’t be surprised if Verhoeven was working along these lines.
While certain characters, like Nomi and her roommate and best friend Molly (Gina Ravera), have a little depth and follow a linear path, there are characters in Showgirls whose traits are horribly confusing. An excellent example is Nomi’s boss at the strip club, Al (Robert Davi from The Goonies), who changes from a slimy boss who states to a new stripper, “If you want to last longer than a week you’ll give me a blowjob,” to a paternal figure later in the film. Al’s body language and motivations sometimes indicate Al wishes to help Nomi but his dialogue and status say otherwise. When he shows up and confronts Nomi after a showing of Goddess he loses all of his sleaze, instead imparting wisdom and warmth towards Showgirls’ protagonist. What? This character exuding these traits isn’t necessarily unbelievable but the execution is. There is no referent in the narrative indicating Al’s benevolence and his switch comes out of nowhere. The worst part: this is just one example of how insipid Showgirls really is.
Another scene which makes no sense is the unexpected rape scene in the third act. Molly is obsessed with a Vegas performer named Andrew Carver (a mixture of Wayne Newton, Tom Jones, and some horrible ‘90s alternative singer) who ends up raping her at a giant party for Nomi. It just makes no sense. Carver’s a public figure who was seen at the party with Molly by (and this is an assumption) many people; he’s also a star who can have sex with just about anybody he wants. So this begs the question: why does he rape Molly? Molly was ready to willingly have sex with Carver, yet he beat her up and a gangbang (featuring Carver’s two bodyguards) ensues. It just doesn’t make any sense. The motivations driving these characters have nothing in the narrative explaining these actions. Naturally Vegas is depicted as a playground where those in power indulge in excessive sexuality but I still don’t see how promiscuity results in rape. It’s just another example of the terrible screenplay by Joe Eszterhas.
Moving on to the dance scenes, it seems that Showgirls is nothing more than an action film where fight scenes and gun battles are replaced by dancing. All the scenes from Goddess shown in Showgirls are hysterical; my favorite scene is when Nomi gets the part in the chorus line and is going through rehearsals – there’s just something completely ridiculous about it. Click here for a video (since Youtube won’t let me embed it)
There is so much to discuss regarding Showgirls and I’m certain a second posting is necessary. I know I’m not great about getting back to topics, such as my post on The Sopranos which I said would have a sequel a while back, but I think my current obsession with Showgirls will influence a second evaluation in the very near future. In the meantime, I believe it safe to say Showgirls is the best comedy of the ‘90s. Whether Verhoeven meant it as a farce is debatable (I’m of the belief he intentionally made it bad but also some of its opaque narrative can be contributed to Eszterhas’ shoddy writing) but regardless of the director’s satirical and gaudy intentions Showgirls isn’t what you’d call a great movie. In essence, it’s a high budget Skinemax film, filled with excellent choreography and solid cinematography; however, regardless of its technical prowess it’s lacking in content, trekking into the realm of stupidity. Once again, that doesn’t mean I don’t like it but it does mean its deficient, especially in relation to other films. It’s with great elation that I find Showgirls has turned into a cult classic, making its way into territory usually reserved for films like Troll 2 or The Rocky Horror Picture Show and appearing in independent theaters nationwide at midnight and cult classic screenings. Hopefully with time Showgirls will be revered as a hilarious snapshot of American consumer culture in the ‘90s.
Here’s the trailer
Click here for a clip where somebody turned Showgirls into a sitcom. Unfortunately I can’t embed it because the bastards who uploaded it to Youtube are…well…bastards.
Here’s an interview with Berkley from the set of Showgirls