Synopsis: Shocking. Titillating. “Glittery (and) gleefully vulgar” (Dayton Daily News)! From the creators of Basic Instinct comes Showgirls, an “instant camp classic” (The New York Times) and a spectacularly lusty film experience no one should miss!
Vegas, baby. Where the dreams and desires to make it big are as sharp as a stiletto heel. Enter Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley), a girl with the looks and drive to devour the glitz and glamour whole. When she catches the eye of Cristal (Gina Gershon), the main attraction at the Stardust stage show, Nomi is on the brink of realizing her dreams. But as she quickly bumps and grinds her way to the top, Nomi realizes that there is only room for one starlet on the marquee… and that either she or Cristal will have to take a fall!
eyelights: Gina Gershon, pretty shiny things, the production, the soundtrack
eyesores: Elizabeth Berkley, the choreography, the script, the decadence, the soundtrack
In no way did ‘Showgirls’ appeal to me when it was announced; the idea of a picture focusing on a blonde bimbo’s attempts to make it as Las Vegas showgirl couldn’t possibly make me less curious. That its star was culled from ‘Saved By The Bell’ was almost offensive to me: How cheesy was this going to be?
But it was scripted by Joe Ezterhas and directed by Paul Verhoeven, and it was their first project following the phenomenal ‘Basic Instinct’.
I wanted to like it, and my friends wanted to like it. We figured that no one who had crafted a stylish psychological thriller like ‘Basic Instinct’, helmed the sci-fi thrill-ride ‘Total Recall’ and gave us the vastly under-rated satirical actioner ‘Robocop’ could be entirely wrong. We decided to see it on faith alone.
And boy were we wrong!
Despite waiting until it had made its way to the discount cinema, and going on half-price Tuesdays (thus paying a mere 2$), we escaped from ‘Showgirls’ heads low, feeling ripped off. We walked together for a while, dissecting the experience that we’d just been subjected to and agreed it had been the worst picture we’d ever seen.
It was all shades of bad.
Unsurprisingly, reviews were abysmal and it failed miserably at the box office. Strangely, though, the movie gathered a cult following over the years. I got first wind of it in the late ’90s, when a friend of mine said that he and his boyfriend watched it for laughs, that it was a total riot. He claimed not to be alone.
I was confused. I simply couldn’t figure out. How could 130 minutes of pure cheese and sleaze be enjoyable to anyone? This concept stuck with me, but my curiosity was easily quelled by the vivid recollection of our movie night, of the oppressive feeling after coming out of that cinema. Curiosity may make me a sucker for punishment sometimes, but I had already been there and was in no hurry for another torturous couple of hours at the hands of ‘Showgirls’.
Ahem… until now.
The selling point was the release of the Blu-ray, which got excellent reviews from a technical standpoint. I started to think that, if I could get it cheap enough, at least I would now get to see it in the best possible condition, to its fullest potential (whatever that is). I also figured that I have grown an appreciation for bad movies in the last twenty years – so maybe I would finally grasp the kitsch side of it.
Well, it turns out that I was right about the technical presentation: the picture was incredible, shiny, sparkly, vibrant, lifelike (or as lifelike as Las Vegas gets, anyway). The audio was phenomenal: the musical numbers filled the room and sounded even better than I could ever have dreamed of – no doubt the cheapie experience had been nothing like this back in 1995. It almost made up for the rest of the picture.
But it didn’t.
There’s nothing to be done with ‘Showgirls’, quite frankly; it’s an undeniably ghastly picture. I roared a few times at the p!$$-poor acting and groaned at the pathetic dialogue, but I simply could not get into the spirit of things and enjoy it for its terribleness. I would have needed a Mystery Science Theater 3000 commentary to make the most of it, I think – only Mike or Joel and the ‘bots could possibly salvage something from this disaster.
Basically, ‘Showgirls’ is a trashy, but high-budgeted, take on ‘A Star is Born’. The story and dialogue is trite, filled to the brim with clichés and déjà vus, two-dimensional characters and unbelievably lame one-liners. The dialogue, as a whole, could stun into submission even the most conciliatory critic – case-in-point, this exchange between our two catty leads, after Nomi (our protagonist) is selected as the understudy to the big star:
Cristal Connors: “You don’t want to piss me off darlin’, now that were friends.”
Nomi Malone: “No… You shouldn’t get pissed off. Makes you look older!”
Say what? Neither line makes any sense on its own, but, when combined, it turns into a trainwreck of pseudo-witty repartee. Question: Do you have to be on the toilet to crap something out? If so, then perhaps Joe Ezterhas must have been inspired by Luis Buñuel’s ‘Le Fantôme de la liberté’ for his work method (although, with all due respect, neither Ezterhas or Verhoeven ever were of Buñuel’s calibre). I just wish that he had flushed when he was done, is all.
Alas, he came up with countless lines that only severely mentally-deficient human beings -fictional or not- would ever utter. For instance, there’s heart-warming moment when All Torres, Nomi’s old boss from the strip-joint drops in to visit her at her new gig on the Vegas Strip along and with one of her more flamboyant ex-coworkers. Once they exchange a few meaningless words, he parts with this thought-provoking zinger: “It must be weird, not having anybody cum on you.”
Of course, this dialogue is also Verhoeven’s fault, because he allowed the film to go ahead without a proper script (and by “proper”, I mean that even a TV movie-of-the-week script would have outdone this offering!).
The writing is so lackluster that everything is a caricature: Nomi and her friend hang out is like a boob tube version of friendship (“Let’s go shopping!” Giggles), men and women always interact as cynical stereotypes (man buys stuff, is emotionally distant, a liar; woman undresses, acts grateful), and all sexuality is obviously the filmmakers’ version of sex or what they thinks sex should be – a patently absurd vision that doesn’t even reflect porn ideals, let alone real life (the “epileptic” sex scene in the pool, for instance, is one of the most outrageously awful screen moments ever!).
‘Showgirls’ pretty much reinforces the notion that men are pricks and women are just catty sex objects. I can’t even recall anyone falling in-between. And everyone -everyone- is a sell out: even Nomi’s best friend, Molly, eventually decides to come down from a relative moral high ground to join her at a party – just so that she could meet pop sensation Andrew Carver. After being deeply offended by what Nomi had done to Cristal, refusing to forgive her or even speak to her, she nonetheless reconsidered her friendship just so that she could meet her idol. Ick.
And, of course there just had to be lesbian innuendo and/or flirtations! I suspect that, after all the (positive and negative) attention that ‘Basic Instinct’ attracted due to its own sapphic under-current, Ezterhas and Verhoeven decided to carry on down that path. Don’t get me wrong, I have no issue with on a personal level – but it does have a crass, exploitative quality to it in ‘Showgirls’. Then again, given that lesbian chic was only just gathering steam in 1995, I guess one could give them credit for being trailblazers. Joke.
On the positive front, it was kind of fun to see character actors who played bit parts in ‘Basic Instinct’ return in ‘Showgirls’. Some of them had more screen time, and other were merely in the background, but I enjoyed playing Where’s Waldo? While watching the picture. There’s also the production itself, which is extravagant to say the least: not only was it made in Vegas, but you can tell that a LOT of money was thrown at this picture – and all of it is right there on screen, from the costumes to the set designs. It’d be difficult to knock the film’s production quality, that’s for sure.
And there’s the soundtrack. This one’s a mixed bag.
I have had the CD for years and it’s filled with pretty awesome stuff by David Bowie, Freaks Of Desire, Killing Joke, My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult, Prick, Siouxsie and The Banshees and The Young Gods. Even No Doubt shows up on there. It’s a disc that I’ve played quite frequently, actually, despite my aversion to its parent picture, and it helped me discover artists I might not otherwise have bothered to explore. Furthermore, the David Bowie song is exclusive to this CD – it’s an early version of ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’ and it sounds nothing like the album version.
A couple of songs from the film didn’t make it on the CD, for good or bad: two original tracks by Prince (whose name was then a symbol). I’m not sure if it was a contractual issue, being that Prince was on Warner Bros at the time, or if he just wanted to keep the material for himself (‘319’ would end up on his ‘The Gold Experience’ CD, which was released the same day as the soundtrack, whereas throwaway track “Ripopgodazippa” ended up on the leftovers compilation set ‘Crystal Ball’), but they featured prominently during a couple of choreographed numbers – one of which was so out of synch, one has to wonder if the song was even played for the actors beforehand.
What’s especially notable about the soundtrack is that they’re almost all goth/industrial tracks. When one considers that this is a film about Las Vegas showgirls, one can’t help but wonder which casino would play this type of music and exactly how showgirls would dance to the stuff. I don’t know who decided that this would be the perfect stripping music (because, of course, the showgirls in this picture bare all ALL THE TIME), but it says something about the filmmakers that they thought it perfectly suitable, given that much of this music would likely be associated with goth or b&d clubs – not Vegas.
Perhaps they thought it was edgy, or maybe they couldn’t see straight through their coke-fuelled haze (okay, that’s a huge presumption, but you can’t help but think that the white stuff was involved int he making of this movie), but it barely works. In fact, the choreography often didn’t match the music at all – a problem plaguing most of the film. Furthermore, the routines consisted mostly of hard moves that were likely inspired by Michael and Janet Jackson – technically amazing dancers that are not necessarily sexy. Oh, and speaking of b&d clubs earlier, some of the musical numbers were done in bondage gear. So there you have it.
But if there’s one thing that everyone talks about when ‘Showgirls’ is mentioned, it’s Elizabeth Berkley’s performance. Poor lass. Although she was culled from ‘Saved By The Bell’ and likely wasn’t the best actress around, she was hand-picked for the part for a reason, and the director had the final say on the performances – heck, he likely guided her performance, made her exaggerate it. So I can’t help but pity her now, thinking that, in doing ‘Showgirls’, she naïvely walked into the lion’s den. Ultimately, she was so heavily criticized that her career never stood a chance – she’s ended up in bit parts ever since.
She really is gawdawful, though. From her first appearance, we are slapped in the face: her performance is so wildly over-the-top that we can’t help but laugh in astonishment. The dialogue doesn’t help, but every single expression, gesture and emotion is dialed up to eleven, turning her character into a caricature. Berkley over-acts almost all the time in ‘Showgirls’ – especially during Nomi’s frequent outbursts. It’s like a child throwing tantrums on a low-grade TV show. She can’t even eat a burger normally, for god’s sake – she takes quick, repeated chomps out of it, as though she were a cartoon character.
Even her dancing is problematic. Don’t get me wrong: Berkley is quite capable – the problem is with the choreography itself. In ‘Showgirls’, her dance moves are aggressive, unpleasant, and definitely not sexy – which is quite ironic in a film that intends to be titillating. Instead of seeing what should be a sultry private dancer, what we were seeing was a naked young woman expressing her inner turmoil through violent motion. It’s not sensual, nor alluring. She’s obviously in shape enough to handle the demands of the work, but there’s more to dancing than brusque, calculated moves.
Furthermore, we don’t know anything about the character for most of the picture; for the first two hours of the film, we have no sense of who she is, where she’s from, what’s taken her in this direction, …etc. Nomi’s background history is only unveiled at the very end, like some terrible, earth-shattering reveal. It’s as though the filmmakers were trying to hold their wildest cards for the finale, for when the audience needed one last dramatic curveball. It’s absolutely ridiculous: we find out that Nomi was once a prostitute, and has quite the arrest record to prove it. Plus she did crack. She was… a crack whore.
Whoah. I have to stop for a moment: I’m all shook up.
Holy snap! She was a crack whore?!!! Omg omg OMG: My whole world has been turned upside down! I can’t believe that Nomi isn’t
squeaky-clean mildly morally flexible like I thought she was. Does this world have any heroes/heroines left?
Le sigh… there is no way that an ex-crack whore would have shiny white teeth, look as healthy as Nomi does and be in any shape to dance like this. No way. So pull the other one, Ezterhas.
Mind you, the whole finale, the build up, is patently absurd. It’s like a soap opera on crack (which is appropriate, given its revelations): first, there’s a “tasteful” rape scene (which came out of left field), then Nomi makes a special trip to go beat the perpetrator to a pulp instead of calling the cops (so as to please her Vegas handlers, who want the matter to be buried), then she visits Cristal in the hospital and spontaneously makes out with her (obviously, Cristal cries when she leaves… I guess they really were friends now) and then Nomi ditches her best friend after a quick farewell and skips town (so… um, since she quit her job, and, thus, shouldn’t care what the Vegas bosses think, why didn’t she just call the cops in the first place? Wouldn’t her friend deserve justice!)
‘Showgirls’ is so trashy that it kind of reminded me of ‘Valley of the Dolls’. In fact, they would make for a great double-bill, in my mind (that, or the obvious ‘A Star is Born’, for contrast). It’s cinematic garbage that never should have been made. It’s great that some people have found a way to derive some form of pleasure out of watching it, but I don’t really see why. While I don’t loathe it nearly as much as I once did, it remains a near-irredeemable motion picture.
The sad irony is that it ended up making a fortune with home video sales and rentals, which means that it wasn’t a complete financial loss. It will always be remembered as a blight on Paul Verhoeven’s career, Elizabeth Berkley will likely never recover, and ‘Showgirls’ will always be remembered as one of the worst film ever made, but the producers must be quite pleased that, not only did they recoup their losses, they might actually be able to retire on the profits.
Back in September of 1995, when the picture was released, no one would ever have dared to imagine that.
*Nota bene: with regards to the rating, I would give the film a 4.0 with respect to most audiences. However, due to my tolerance for crappy cinema, I would personally rate it a 6.0. Either way, viewers should be cautioned about its challenges before attempting this at home.
Date of viewing: October 2, 2012