Release Date: September 22, 1995
Runtime: 131 minutes
Studio: United Artists (MGM)
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Cast: Elizabeth Berkley; Kyle MacLachlan; Gina Gershon; Gina Ravera; Glenn Plummer; Alan Rachins
Let’s not bullshit each other, folks. You know you love this boondoggle of a flick from 1995, to date the most widely released NC-17 movie ever produced. Yes, it is far from a perfect film, the final print perhaps not representing what most of the actors, if not the production team, had envisioned when they initially signed on. That is arguably the precise reason why “Showgirls” has achieved the kind of rarified cult status that puts it in the same company as “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “Mommie Dearest,” “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” among others.
Director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, hot off the recent success of “Basic Instinct,” decided to reteam and blow the lid off of sleazy Las Vegas topless revues. Using the basic plot of the 1950 Bette Davis starrer, “All About Eve” (you know, hungry-for-fame starlet schemes to usurp the lead in the big show from the established diva) as a framework, Verhoeven and Eszterhas throw an almost nonstop barrage of tits-and-ass at us for more than two hours. Elizabeth Berkley, until this point known only as Jesse Spano from “Saved By The Bell,” plays Nomi Malone (the starlet), a dancer with dreams of making it as a Vegas showgirl. Upon arrival in Sin City, she immediately has her luggage stolen, pukes in a parking lot, but, luckily, is rescued by Molly (Gina Ravera), a naïve, and yet friendly costume designer for a Vegas revue called “Goddess.” Accompanying Molly to the show one night, Nomi meets “Goddess” star Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon, the established diva, and the best thing in the movie). There’s an immediate attraction between the two that sets up the starlet vs. star conflict, which forms the core of the movie.
Nomi is dancing at a tacky strip club called The Cheetah one evening when Cristal and Zack Carey (Kyle MacLachlan), the entertainment director at the hotel where “Goddess” plays, saunter in and order a private dance with her. So impressed are they with Nomi’s, ahem, talents, that Cristal and Zack arrange for her to audition for a place in the chorus line of “Goddess.” And you know where it’s going from here…
Boy oh boy, is this thing a hoot! If you’ve never seen it, you really should, at least once. The whole enterprise is so excessive, so overheated, that it really does provide for some exceptional entertainment. First of all, we have the Vegas shows that are, in reality, over-the-top productions. As such, the film presents fairly accurate representations of these revues. The dancing is technically superb and fun to watch, and not only because the dancers are naked most of the time. Truth be told, everyone is naked so often that the initial “tit-illation” (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) wears off pretty quickly and one becomes desensitized to it almost immediately. For sheer spectacle, “Showgirls” can’t be beat. It’s like a Wagnerian opera put to celluloid. It’s beautifully filmed, glossy and technically first rate. It’s the nontechnical aspects of the film that are completely out of whack! Starting with the acting…
Elizabeth Berkley is a nice girl, and she came out of this thing, her first movie lead, OK (she has evolved into a reliable character actress and has even done Broadway). But at the time, her acting took such a critical drubbing that she probably thought she’d never work again. She performs with such hunger and ferocity that the audience is taken aback from the second she wields her switchblade. She’s like that person you meet at a party who is almost too happy, too excited to meet you that you think to yourself, “What is he/she on???” Perhaps, in retrospect, a more toned-down approach would have been appropriate, at least at the beginning. As it stands, she comes out of the gate, guns blazing, at 10 and stays there. To be fair, though, so do most of the other actors. Gershon gives by far the most enjoyable performance in the movie, clearly hamming it up as the villain. She seems to be somewhat aware that she’s trapped in a movie that will one day become a camp classic. Unfortunately for her, she signed a contract, so she resigns herself to the situation and just goes for broke. Kyle MacLachlan is, relatively speaking, fine, but his character is written as such a douche that he’s screwed too. So none of the actors (with the possible exception of Gershon) emerges with their dignity completely intact. But so what! They each create characters that are so memorable and provide campy movie buffs like myself with hours of viewing enjoyment. What’s shameful about that? If I were an actor, I would love to have been in a movie that is so remembered and talked about twenty years after its release. Of course, it would probably take me some time to come to that realization, after my pride picks itself up off of the floor and dusts itself off.
“Showgirls” provides further evidence as to why Paul Verhoeven is one of my favorite directors working today. The man has balls! He is just fearless, not afraid to go over-the-top, back around, and over-the-top again. It’s thrilling. It’s evident in “Basic Instinct,” “Total Recall,” “RoboCop,” “Showgirls,” “Starship Troopers,” etc. He understands that movies should be entertaining. Sometimes the narratives and the screenplays take a back seat to the production of his films, as is the case here, but there is absolutely no denying the fact that the man creates outrageous experiences that you simply can’t take your eyes off of. Sneer if you will, poser, but if you’ve seen “Showgirls,” you know you’ve watched it from beginning to end.
Some have argued that Eszterhas’s script is misogynistic (it isn’t “good,” that’s for sure). I would probably agree to some extent, as many of his screenplays have similar threads (“Jagged Edge,” “Basic Instinct”). I’m not convinced that he is consciously trying to be misogynistic; of course, it doesn’t help his case here when he includes a graphic and brutal rape scene late in the movie (a scene which, quite simply, doesn’t belong). He writes dark movies about the seamy side of human nature, and that includes sex, corruption, greed, death, etc. Women can be as guilty as men when it comes to satisfying their carnal wants and desires, scheming and manipulating to get what they want. I think Eszterhas, in his own way, is venturing to illuminate this ugly truth. And it can sure be ugly!
But back to “Showgirls.” I say check it out, if only once to say you’ve seen it. It is the rare movie that doesn’t come along much these days which truly leaves audiences stupefied. I recall seeing the film on opening weekend in 1995 and upon leaving the theater all of the filmgoers were sort of glancing at each other, not exactly sure of what they had just seen. I, for one, knew it looked ripe on the outside, but it tasted kind of gooey when I bit into it.
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