'Showgirls'. It's hot. It's sexy. But is it an NC-17?

By Richard Natale
Updated February 17, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST
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Showgirls

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On the hot-pink neon set of Showgirls you’ll see more exposed flesh than in an issue of Playboy. But while gorgeous women bump and grind on the nearby stage, male crew members barely look up from their crossword puzzles and newspapers. ”I went to art school,” shrugs production designer Allan Cameron, ”so this doesn’t faze me.” Chances are, however, these people will be the only ones unfazed by yet another envelope-pushing exploration of sexuality from screenwriter Joe Eszterhas and director Paul Verhoeven.

In a possible replay of the ratings controversy that swirled around the duo’s Basic Instinct in 1992, Showgirls appears to be on a collision course with the Motion Picture Association of America. Verhoeven, who insists he’s under no obligation to distributor MGM/UA to deliver an R-rated film, seems to be inviting a struggle with the powerful, conservative board. At the very least his movie will put a wrinkle in the Nevada tourist board’s campaign to depict Vegas as a family mecca.

Due in October, Showgirls, for whose screenplay Eszterhas received a staggering $3.7 million, is an All About Eve-ish tale of a lap dancer (Saved by the Bell graduate Elizabeth Berkley) who rises from sleazy nudie lounges to topless Vegas headliner, dethroning her idol (Gina Gershon of the Sinatra miniseries) in the process.

Verhoeven had planned to have his stars topless in the club scenes, then decided to test the boundaries by ordering his actresses to drop their G- strings as well. ”I wanted to portray Vegas not as a fantasyland, but how it is,” says the director. ”This is real life as I observed it in clubs.” How real? Even the legit Vegas dance numbers are extravaganzas of bare breasts and G-string-clad groins, both male and female. There are lesbian and interracial sexual pairings and enough raw language to make Howard Stern blush. And the entire wardrobes of Berkley and Gershon could fit into a change purse with plenty of room left for a toothbrush.

For now at least, UA president John Calley insists, ”the studio will completely support Paul and the film he makes.” This includes the possibility of an NC-17 rating-generally considered a box office kiss of death because many newspapers refuse ads for such films and certain theaters won’t book them. If Showgirls is rated NC-17 and MGM releases it, the movie will be the first major-studio film branded with the rating since Universal’s Henry and June in 1990. But Henry was basically an art-house movie with little commercial appeal. MGM wants Showgirls to be the Flashdance of the ’90s. Gerry Rich, the studio’s marketing head, calls it ”very commercial, and we’re going out in an aggressive way with it,” meaning the movie could open in more than 1,000 theaters. (Of course, the filmmakers know that reports of titillating scenes only boost a movie’s must-see factor.)

Another potential obstacle for Verhoeven, given the country’s current political climate, is the flak Showgirls seems destined to receive from women’s groups as well as conservative organizations. ”I’m aware of the possibility,” he says, ”but I’m prepared to defend the movie. The film is honest about the life it portrays. There’s beauty and ugliness here. I’m showing it all without passing judgment on it.” Besides, Verhoeven argues, why should his film tone down what isn’t censored in real life? ”It’s not NC-17 in Vegas.”

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