'Showgirls' makes its mark on Hollywood -- The sexy new Elizabeth Berkley flick spurs a slew of upcoming stories about the world of exotic dancing

By Benjamin Svetkey
September 29, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Teatime at the grandly posh St. Regis Hotel in New York. Elegant waitresses in high-collared jackets and smart white gloves float through the dining room as overstuffed businessmen lounge in overstuffed chairs. At a corner table, dressed in the sort of slinky hip huggers and dinky croptop that once made Charo a legend, sits Elizabeth Berkley, star of the saucy new stripper flick Showgirls.

”Sexuality is such a big part of all our lives,” she says, sucking cranberry juice through a straw. ”People shouldn’t be afraid of it. They shouldn’t deny it. There’s no reason to be uptight about sex and nudity.” She looks up at the waitress serving drinks. ”Wouldn’t you agree?”

”Absolutely,” the woman deadpans, utterly unruffled, then floats off to another table.

Certainly Hollywood seems to be taking Berkley’s advice these days. Showgirls (opening this weekend with a much-publicized NC-17 rating) is only the first in a slew of upcoming movies exploring the steamy, seamy world of exotic dancing. Also in the works: Striptease, the movie that slipped a $12.5 million tip into Demi Moore’s G-string (it’s now filming in Florida), and Melissa, in which Baywatch‘s Nicole Eggert will bare all as a classical ballet dancer-turned-stripper (expected in theaters as early as this winter). Video is cashing in on the act as well, with a bevy of direct-to-vid tapes wriggling into stores soon — Stripteaser, Lap Dancing, and Midnight Tease 2, to name a few — along with Exotica, the arty strip-club drama from Canada that got critics all hot and bothered at festivals last year.

Showgirls should be the raciest of the bunch by far, with lesbian love scenes, explicit dialogue, and enough full-frontal nudity to have MPAA president Jack Valenti reaching for his heart pills. The plot isn’t exactly groundbreaking — it’s All About Eve in pasties, with Berkley playing an ambitious stripper who dethrones a Vegas diva — but as the first major studio film to be released with an NC-17 rating since 1990’s Henry and June, it’s being watched very closely. Can a $40 million NC-17 movie make money in today’s conservative marketplace? Does the stripper-movie trend have, um, legs? And what’s up with Hollywood, anyway — why is it suddenly so anxious to take it all off?

”Sometimes audiences are fascinated with movies about airplane crashes, sometimes audiences are fascinated with movies about people growing very big or very small,” says Showgirls director Paul Verhoeven, who fascinated audiences in 1992 by filming Sharon Stone uncrossing her legs in Basic Instinct. ”Now we have movies about strippers. Who knows why? The only thing I can say is that we’re moving into a much more repressive sexual climate in this country. And you can’t repress sexuality. It’s silly to try. It comes out anyway.”

Showgirls writer Joe Eszterhas (who also penned Basic Instinct) sees the trend in more specific terms. ”Perhaps, to a certain degree, these movies are a response to AIDS,” he says. ”There’s a line in Showgirls that explains the whole thing. Stripping is like having sex without really having sex; it’s like hooking without really hooking. It’s safe sex for the ’90s. And I’m not just talking about the movies. It’s a trend in general. It’s sweeping the nation.”

Which is how the subject matter fell into Eszterhas’ lap. Since 1992, the number of strip clubs in the U.S. has reportedly doubled to nearly 3,000. And they haven’t just grown more numerous, they’ve grown more mainstream — even fashionable. Some high-end joints (where the bouncers wear tuxedos) have become celeb hangouts, with Madonna, Hugh Grant, Pamela Lee, and Kato Kaelin popping in for visits. Charlie Sheen likes them so much he even brought his future bride to one in New York a few months ago.

Whether stripping will prove equally chic at the box office is, of course, Hollywood’s big gamble. And the stakes with Showgirls are pretty high: If it bombs, it could bury NC-17 for good. Created in 1990 as a supposedly stigma-free alternative to X, the rating has been a dud from the start. Studios have been so terrified of the initials — which stand for ”no children under 17,” a huge chunk of the moviegoing population — that many have contractually obligated directors to avoid it. With Showgirls, though, MGM is taking exactly the opposite tack, wearing NC-17 like a badge of honor, seeing if it can turn the rating into a marketing bonanza.

The plan may actually work. So far, Showgirls has met none of the disasters that supposedly befall NC-17 movies. It’s opening on 1,300 screens — about the same number as Dangerous Minds — despite the usual studio fears that family-oriented theaters would turn it away. And what it’s lost in advertising — NBC is refusing to air the movie’s TV spot, and at least two major newspapers (The Daily Oklahoman and the Fort Worth Star Telegram) have declined to run its sexy print ad — it’s more than made up for with the press hoopla over the rating. MGM even whipped up an inspired PR gimmick in the spirit of the campaign, shipping 250,000 eight-minute sneak-preview tapes (featuring scenes too naughty to show in theater trailers) to video stores to give away as free rentals.

There was, however, one potentially catastrophic flaw in MGM’s NC-17 marketing scheme that could have dashed the whole deal: The ratings board could have given Showgirls an R. ”Oh, I don’t think so,” says Verhoeven, his Dutch accent thick enough to plug a dike. ”I wasn’t worried. I knew we had nudity enough for an NC-17.”

Naturally, not everyone is thrilled with Hollywood’s latest love affair with nakedness. Bob Dole, for one, probably won’t be dialing 777-FILM for Showgirls tickets anytime soon. Some feminists object to the objectification as well, arguing that the stripper fad is fueled by an antifeminist backlash, with filmmakers being the biggest backlashers of them all. ”Hollywood is like the old Communist party,” says antiporn activist Andrea Dworkin. ”When it sees a trend it can exploit, it exploits it.”

Still, it’s not hard to find others among the cultural cognoscenti who take a more permissive view of the nudie craze. ”You have to look at this phenomenon as more than just stripping, you have to look at it as a sacred erotic dance,” insists maverick feminist author Camille Paglia (Vamps & Tramps). ”It’s a pagan art form that goes all the way back to ancient fertility rituals….Men go into these places drawn by mysteries of the universe they cannot explain. They huddle around the woman on stage as if she were a bonfire on a cold medieval night. It’s as if they can feel heat coming off her. It’s tribal. It’s primal.”

Uh huh. In any case, the women who took their clothes off for Verhoeven have their own decided views on the subject. ”Listen,” says Gena Gershon, who disrobes innumerable times as a bitchy Vegas diva named Cristal (after the Champagne, natch), ”I was playing a showgirl. I didn’t expect to be dancing around in a muumuu.”

Back in the rarefied air of the St. Regis, Berkley offers a more stripperly take. ”I just had to accept the fact that I was going to be completely naked in front of hundreds of crew members,” she says. ”It really wasn’t a big deal. The crew turned out to be great about it. They were so sweet. They would give me tips between takes.” — Additional reporting by Richard Natale

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