'Showgirls,' the original 'Burlesque': PopWatch Rewind gets campy
In theaters today, Cher stars in Burlesque, an overly sequined, jazz-handy tribute to garish so-bad-it’s-goodness. But if we could turn back time, we’d go back to 1995, when a similar, but much more topless, film was released onto an unsuspecting public. Showgirls was voted the worst movie of the 90’s, won numerous Razzies, and fared pretty well (badly?) in EW’s poll for the Best Worst Movie. Is it exploitative sludge, hilarious terribleness, or brave and brilliant satire? Can’t it be all three? This week, we strip off all inhibitions and open up a big ol’ can of Doggy Chow on Paul Verhoeven’s legendary craptasterpiece.
Darren Franich: Keith, in the interest of starting this talk as precisely as possible, can you describe Nomi Malone’s motivation in Showgirls? What is she trying to DO, exactly?
Keith Staskiewicz: If we pull that thread, we risk unraveling the entire beautiful, ridiculous, porno-tastic tapestry. At first she seems to be following the typical small-town-girl, big-city-dreams template, the same one we see in Burlesque. But we quickly realize that the girl is a sociopath and the dreams are actually nightmares. It’s really hard to figure out what she wants: She works at a strip club, but she thinks she’s a “dancer.” She goes all All About Eve on Gina Gershon, but then insists that she’s nothing like her. All of Nomi’s occupations are just variations on the theme of selling your body for money, but somehow she is staunchly against any impropriety. Maybe it’s just terrible writing, or maybe it’s a metaphor for America’s confused relationship with sex.
KS: The real question we should be asking is, “What is Paul Verhoeven’s motivation?”
DF: Good question. Verhoeven, at this point, was coming off of Basic Instinct, a movie that caused a sensation, simultaneously made/deconstructed/destroyed Sharon Stone’s career, and turned the whole “erotic-thriller” genre (which is really just noirish softcore porn) into the hottest thing in Hollywood. Basic Instinct, like Showgirls, was written by Joe Eszterhas, who wrote similar crime/sex thrillers like Jagged Edge, Jade, and Sliver. Showgirls was his most Eszterhas-ian screenplay yet, filled with casual lesbianism and endless scenes of people speaking exposition while naked. And then, apparently, Paul Verhoeven filmed the screenplay word-for-word, except he pumped up the insanity by filming everything like a futuristic remake of Cabaret. He also hired actors who were either terrible (Elizabeth Berkley), in on the joke (Kyle MacLachlan), or some combination of the two (Gershon) … and voila! A movie that’s either terrible or perfect.
DF: Honestly, maybe it’s just because enough time has passed and the cult has risen, but I legitimately think Showgirls is a good movie. And not even a so-bad-it’s-good movie. I think Verhoeven, in his totally foreign way, was hitting on something totally gonzo and American. Who has ever had big dreams about being a dancer … and gone to Vegas?
KS: Moving it to Las Vegas could have been a way to distance the movie from its actual satiric target: Hollywood. The movie could have easily been set in L.A., with Nomi being a young bumpkin wanting to make it as an actress, but it’s a little too easy to set it there if you’re making the point that everyone in Hollywood is, deep down, a whore. So instead, Verhoeven set it in this weirdly sci-fi fantasy version of Las Vegas which doesn’t actually exist anywhere in the real world. I call it Lost Vegas. Verhoeven’s next movie, Starship Troopers, is a great comparison point. It’s very similar to Showgirls in a lot of ways: Characters with little-to-no depth, comic-strip dialogue, gratuitous nudity…
DF: A wonderful lack of respect for the material!
KS: …and a damning critique of America by way of giving us exactly what we think we want: Sex and violence. When you set the movie in the future, the satiric elements are a lot more obvious. And maybe one of the reasons Showgirls is less evidently satiric than his other movies is that it’s harder to go over the top with sex.We’re so used to sex selling that when we see someone flopping around like Daryl Hannah in Splash we just assume it’s a badly done scene. When someone is liquified by nuclear waste and then hit by a car, it’s much clearer that this is not supposed to be taken on face value.
DF: Which brings up the simple truism about the MPAA: It’s okay if kids see the stumps of Michael Ironside’s bitten-off legs in Starship Troopers, or the stumps of Michael Ironside’s ripped-off arms in Total Recall, so long as they’re accompanied by an adult to put those stumps in the proper sociological context. But no red-blooded American children will be seeing Elizabeth Berkley’s breasts. No sir!
KS: Showgirls was the first NC-17 movie to receive a real wide release. It’s amazing to think that a parody of sex-obsessed Hollywood has also become the go-to example of sex-obsessed Hollywood.
DF: It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a brief window there were it seemed like the MPAA had designed a separate legitimate place for adult movies, an adults-only pool so to speak. And then Verhoeven gleefully pissed in the pool and ruined it for everyone. I laughed nonstop during Showgirls, but I can easily understand people watching this and being like, “Hmmm, a man hires a million hot 20-year-olds and demands that they be naked every single day of filming. Interesting!”
DF: I can understand how on Starship Troopers people might’ve actually thought they were making a sci-fi action movie, but what did anyone in this movie actually think they were making?
KS: What did the studio think? An NC-17 is a hard nut to crack, box office-wise, and I can’t imagine you’re going to do it with a bad-good satire-or-serious echo chamber like this. There’s too much room for misinterpreting the thing satirized as the thing itself. Again, it’s like Starship Troopers, which some people actually accuse of being fascistic. It’s Verhoeven’s love of the deadpan that really forces you pause for a second and go, “What a minute … is this guy for real?” Even people like us who defend his terrible (?) movies as brilliant (??) satire have moments where we just might be on the wrong side of the joke. If we take this as a straight satire, does it work because it’s accurate and scathing or do we like it just because it doesn’t blink? Or, more accurately, wink? Because it never even gives you the satisfaction of knowing that everyone’s in on it. As it is now, I think I can totally understand people who think it’s a bad movie, full stop.
DF: I think that you can point to two significant things Verhoeven brought to it that would be lacking in a version written and directed by Eszterhas. First, he honestly shoots it gorgeously. Every shot is filled with neon in the background, an overlit dream Vegas. I’m betting Eszterhas would have shot it darker, and definitely wouldn’t have had, say, the neon trees by the pool. Second, I think he rightfully insisted that every actor turn it way, way, way up. So Kyle MacLachlan basically has the same sneering smile the whole movie, even when he’s supposed to kind of be a love interest, and he has that RIDICULOUS HAIR. And Gina Gershon says “darlin'” constantly. And as much as people criticize her, I do think Elizabeth Berkley gives a good (or at least energetic) performance.
KS: Not unlike her tour de force turn on Saved by the Bell when Jessie got addicted to those caffeine pills. Actually, you could probably see this whole movie as what happened to Jessie Spano after SbtB ended: It’s a slippery slope that goes straight from caffeine to prostitution, and I seem to remember the series finale taking place in Las Vegas. Oh, poor Jessie. Not even the bell could save you. The best thing about Berkley’s performance is that half of her character’s interactions with other people end with her throwing her hands up angrily and stalking off. Seriously, every other conversation, she flails off, upset at something, usually because she doesn’t seem to understand at all her job description as a showgirl.
DF: Going along with that, and I think this explains another reason why the movie eludes proper critical analysis: In the world of the film, it’s legitimately unclear what constitutes authenticity or inauthenticity. There’s one character in the movie, a dancer-bouncer who studied dancing at Alvin Ailey in New York, whose whole purpose in the movie is to say, “What you’re doing isn’t dancing! I’ll teach you REAL dancing.” But then the dance he’s been working on is basically a lap dance and he spends the whole movie trying to have sex with Elizabeth Berkley, before finally just having sex with one of her co-strippers.
KS: Is there anyone in the movie that doesn’t end up proving themselves to be tremendously shallow and in it only for sex, fame and/or money? Even the roommate goes off with the singer immediately just because he’s famous, and then the rape plot point zooms in from out of the blue and takes over.
DF: It comes out of nowhere, and it happens to a character who has literally done nothing but smile and play the conscience of the movie, by a rock star who literally seems to be a demi-god in Showgirls land, even though he plays at a casino.
KS: It’s like hot, young women fawning over Wayne Newton. But again, what happens in Verhoeven Vegas, stays in Verhoeven Vegas. Because it’s too damn ridiculous for anywhere else. For better or for worse, I feel like only Verhoeven could have made the worst movie of all time a little brilliant. If anyone else had directed Showgirls, our perception of it would be much different. It’d probably be Burlesque.
Next Week: The long-delayed I Love You, Phillip Morris will (hopefully) finally get released in American theaters. In the film, Jim Carrey plays one of his most daring roles yet. We’ll flash back to Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, in which Carrey daringly opted to deliver half his dialogue through his rear end.