Gleefully inspiring audiences everywhere to challenge conventional definitions of “good” and “bad” cinema, Showgirls is undoubtedly the think-piece object d’art of its time. It is Paul Verhoeven and Joe Eszterhas’s audaciously experimental satire-but-not-satire, an epically mounted “white melodrama” (to borrow Tag Gallagher’s description of Sirk’s early, less mannered, and more overtly humanistic comedies of error) and also one of the most astringent, least compromised critiques of the Dream Factory ever unleashed on a frustrated, perpetually (and ideologically) pre-cum audience. Many things to many people, and absolutely nothing to a great deal more, Showgirls‘s proponents and detractors still square off, digging nine-foot trenches in the sand (some planting their heads therein instead of their feet) and lobbing accusations of elitism and anti-pleasure. It is perhaps one of the only films to bridge that critical gap between Film Quarterly (which hosted a beyond extensive critical roundtable on the film last year) and Joe Bob Briggs. It is a film that will continue to bend brains and drain dicks long after the golf-clap (and Clap-free) cinematic “excellence” of your Jane Austen bastardization of choice is long dismissed. It is the very definition of the term “essential.”
Okay, I’d probably be a lot more worried about the possibility that I’m overselling Showgirls if it wasn’t already patently clear that most people have already closed themselves off to the pleasures the film has to offer. Unimpressed that Joe Eszterhas cribbed copiously from All About Eve and 42nd Street, viewers don’t even stop to address the notion that he and Paul Verhoeven—who most of the auteurist crowd have given a pass to by this point, but it doesn’t matter because Showgirls exists outside of and beyond auteurism—are directly commenting on these star-is-born pipe dreams and their culpability in force-feeding the American Dream to an audience of pop junkies. (I’d love them to try to digest the notion that a third major influence is Jean Renoir’s French Cancan.) Showgirls establishes its structural patterns so quickly that it seems ludicrous that one could spend more than 10 minutes ruminating on the obvious narrative parallels. Nomi Malone, an aspiring bon vivant and full-time cheeseburger consumer, arrives in Las Vegas with dreams of stardom. Her hitch-hikeé distracts her with casino tokens and the promise of a job interview before running off with her luggage. (Actually, the blunt cut between Nomi celebrating her beginner’s luck at the slots and her inevitable crap-out is definitive of the film’s high-low mood.)
From there on, Nomi rides the roller coaster of ambition and success as she climbs the ladder of showgirl notoriety, moving from the sleazy, low-rent Cheetah club (which the film depicts as squalid but honest) to the Taj Mahal of the Miracle Mile, the Stardust and its sensational “Goddess” floor show. But to get her name in lights, she’ll have to lie and/or backstab everyone she meets: Molly, the sweet girl who discovers Nomi vomiting in the street after having her luggage stolen; James, the club bouncer who recognizes Nomi’s burning “talent”; and, ultimately, Cristal Connors, Vegas legend the current “Goddess” headliner. As quickly as Eszterhas introduces characters, Verhoeven introduces generic devices and archetypes: sexhibition, backstage musical, screwball farce, self-actualization melodrama, diva worship. The constant push-pull effect of mixing genres, tonal shifts, and paradoxes in the name of political incorrectness masks some of Verhoeven’s most sincere directorial choices. Showgirls is a catalogue of professional, cinematic grace notes. The song Nomi dances to at the Cheetah that entices Cristal for the first time is Prince’s “319,” which turns out to be the number of Cristal’s hospital room late in the film (the tables have turned, but the seduction is still ongoing). At the beginning of the film, it’s Halloween and an utterly down-and-out and French-fry-tossing Nomi is sans costume (read: identity). When Nomi steps outside after her first night as a member of the “Goddess” dance troupe, literally reborn as a woman in charge of her destiny, it’s unsurprising to see that it’s Christmas in Las Vegas.
Verhoeven’s unheralded earnestness (the same that undoubtedly inspired him to personally accept his Razzie for Worst Director) also applies to his canny casting perception. Everyone pays lip service to how “ironic” it was for Verhoeven to cast Saved by the Bell‘s Jessie Spano in the very physical role of a seemingly bipolar hooker-cum-dancer. This admittedly fabulous stunt casting ends up leading most to shortchange Berkley’s equally internal portrayal of Nomi’s transformation from fallen woman to, well, re-fallen woman (see the evil, lowered-eyelid geisha shtick she develops). On the other hand, no one ever seems to comment on how perfectly Gina Gershon was cast as her brash, Bette Davis rival and how she embodies her role in an entirely forthright, non-snarky manner. Gershon’s blousy performance is miraculous, one element from which even Showgirls‘s biggest detractors can all find some worth. Like Berkley, Gershon acts with her entire body, but exudes a certain comfort within her own frame that Berkley, with her thick lower half and puckered nipple buds, clearly envies to the point of full-on imitation. Gershon’s cockeyed grin is, in its own special way, every bit as luridly indecent as every last bare breast. And her centipede-leg-perfect wave of the hand and husky-voiced “I’ll think about it” brusqueness turns the scene where she compares her nails with Nomi’s into a galvanizing chamber drama, the culmination of Nomi and Cristal’s ongoing power struggles. Likewise, Verhoeven stocks the rest of his cast with actors who embody their roles fully and embrace their prototypes: Ungela Brockman as the volatile, standoffish showgirl Annie; Lin Tucci as the vaudevillian Henrietta with the jack-in-the-box bosom; and especially Patrick Bristow as the albino, nebbishly queeny choreographer Marty.
Even those who are willing to look at Showgirls without falling back on espousing its patently obvious camp charms (which need no defense from us, so go ahead and insert your favorite Eszterhas couplet of choice here) end up acknowledging that the film is an outlandish, albeit obvious, satire of Hollywood/America. (“In America, everyone’s a gynecologist!”) It’s not necessarily an incorrect stance to take toward the movie, but it doesn’t fly too well with those who only see Verhoeven and Eszterhas as getting the rocks in their collective sac off, as opposed to the ones in their collective head. There is, of course, more going for the movie than splashy sadism and contempt. The filmmakers’ real target isn’t Hollywood or American crassness in and of themselves, but rather the morally bankrupt star-is-born tales. The film’s vulgarity isn’t reflected in its anarchic rejection of the rules of cinematic good taste because it’s making the claim that it’s those very rules that are corrupt and ideologically facile. Offended critics (to reference Adrian Martin’s wonderful essay that opens with a Showgirls example) are reacting not to the fact that they’ve been punished for wanting titties (after all, the titties are there and they are spectacular), but that they’re being more slyly punished for wanting Nomi to succeed (or fail, as the case were) specifically because it will fulfill their preconceived notions of the archetypes of wish fulfillment.
Anyone who’s found their “in” with the film by means of settling for the pungent sexuality of its cast and its equally voluptuous cinematography (Showgirls rivals Suspiria for sheer, eye-popping color rush) or enjoying the film for its unabated “badness” inevitably reaches an impasse once Eszterhas reminds hedonists of the existence of rape. When Molly, Nomi’s second banana, meets her rock-star sexual fantasy (earlier in the film she squealingly strokes his billboard image and jokes about not being able to hold a needle straight from how many times she’s masturbated thinking of him) and follows him into his hotel room and the gang bang waiting inside, it’s a rude interruption for those who haven’t managed to work up any empathy for anyone in the film up to that point. The scene is suitably horrifying, doubly so considering it’s the moment that she realizes her own fault in creating a sexual fantasy that can’t exist in a shitty star-struck caste system in which she’s nothing more than a seamstress. (Lars von Trier only wishes he could dream up a rape scenario with as much political and psychosexual mindfuckitude.) What is even more problematic is the porny vigilante sequence that follows, because it asks us to accept a very contradictory set of terms of engagement: (a) that Nomi uses the fantasy structures of Las Vegas royalty (already clearly defined as corrupt) to exact a tidy, “let the punishment fit the crime” revenge, and (b) that her experience, her win ends up validating that corruption, simply by virtue that she succeeded in gaining the upper hand.
But not so fast. Verhoeven and Eszterhas use this sequence, what with Berkley’s pussy-who-swallowed-the-canary smirk of satisfaction, as the means by which to set up the final scene’s “punchline,” where we learn that Nomi hasn’t learned a thing at all. This ending, by the way, strikes me in the same way as the finale to A.I. Artificial Intelligence in how their tonal discord leads viewers who aren’t emotionally invested in the films down the absolute wrong path. It’s not “funny” that Nomi is going to make the same mistakes all over again. It’s crushing that despite the fact that the Myth has been revealed time and time again for the ugly bastard it is, she is still seduced by it after the small shred of “victory” she attains. When Rena Riffel (so good-natured and winningly ditzy as the Cheetah’s new girl “Penny”) showed up in David Lynch’s La-La Land masterpiece of female martyrdom, Mulholland Drive, it was almost as heartbreaking to see her portray a strung-out, worn-out shell of used sex appeal, the logical outcome of Penny’s character arc; and Lynch seemed to cunningly use her iconography to channel some of the Elizabeth Berkley mystique. (That Berkley’s career had to—make that needed to—fail in order to lay the groundwork for Showgirls to be “reborn” as a camp classic is undoubtedly one of the most damning pieces of evidence in the case for holding the film’s subsequent audience in contempt.) Just as the coda of A.I. mistakenly led people to believe Spielberg was rejecting Kubrick’s penchant for pessimism in favor of suburban bliss, the zinger at the end of Showgirls was read by far too many viewers as an absolution of their own culpability in sealing Nomi’s dire fate. As a result, the film is now often celebrated for its campy excesses, but unfortunately not as widely celebrated for what seems a very clear, conventional, and humanistic sensibility.
Ultimately, Showgirls is one of the most honest satires of recent years because, as Noël Burch wrote in the aforementioned Film Quarterly roundtable, it “takes mass culture seriously, as a site of both fascination and struggle. And it takes despised melodrama seriously too, as indeed an excellent vehicle for social criticism.” Unfortunately, the critical and public brickbats thrown at Showgirls (to say nothing of the hosannas foisted upon those concurrent Austen travesties) demonstrates that most prefer satire when it’s dealing with the distant past to the extent that one can feel morally superior to the subject of ridicule without recognizing oneself in the mix. I can’t decide whether it’s a sad comment on the vapidity of pop culture or merely a reflection of business-as-usual that VH1’s I Love the ‘90s series studiously ignored including the film in its year-by-year roundup (it certainly inspired as big a shitstorm as the Snapple Lady, for God’s sake). But it’s an understandable omission, since Showgirls is truly one of the only ‘90s films that treats pop culture as a vibrant field of social economics and cerebral pursuit, and not merely tomorrow’s nostalgia-masturbation fodder.