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The Secret Subversion of Showgirls

Like a girl branded with a bad reputation, director Paul Verhoeven's 1995 film Showgirls has been called every nasty name in the book:

"Perhaps the worst film of the year." (Kim Williamson, Boxoffice magazine)

"Think Flashdance but with an unappealing leading lady playing a woman whose fierce ambition is to do something not admirable, just ridiculous." (Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle)

"A waste of a perfectly good NC-17 rating." (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)

"Just plain awful." (Bob Thompson, Jam! Movies)

Showgirls drew attention to itself by garnering a rare NC-17 rating and because its screenwriter, Joe Eszterhas, became the highest-paid screenwriter in history for his series of sexploitative films, most notably Basic Instinct. Roger Ebert and many other critics who piled on Showgirls seized upon how poorly the film lived up to its rating. Others latched onto the noble-minded but ill-considered claptrap Eszterhas served up (that making the film was "a religious experience" for him) to make the film a laughingstock and skewer Eszterhas for polluting us with his personal fantasies. Still others called Showgirls a camp classic, with bad dialogue and stick-figure characters that could be imitated readily at the Baton Club for fun and profit.

Now that we're 10 years beyond the hype, it's time for a new appraisal of Showgirls, prompted by a recent bashing the film took in The Beachwood Reporter's Must-See TV box. I'll take on the criticisms first, then provide a new take on this unfairly maligned film.

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First, let's look at that NC-17 rating. All this rating actually means is that nobody under 17 is allowed into a theater to see this film. The best interpretation of what kind of film qualifies for an NC-17 rating is one that "may contain explicit sex scenes, an accumulation of sexually oriented language, and/or scenes of excessive violence. The NC-17 designation does not signify that the rated film is obscene or pornographic, simply that it addresses these topics."

Let's eliminate the excessive violence part of that interpretation because virtually no film would pass muster these days, and particularly not films for the lucrative PG-13 market. So that leaves us with sex. Now, there is only one actual sex scene in Showgirls, and it is not explicit. There is a lot of language about body parts, so maybe that qualifies for the NC-17. But let's be frank. It is the many, many bare female breasts and some full-frontal female nudity that got to the censors. So, this was a waste of a perfectly good NC-17 rating, but it wasn't the film's fault; it was the excessive prudishness of the raters who don't seem to know how to follow their own directions.

showgirls2.jpg
Nor, it seems, do film critics know what to expect from an NC-17 film, not even Roger Ebert, who championed the rating. The rating is not necessarily about eroticism, but everyone expected Showgirls to be just that. It isn't. What Showgirls is about is ambition told using one of the oldest stories in the book - an established veteran on the top of the heap facing a usurper, a story that goes back at least as far as Oedipus - transplanted to the Stardust in Las Vegas. This was an update that was right on time to capture the ambition-driven ethos of the go-go '80s and '90s. Before Showgirls, you'd have to go all the way back to 1950 to find another major film that dealt with this theme - All About Eve, a great film but wholly irrelevant in contextualizing success for the '90s. Nobody wants to be a star on Broadway, where the salaries are as small as the theatres, when they can pull down six- to seven-figure incomes in the glitz palaces on the Strip. I'm not sure this ambition is as ridiculous as critic Mick LaSalle suggests, at least by the "Greed is good" standards that still infect American society.

I think we are safe in assuming Showgirls is at least partially inspired by Eszterhas's fantasies. I'm not sure why his assertions that making Showgirls was a religious experience for him are considered ridiculous when similar thoughts from so-called auteur/sleazemeister Lars von Trier are considered profound, but my ticking snob detector is giving me a clue. And that's what really bugs me. Showgirls takes seriously the shows that entertain the folks who travel by Greyhound and the performers for whom the Strip is Broadway. Goddess, the big show at the Stardust depicted in the film, is as authentic a Vegas show as I've ever seen on film. I appreciate the artistry and entertainment value of this visually stunning show, as well as the skill of the dancers who perform it.

I guess now I'll have to deal with the camp aspects of this film, a charge not as easily dismissed. The usual way into the camp category is through stereotyped set-ups, bad or self-reflexive dialogue, and caricatures instead of characters. While it can be argued persuasively that our tough-as-nails, wannabe showgirl Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) comes very close to caricature, I don't think she crosses the line. Her traumatic background and need to use her body for survival are plain and real enough. She is never seen for one frame of this film without heavy make-up. She's willing to show everything but her emotions, and her face is a painted mask that never cracks. Her dialogue is similarly artificial and unemotional. When she likes something, it "doesn't suck." That sounds believable coming from someone like Nomi. I think Verhoeven made a mistake by not letting Berkley show more humanity; she emerges as a wooden, one-dimensional character that can be camped up because she is so blank. But I've seen Berkley in subsequent films and she really can act. Unfortunately, her career took the bullet for this misunderstood film.

Nomi takes on Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon), the star of Goddess. Gershon is the go-to girl in Hollywood for lesbian eroticism, which she delivers in Showgirls, but she does more than that. Cristal is an older version of Nomi, someone who scratched and slept her way to the top of the Vegas heap and knows that her looks won't last forever. She toys with Nomi and pulls rank, but she also sees the writing on the wall. When Nomi finally pushes her down the stairs, she has the sense to know that Nomi did her a favor. Her broken hip results in a large settlement from the Stardust, and she can finally retire and be herself. Significantly, Cristal wears no make-up when she says good-bye to Nomi with a deep kiss.

And what of Nomi? She finds herself and abandons the false accolades of a false town. At least, that's the outline of the plot. The way it plays, however, Nomi leaves Vegas the same way she came in- hitching and being picked up by the same larcenous truck driver - no less tough or searching, still with her war paint on, but realizing that Vegas was just another disappointment, like all the foster homes that bounced her and all the johns who stiffed her. In this sense, she accepts that she knows what she knows about the world and won't question whether she can have it all like the American Dream Machine promises. She knows she can't, and that clawing your way to the top for someone like her only means she'll drop without a safety net below when the time comes.

Showgirls turns the entire celebrity culture of America on its head at a time when it is at its peak. There is no transformation, only disillusionment and violence. That is a radical statement that perhaps could only come from Eszterhas and Verhoeven, two Europeans. In the very fruitful tradition of Europeans who appropriate American mythology for their own uses - most notably Godard - these two men filmed the myth against the backdrop of a very real Las Vegas and they did it with European bemusement at America's adolescent strivings. This film is very entertaining, and in its own way, very, very subversive.



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Posted on May 1, 2006


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