UNLESS YOU’VE BEEN hanging out in a shack in Montana for the last twenty years, you almost certainly have an opinion on the film Showgirls, and it’s likely to be negative. Full of gratuitous nudity, Vegas sleaze, and hilariously moronic dialog, Showgirls is an infamous train wreck, often appearing on lists of the worst movies ever made.
But does it deserve its reputation? Lately there has been a movement afoot to reconsider. For one thing, Showgirls is now the biggest selling DVD release in MGM history, and has increasingly inspired the sort of cult fervor usually reserved for forced marriages and airport panhandling.
Additionally the film’s usual whipping boys, director Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct, Robocop, Starship Troopers) and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (Flashdance, Jade, Sliver) have been newly granted something of a reprieve: the slim possibility that their Caligulan excess may have been intentional. If irony and satire are weak instruments in the face of losing 30k playing craps at The Circus Circus, perhaps pure decadence is the only way to truly skewer Vegas.
Sean Beaudoin and Jamie Blaine recently sat down with Toronto Globe and Mail film critic Adam Nayman, the author of the new cinematic salvage operation “It Doesn’t Suck,”(ECW Press) an impassioned, funny, and totally non-ironic reappraisal of Showgirls as a work of art.
Sean Beaudoin: Currently neither Showgirls nor Showgirls 2: Penny’s From Heaven can be had from Netflix without a “very long wait,” which I’m assuming is a direct result of the promotional build-up to the release of the book.
J.M. Blaine: Wasn’t Showgirls II straight to DVD?
SB: How does a movie, even with a 30k budget, go straight to DVD without actually being available on DVD?
JMB: From the clips I saw they must have spent 25K of the budget on cocaine.
Adam Nayman: Showgirls 2 is basically a homemade movie. She (Rena Riffle-eds.) distributed it via website. It has shown theatrically in a few places, I believe in Los Angeles. It’s a niche release, and a small niche at that. But because of the title, it attracted some kind of an audience.
SB: Adam, I enjoyed It Doesn’t Suck quite a bit. I’m thinking it was even better than watching both films back to back. Or at least all of Showgirls, plus the outtakes of Penny’s From Heaven.
JMB: Showgirls is as unsettling to me now as it was then. But your book did change the way I think about the film.
AN: That’s kind of you both to say. The more toxic something is, the longer it takes for the radiation cloud to dissipate. And Showgirls was the most toxic thing to come out of Hollywood in the last 20 years. Only now can books like mine exist. Not because I’m the only one capable but because we can just now look at it for what it is. The need to take a deeper look is in proportion to just how much it was hated in 1995.
SB: I feel fortunate that I first saw Showgirls in ’95 as a matinee in a mostly empty theater, with almost no awareness of the hype surrounding it. My ignorance probably allowed for a more “uncontaminated” experience than most people had. All I remember is that my friend and I kept looking at one another in disbelief, laughing the entire way through.
AN: I was fourteen and wanted to see why it had been so panned by critics. So I knew the movie was “contaminated” — I wanted to see if it was really toxic and I didn’t think it was! I like films that give space for the audience’s response. Verhoven is liberating in that sense. He doesn’t tell you what to think.
SB: I bring it up because in subsequent viewings I’ve been shocked by how nasty and vindictive many of the scenes are. That’s not my initial memory at all.
AN: Well yes, a lot of it is rather caustic. And I think if someone were to say that they find it unpleasant I’d be hard pressed to argue. But as an auteurist, I am a fan of Paul Verhoven. If you look at his work, there’s a strong reason to like Showgirls. His other films were praised as provocative and outrageous and calculating and they treated Showgirls as if he had finally lost his mind. But really, it’s in his wheelhouse and in line with his sense of humor. Showgirls wasn’t just some break where a great director lost his mind.
JMB: I didn’t watch R-rated movies in those days. I saw a scene though.
AN: How did you see a scene?
JMB: Buddy of mine was a ticket taker at the Joy Twin Cinema. It was the Cheetah lap dance scene and I was like, JESSIE, NO!!! It scarred me, man.
SB: It Doesn’t Suck was pretty therapeutic in terms of releasing my guilt over my earlier enjoyment. Guilt is a good topic here, maybe.
JMB: Well, let me plant my flag, okay?
SB: Please. The Weeklings is a safe space.
JMB: I was totally into Saved by the Bell. Hot for Kelly, friends with a lot of girls like Jessie. The thought of seeing your best friend girl naked might be titillating but in reality? Way disturbing. Adam’s book made me realize that the film itself isn’t bad — but it wasn’t enjoyable for me. Because I was such a SBTB dork. Liz Berkely may hate me saying this, but she will always be Jessie Spano to me.
SB: I think she would love you for saying that. You could have said, “you will always be the nameless escort from Any Given Sunday to me.”
JMB: I should add that I married a girl with Kelly’s looks and Jessie’s brains. So I guess it worked out.
AN: I think it’s a great point generally about Berkley — she had never been sexualized, really, on Saved By the Bell. Her casting in Showgirls is interesting because most of the people who would have been old enough to buy a ticket wouldn’t have necessarily been SBTB fans. But there’s definitely something provocative about casting a teen idol in an adult film. And I think that Berkley was probably eager to mature in her career, hence her on-the-record enthusiasm for the role, at least at first.
JMB: You make a great point about how different the film would have been with Alicia Silverstone in the lead.
AN: Well, in the book I propose a thought experiment wherein Alicia Silverstone plays Nomi. Doesn’t totally work but it makes a point I think which is that whatever the tension in Berkley’s performance ultimately is — nerves, anger, fear, whatever — it makes Showgirls unique. I don’t know if Alicia would have been old enough at the time or if she would have had the right build. She might have been too likeable for the part. But she’s a gifted comedienne and was a better actress at the time. She wasn’t the right age bracket but imagine if Sharon Stone (Catherine Tramell in Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct-eds.) had played Nomi. I think the critics would have been kinder and the film received in a different light. It’s also important to note that the movie was a breakthrough for Gershon as well, who had not really had a star part yet and yet even though she was 33 playing 25, she’s cast in this sort of grand-dame-bitch role. And she kills it!
“I decided to make my part campy because I initially thought that it was going to be really dark and really intense and then it just turned out to be completely different. So instead of going in that direction, I decided to make it so that drag queens would want to dress as my character on Halloween.” - Gina Gershon, on Showgirls.
JMB: So what’s the consensus on Gina? The true star of the film?
SB: Despite the unrelenting display of flesh, Showgirls is one of the least erotic films I’ve ever seen. The only sexy thing about it is Gina Gershon’s lips.
JMB: Showgirls is not sexy. And Gina’s lips are too Joker for me.
AN: It’s not a very erotic movie, which is a sticking point (sorry) for some people. They assume that that is a failure rather than possibly — partially — part of its design. I think the idea of sex-as-commodity is central to Showgirls.
JMB: So Showgirls is purposefully not sexy?
AN: Verhoeven doesn’t go totally austere with his depiction, he’s pretty aware that the shows are lurid and mechanical and that the women are under a kind of duress. All the sex in the movie is about power, and while power can be sexy, I think there is a critique embedded in the staging as much as the script. Sleazy, yes. Sexy — only in a very surface way.
SB: It didn’t occur to me to do anything but laugh at the infamous “pool scene,” in which Berkley strenuously copulates with MacLachlan like a sand shark eating a crab. He later refers to it as “the fuck of the century.” In retrospect, though, I could buy the argument that it’s an intentionally dismal metaphor for the seduction of Vegas. Or fame. Or something.
AN: Sexiness is always intruded on by comedy or by cruelty, sometimes both at once.
JMB: Yeah, but how did you guys feel about those scenes when you first saw them in your teens? Were they sexy then?
AN: Well I think almost everything is sexy to a 14-year old boy but again I was already a wannabe film critic so I was very detached. There are a lot of movies I found much sexier as a teenager, I always looked at Showgirls as a kind of object for study — or as entertainment rather than titillation.
JMB: Is that what Verhoeven was shooting for?
AN: That’s hard to say for sure, but I think the blurred lines (sorry) between intention and effect are worth observing and commenting on, in this movie and in most others, too.
SB: There was always a clear distinction for me, even as a teen, between sexy and calculatedly provocative. Showgirls seems like neither, just clinical.
JMB: I watched it with my wife, who is a trained dancer and choreographer. At some point she asked: Didn’t they have time to give Jessie a few lessons? Then we remembered that Berkeley often did choreography on Saved by the Bell. She’s athletic and has a dance background. But all the dancing in Showgirls is rotten. So were they dancing bad on purpose? Were they intentionally under-rehearsed?
AN: I imagine you are referring to the scene where Nomi dances to Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans.” The scene is certainly shot as if the camera doesn’t think much of Berkley’s dancing. Most of the dance scenes are shot that way. But Showgirls is indebted to 30’s musicals – broad plots, almost beat for beat to those early films. That was the artistic tactic. I don’t think you can deem that as oblivious or inept. So you might label it trashy or immoral – but is that bad? I think there is more in Showgirls that is intentionally good than intentionally bad. Verhoeven is a satirist who is often making fun of his audience. But since it’s about sex, we get really confused. So we laugh at it instead of with it. But maybe that was Verhoeven’s intention.
JMB: Do you think Elizabeth Berkley was in on the joke?
SB: It’s interesting that most people assume once an actor signs on to a production, they have some control over the final look of their performance. Like, “Oh, how could Kevin Bacon have ever appeared in that whitewater rafting movie?” Supposedly Gabriel Byrne thought he was Kaiser Soze until he saw The Usual Suspects at the premiere. I doubt Elizabeth Berkley had any clue.
AN: Joke might not be the best way to put it – but I know what you mean. Again, contrast her to Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. Both are parodies. But Stone is a really good actress and she takes over the movie. Elizabeth Berkely takes over Showgirls, but in a different sort of way. I think that what happened to Nomi in Vegas mirrors what is happening to Elizabeth Berkeley in the film. She’s not sure how to navigate show business. She doesn’t understand the difference between dancing at the Cheetah and at the Stardust. Her experience in the film mirrors her experience in real life and that adds a layer of power. Verhoven’s a smart guy, I don’t know that he intentionally misled a nineteen-year-old girl, but that is the most interesting way to look at it.
JMB: Guess I never thought of that. There is a sense of desperation throughout the film.
AN: There’s a whole lot of aspiration in this movie, in the plot, in the characters, in the casting — everyone wants to move up, and fears being left back.
SB: What does Kyle MacLachlan want to move up to?
AN: He doesn’t want to fall behind and he’s interested in trading up his sexual partners — Cristal (Gina Gershon’s character-eds.) for Nomi.
SB: He’s been shuffling chorines for years (one of my favorite words), so that doesn’t seem like a move up. Although simply not “falling behind” is a really good, damning observation.
JB: I’m guilty of the immature perspective again. I was like, “What is Agent Cooper doing in Vegas?”
AN: I say in the book that MacLachlan specializes in straight arrows who get bent out of shape. Here, though, he’s pretty static — an asshole from beginning to end. Blue Velvet is all about corrupted innocence; this guy never had any to begin with.
SB: He may have been the best piece of casting in the film. He’s totally convincing as Zach: sneering, cruelly pretty, hollow. He must have taken a lot of notes backstage with Linda Evangelista.
JMB: It was like your little sister lost her mind and ran away to Vegas. Now she’s stripping and got some sleazy boyfriend. He wasn’t good enough for Jessie. I hated him.
SB: Speaking of The Las Vegas Story, Victor Mature would have been perfect in the MacLachlan role.
AN: A retro casting of Showgirls would be really fun, because so many of the frames of reference in the film are classical. Verhoeven has said so, and before the film came out too — not as an excuse after the fact.
SB: Okay, I say Hedy Lamarr for Gina, Maxie Rosenblum for Robert Davi, and Benicio Del Toro for Kyle MacLachlan.
JMB: How about Nomi? Judy Garland? Melissa Gilbert straight out of Little House?
AN: Ruby Keeler as Nomi. Hedy Lamarr has to be in there somewhere.
SB: Veronica Lake as Nomi.
AN: Oh, wow, I like that.
SB: Perfectly dead-eyed.
JMB: Lake is hot.
AN: Old Hollywood stuff appears classier in retrospect for having had to submit to stricter censorship but a lot of these older showbiz melodramas were made and marketed to be titillating and flashy and all that.
JMB: Is Showgirls a tribute to Busby Berkley?
AN: I think the strongest case for reclaiming Showgirls as filmmaking lies in that connection. Verhoeven is nothing if not a fan of older American movies, but he doesn’t italicize the references a la Tarantino and so they get past some people. “Can you spell MGM backwards?”
SB: Sweet Smell of Success hits all the same Showgirls notes, and hints at many of them even more successfully than actually showing them, but the dialog is just as vicious…and way smarter.
JMB: Showgirls reminded me of Purple Rain and the Saturday Night Fever sequel, Stayin’ Alive. Am I the only one?
AN: Sure, and Flashdance too.
SB: Have you seen The Canyons with Lindsay Lohan? That might be the real Showgirls sequel. And Bret Easton Ellis might be Joe Eszterhas’ long lost brother.
AN: Yes to The Canyons.
SB: I also think St. Elmo’s Fire has a lot in common with Showgirls.
AN: Really, why St. Elmo’s? It’s got like seven Nomis in it?
JMB: That’s a good line right there.
SB: St. Elmo’s because it’s now re-read as a condemnation of Reaganism, but at the time was actually a celebration of it. Or at least a collaborator. And because of its obliviously mean-spirited tone and uniformly loathsome characters.
AN: Yes, St. Elmo’s Fire is repugnant. All the actors suck, and none of them were ever good, except for Rob Lowe and even then it took a while.
SB: Lowe’s character engages in one of my most hated movie tropes – the actor who has clearly never picked up an instrument in his life playing a hotshot musician. In this case, Rob on stage with his saxophone, just killing it in front of a Sports Bar & Grill crowd. If you look at his fingers instead of his abs, he’s not even holding the keys right.
AN: Un-ironic aside: I find the song from St. Elmo’s Fire authentically stirring. The video for “St Elmo’s Fire” is worth a book itself. He (John Parr-eds.) goes to each of them in turn and sort of just quietly sings the lyrics of the song as they smile bashfully. I believe, if memory serves, that he puts a fatherly hand on Lowe’s shoulder too as they walk away into the smokey alley night. The only way to be sure is to watch it again right now. If you want a good stealth Reagan movie watch Back to the Future.
JMB: I long for that innocent cynicism of yesterday. Back to Showgirls, I was bewildered by the neon sign at James’ place that said: Jesus is coming Soon. It just seemed really blatant. What was Verhoeven trying to say with that one?
AN: Jesus is always coming soon in Verhoeven’s films. You know he has a Pentecostal background, right?
JMB: Really? Me too.
AN: Verhoeven wrote a book about Jesus.
JMB: Well, Jesus was a misfit who hung out with whores and thieves. And I guess at heart, Showgirls is a redemption story. So maybe that’s Verhoeven’s nod to parable? You know, I think Ezeterhas wrote a God book too….
AN: Yes, he did.
SB: Any final thoughts on the Joe Ezsterhas/Mel Gibson dust-up, and maybe a theoretical mini-review of the movie they stopped working on, The Macabees?
AN: Gibson’s Passion is an interesting movie to consider in light of Verhoeven. I’d like to see Gibson’s Macabees but also Verhoeven’s Passion. As for his fight with Eszterhas, you gotta root for Eszterhas, who whatever else he may be, isn’t a misognynist crypto-anti-semite drunkard.
SB: On that note, Adam, I’m a magazine editor pitching you some essay titles. On a scale of one-to-whatever it costs, what would you need to be paid to write the following articles:
“From Fatal Attraction to Disclosure and all the Basic Instinct in between: Hot White Women and the Sharp Things They Menace Michael Douglas With.”
AN: $1 per word of the title, then $2 a word after.
SB: “The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor: Paul Verhoeven as this generation’s Samuel Fuller.”
AN: I would pay an editor to write that essay.
SB: “The Sweet Smell of Critical Revisionism: Why Pauline Kael’s Revised Opinion of The Deer Hunter Opened the Door to the Citizen Kane-ing of Showgirls.”
AN: I’d write it once for a flat rate and then never look back on it, Kael style.
SB: From Saved By The Bell-to-stripper pole: The Career of Dustin Diamond.
JMB: I’ll take that one.
AN: There isn’t enough tea in China.
JMB: I’ll write it for sport.
(At this point, Adam had to catch a flight to Baden-Baden for an important meeting with Werner Herzog, leaving Sean and Jamie to wrap it up.)
SB: So, Jamie. Are you convinced? Is Showgirls a masterpiece, total shit, or a masterpiece of shit?
JMB: I still don’t like Showgirls. But I worked with a lot of strippers in psych wards and detox rehabs and they were often overdramatic, manic, moody, desperate, depressed and foolishly grandiose. Their lives really were like bad movies filled with shady, self-centered and unlikeable characters. So Showgirls is very authentic in that sense. Was this the director’s intent? I’m willing to consider that theory. I will say this: Showgirls is very interesting to talk about. More fun to discuss than watch. And that’s worth something in itself.
SB: I agree about the discussion part. There’s so much more I wanted to talk about that we never got anywhere near. At least in terms of It Doesn’t Suck, my personal feeling is that Adam makes a pretty convincing case, at least against making uninformed judgments. But I think the script is awful, no matter what skill Verhoeven brought to it as a director. Also, seeing the film later in life, I didn’t enjoy it at all. The revisionist hook of Showgirls is that the laughs are intentional, all the better to document the crying inside. I’m selling that stock. You know what, though? Showgirls is a better film than Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which was even more stylized, less coherent, and had the disadvantage of stepping all over the brilliance of the source material.
JMB: Yeah, and you know what? We still haven’t discussed Showgirls II.