Home » The DVD Bin » The 26th Birthday Gauntlet » Showgirls


In case you haven’t noticed by now, this series is being done chronologically by order of release. We started with Plan 9 and Manos, both of which had to languish in obscurity for decades before achieving cult infamy. Then came The Star Wars Holiday Special and Troll 2, both which were faster at picking up steam, though it still took a while for them to reach mainstream notoriety.

Today’s film brings us to 1995. This was a pivotal year for movie lovers, as it brought us home internet access and the invention of the DVD. After this point in time, it would be borderline impossible for truly awful movies to go unnoticed or forgotten as they had in years past.

So here’s Showgirls, which reached its infamous cult status pretty much immediately. The film was directed by Paul Verhoeven — fresh off the triple-whammy of Robocop, Total Recall, and Basic Instinct — and he had been given a budget of $45 million (roughly $69 million, adjusting for inflation) to play with. $2 million of that budget, by the way, went toward purchasing the most expensive screenplay ever written at the time.

I know the budget may not seem too high for a studio picture, but United Artists and MGM (its parent company at the time) had been in serious financial difficulty ever since the Heaven’s Gate disaster of 1980. With pretty much nothing to lose and everything to win, UA took a chance on an NC-17 movie. Not only that, this film made history as the very first NC-17 film ever to get a wide release. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s the only NC-17 movie so far to get a wide release. Can’t imagine why.

The film was considered a catastrophic loss at the time, picking up widespread critical derision and a record-breaking seven Razzie Awards out of thirteen nominations. The film would later pick up an eighth Golden Raspberry as the Worst Picture of the ’90s. Funnily enough, Paul Verhoeven is one of the few “winners” to ever accept a Razzie in person, and he’s the very first director to do so.

At the box office,¬†Showgirls came away with a pitiful $20 million domestic gross. Yet somehow, the film enjoyed a new life on home video, generating millions of dollars in sales and rentals. To this day, it’s still one of MGM’s most valuable DVD and Blu-Ray properties. Even more improbably, some critics have gone back and argued that the film is actually a misunderstood classic.

Alas, I have to go with the majority on this one. This film is a nuclear bomb, though it certainly deserves to be called a “camp classic.”

So far, I’ve noticed a pattern with “enjoyably bad” cinema. All the cinematic guilty pleasures I’ve ever seen (Manos excluded) made a sincere and enthusiastic attempt at trying something, only to spectacularly fail at it. With The Room, for example, the failure was in making a romantic tragedy. With Troll 2, it was making a creature horror film. Even in The Star Wars Holiday Special, the filmmakers were trying to craft a musical spectacular. In the case of Showgirls, it’s erotica.

The movie has more than enough nudity to earn its NC-17, but all the copious flesh on display isn’t enough to make the picture sexy or arousing. The lighting is abysmal, the costumes are pathetic, the choreography is laughable, the music is a joke (quite literally, in a few scenes), and the talent onstage is visibly subpar. Somehow, the film completely saps all the charge and eroticism out of so many beautiful women dancing naked.

Oh, and did I mention that one of the main characters gets brutally gang-raped? Well, one of the main characters gets brutally gang-raped.

That said, the choreography is heightened to such an absurd degree, and the film is so damned convinced about how sexy it is, that the results become hilarious. The backstage antics are a great example. The catfights and camaraderie in the green room are clearly supposed to be steamy, but it’s impossible to take any of it seriously. Honest to God, there’s a backstage scene in which all the half-naked showgirls are harassed by a stampede of trained monkeys. You just burst a blood vessel reading that sentence, and you didn’t even know it.

The sex scenes are even more ridiculous. Any time Elizabeth Berkley and Kyle MacLachlan do anything remotely sexual onscreen, it’s pure comedy gold. Last but not least, we have the onstage antics. A prime case in point is the famous early scene in which Elizabeth Berkley’s character (I’ll get back to her in a minute) licks a stripper pole for the entertainment of her audience. The filmmakers were surely dumb enough to think that this looked impossibly steamy. Meanwhile, the audience is trying not to think about where that pole has been, or what awful tragedy awaits the next dancer to use it.

By the way, this film was choreographed by Marguerite Pomerhn-Derricks, who only had two choreographer credits to her name at the time. She later went on to stage dance sequences for Striptease, Little Miss Sunshine, and all three Austin Powers movies. On the other hand, she also attached her name to such colossal bombs as The Love Guru, The Country Bears, Southland Tales, “Viva Laughlin,” and Gigli. Also, if you ever wondered who was to blame for Peter Parker’s infamous dance scenes in Spider-Man 3, now you know.

Moving on, let’s talk about the script. There’s no gentle way to say it: Joe Eszterhas shows a startling lack of knowledge about how people think, act, and talk. The film’s dialogue may not be on the level of Tommy Wiseau or Claudio Fragrasso, but that’s not exactly saying much. The film is still peppered with clunky lines (“E’rybody got AIDS and shit.”) and bland attempts at humor (the “Ver-says” gag).

Even so, the plotting and character development are where this movie really fails. The plot is determined entirely by freak accidents, sheer coincidences, and choices that would never be made by any rational human being. As for the characters… whoo, boy.

So many things are wrong with our protagonist that I don’t even know where to start. For one thing, there’s the fact that right up until the climax, we don’t learn a single thing about Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley). The character seems deathly allergic to her own past and actively refuses to discuss it. Even when we do learn something about her, there’s always the possibility that she’s lying (Her birthday is 7/3/73? Really?). Hell, we don’t even know if her name is real.

For one thing, this creates quite a few plot holes: Why would anyone hire a woman whose credentials are so shady? More importantly, it damages the film’s tone. Nomi keeps everyone at arm’s length, and this lack of mutual trust extends to the audience as well. In turn, this creates a huge emotional distance between us and our main character. For obvious reasons, a story is destined to fail as a drama and as a work of erotic fiction if we can’t emotionally connect with our protagonist.

Even worse, because we don’t know where Nomi came from, we have no idea where she’s going or why. We only know that she wants to dance, and that’s it. There’s never any indication of where Nomi wants to dance, if she has any greater ambitions, or even if she had any plan at all before hitchhiking to Vegas. Nomi’s inconsistent attitude certainly doesn’t help: She’ll hate her job as a stripper in one scene, and then she’ll take umbrage when someone says that stripping isn’t dancing. Our protagonist doesn’t seem to have any clear goal, so the plot is similarly rambling.

Then you get to know our protagonist as a person, and the whole movie starts crumbling down. This character is delusional, she’s irresponsible, she’s ungrateful toward every act of charity she gets, and her mood swings are quite literally bad enough to pose a serious health risk for anyone standing nearby. In other words, she’s a colossal bitch.

It certainly doesn’t help that Nomi was played by Elizabeth Berkley. To this day, Berkley is still primarily known for playing Jessie, the intellectual feminist in the cast of “Saved By the Bell.” She moved on to this project as soon as her series was cancelled, and I’m sure that was quite a shock to audiences of the time. Yet even without that baggage, Berkley was totally wrong for the part. I don’t know if it’s the lighting or the makeup or Berkley’s ham-fisted performance, but she doesn’t look remotely like a young fresh-faced ingenue. I can’t find any news or rumors of plastic surgery at the time, but the camera makes Berkley look so incredibly plastic in this picture.

However, I will grant one point in Berkley’s favor: Her eyes. It seems that Berkley has a natural case of heterochromia, which brought a subtle and intriguing kind of beauty to her many close-up shots. It was the one thing about the actress that didn’t look totally fake, and I’m glad that the filmmakers resisted correcting it with contacts. I can’t help wondering how Nomi might have turned out differently if the trait was written into the movie.

Anyway, it would’ve been bad enough if Nomi had simply been an awful protagonist in herself. Alas, Nomi has a nasty tendency to drag down everyone around her. The whole narrative seems built on a vicious pattern of “Nomi acts like an impossibly rude twat to characters who then bless her with favors and adoration, rinse, repeat.” This makes several characters look like total imbeciles, particularly Molly (the best friend, played by Gina Ravera) and Tony (the show producer, played by Alan Rachins).

Even so, the best case in point is probably Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon). This character is set up to be the bitchy rival for Nomi, but I’m just not having it. Cristal is rather catty, I grant you, but it’s hard for me to root against her when our protagonist is about ten times bitchier. Nomi lashes out at Cristal at least once every fifteen minutes in this picture, and right up until the last forty minutes or so, Cristal takes it like a saint. She keeps on gracing Nomi with countless second chances, all without any clear reason, with absolutely no gratitude from Nomi, and I’m supposed to think that Cristal is the bigger asshole? No way in hell. I don’t care how much cocaine goes up Cristal’s nose, and I don’t care how much more aggressive she gets just before the third act. There’s simply no way in hell.

Then we’ve got the love interests, one of whom is in a league all his own. When James Smith (Glenn Plummer) first meets Nomi, he says that she’s a terrible dancer and she gives him a good hard kick to the balls. Nomi then grins at the bar fight she just caused, she gets arrested, and James pays her bail the next day. Fucking what?!

These characters have absolutely zero chemistry, James is wildly inconsistent about his admiration for Nomi’s dancing skills, and Nomi — being Nomi — treats him like crap. Why the two have anything that remotely resembles a romance arc, I have no idea. Even better, James inevitably goes and screws some other girl without telling Nomi. Why is this a big deal? Why does James go back to ask for Nomi’s forgiveness? Why was James even in this movie at all? Beats the fuck outta me.

Oh, and I forgot to mention that James has a background in dance as well. The guy trained professionally up in New York. He supposedly sees a great deal of potential in Nomi and thinks that stripping is way beneath her. First of all, note that James is no longer in New York, which implies that all of his fancy training and education couldn’t get him a job in goddamned New York City. They’ve got dancers in the vending machines up there, for Christ’s sake. Secondly, we personally see James get fired from two different jobs in quick succession, and neither of them involve dancing professionally in any capacity.

And Nomi is supposed to take career advice from this guy? Bite me.

The other big love interest is Zack Carey (Kyle MacLachlan), and he’s barely worth mentioning. Guy’s a total nonentity who switches around from good to evil and back again as the plot demands. Yawn.

When all is said and done, Showgirls goes from bland to ridiculous to tasteless. It’s pure brain-dead smut, devoid of any talent in acting, dancing, or writing. Then again, the film’s sexual content is heightened to such an absurd degree that it goes back around to being hilarious. The movie gets by entirely on camp, and that’s reason enough to make this mandatory viewing for any fan of enjoyably bad cinema.

Regarding the aftermath, this film wasn’t nearly so disastrous for the cast and crew as you might think. Joe Eszterhas probably got the worst of it, since he went on to make a string of such notorious flops as An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn and Basic Instinct 2. He most recently worked with Mel Gibson to develop a film about the Maccabees, though Warner Bros. shut that troubled project down last year.

There’s also the Stardust Hotel, where a huge chunk of this film was set and shot on location. The iconic hotel was demolished in 2007, and the lot remains empty to this day. The construction of Resorts World Las Vegas is set to begin on the old Stardust lot next year.

Paul Verhoeven went on to direct Starship Troopers before returning to make films in his native Netherlands. Elizabeth Berkley has kept up a steady career in TV and C-grade cinema, with recent appearances in “CSI: Miami” and the unofficial¬†Donnie Darko sequel, S. Darko. Gina Gershon and Kyle MacLachlan have both maintained impressive careers in various movies, TV shows, internet short films, and voice-over roles.

(Side note: MacLachlan is pretty much an honorary Portlander now, after three seasons and counting as the mayor of Fred Armisen’s “Portlandia.”)

So far as I can tell, all of the major and supporting cast members continue to have thriving success as character actors. A few of them even reunited for Showgirls 2: Penny’s From Heaven. Yes, you read that correctly.

An unofficial sequel was released in December 27th of 2011. The Kickstarter-funded project was written, directed, and produced by Rena Riffel, who also reprised her role of Penny from the first movie. She was joined by Dewey Weber, Greg Travis, and Glenn Plummer, all of whom were Showgirls alumni who revisited their respective characters fifteen years later. From what I understand, the movie is equal parts sequel, parody, and tribute to the original movie. The plot heavily mimics and references that of the previous film, but with a greater self-awareness about how stupid the whole thing is.

Then we have the stage adaptations. Last October, a theater in Chicago brought us “Showgirls — The Musical, Darlin’.” The show closed some time ago, though a DVD recording was made available just last May. Meanwhile, in New York, a completely different stage adaptation was brewing.

Showgirls! The Musical” is an off-off-(off-off-off…)Broadway stage adaptation that ran earlier this very summer. As with the aforementioned sequel, this adaptation was designed to follow the events of the film while also poking fun at it. To wit, the soundtrack includes such musical numbers as “Fucking Underwater,” “Different Places (The Dead Hooker Song),” and “Don’t Lick That Pole, Girl.”

The New York musical’s original run is scheduled to end tomorrow, on July 17th. I strongly doubt that this will be its last run, or even the last tribute that this movie gets. For better or worse, Showgirls is here to stay. At least until someone younger and hungrier comes down the stairs after it.

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