So, I’ve finally caved in, and I’ve finally decided to talk extensively about Showgirls. It only took a decade, but I’m here, I’m going to try to piece this all together in a It way that is, at the very least, processable even if it isn’t entirely worthy of reader’s agreement. It's not an easy film to defend. It’s not an easy film to write about. Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 drama has a 19% on Rotten Tomatoes, with an average rating of 3.1/10. It also has an 18/100 on Metacritic, was the recipient of eight Razzie awards peppered throughout the decade from 1995 until 2000. The film itself has become infamous for dethroning any chance for the NC-17 rating to be pushed positively by the MPAA, and overall being a terribly acted melodrama that has, over the years, garnered its own appreciation for its “so-bad-it’s-good” charms.
But the thing is, though. I don’t agree with this negative assessment of the film, but I completely and thoroughly understand it. If someone says Showgirls is one of the worst films they’ve ever seen, I just nod in disagreement and don’t even press on. It’s not an easy movie to love, and I’m not aching to produce more fans of the film by telling them why I love it. Their reasons for hating it are probably on the same threshold as mine for adoring it. But, there is a savage misconception of those who do adore the film, and it often ties into some counter-constructive disapprovals by cinephiles and critics alike that has been adopted in modern film criticism. It’s no surprise that Showgirls is being analyzed by film scholars and theorists: not only because of those applying the auteur theory to it with a contextual basis for Verhoeven’s work as a whole, but also because of the reputation garnered for a film to be disallowed from being anything other than “unintentionally” entertaining.
When Showgirls “won” the Razzie in 1996 for Worst Director for Verhoeven, the man was present to the divisive ceremony in order to accept the award. It’s an action that some have used before or since to make a statement (or to show through a sense of humor), but what sets Verhoeven’s acceptance apart is that he was completely modest about his recognition. Was having fun with it, too. But Verhoeven has gone on record to say (albeit, paraphrased by me here): “I was not a fan of Eszterhas’ screenplay. It encapsulated everything wrong with American cinema and its depictions of sex and women in correlation with sex. I wanted it to be an excessive, over-the-top morality tale with Las Vegas as a metaphor on the hypocrisy and extortion of American culture.”
Which is why the film is difficult to discuss. Because, on one hand, many of the supporters of the film frequently direct themselves to the film being a biting satire. But then, on the other hand, there are detractors that either feel it wasn’t satirical in the slightest, or that the satire just doesn’t work. The latter is a valid argument in terms of discussion. One can point to Verhoeven’s interview where he claimed Showgirls was supposed to be “a serious film” as an argument against the film working as satire. But, that’s to discredit how serious Verhoeven took the satirical aspects, in the first place. With the auteur theory applied to him, it’s quite revealing that Verhoeven’s other films outside of this one are embraced for their satire or subversion of narrative. RoboCop and Starship Troopers? American political satires from a foreign perspective. Basic Instinct? An erotic thriller that subverts noir expectations. Showgirls? None of these aspects consistent of the director seem to apply. And for some, who it doesn’t work for, perhaps just don’t tolerate the camp excessiveness of the film as their cup of tea.
But that’s how I’ve approached Showgirls. From my first viewing, to my most recent last year. Before and after reading into Verhoeven, reading his thoughts and intentions, I never found anything but a validation that part of what I loved about the film was certainly there. For that, it becomes difficult to praise a film that is largely cemented into American culture as one of the worst films ever made in Hollywood - because to illustrate how you read it would be defending the camp aspects: the over-the-top acting, the bizarre, ear-bleeding dialogue, the misogyny, and the lack of realism. None of necessarily ties into what we, as film buffs, have conditioned ourselves into being the good of the crop. We’re expected to find near-realism in our performances, relatable emotion through the story, and when anything is otherworldly and difficult to connect to (especially characters), there’s just no attachment to a film, no matter what the director is, overall, trying to say. As Verhoeven said (again, a paraphrase): “Every character is deplorable. The only one that isn’t is savagely raped, while other characters go along their hedonistic, near-sociopathic ways with hardly an inch of emotional attachment.”
So what exactly does Showgirls have to say about American culture’s hypocrisy and distortion? And what can be defended about its blatant misogyny? It comes down to realizing that Verhoeven approached his satire with the intent of playing as the campy exposé he proposes he was trying to make. When the film is accepted as being such, the misogyny itself throughout becomes more apparent. Almost every man in the film, whether they’re at the height of the status quo or not, is a chauvinistic asshat. And almost every women - save for the leading lady - submits to their behaviors. But even with that in mind, the film’s antagonist heroine, Nomi Malone, is still a product of the sexualized male view. Her becoming “the Goddess” for the Vegas show - in the same way as the best of the classic tales found in The Broadway Melody, 42nd Street, and All About Eve - is to convince herself she has the power to move up in that world. It’s almost anticlimactic when Kyle Maclachlan’s character steps out with a file exposing her every secret as a way to garner back control when she actually feels a bit motivated for justice. But, in Verhoeven’s world of the American hypocrisy and distortion, Nomi is just as responsible as the rest of them. Just as amoral. When she seeks revenge, it’s crazy not to say she isn’t, in some way, being hypocritical - and not in a way that justifies anybody’s actions as worthy of atonement.
But this satire. This reflexive attitude toward the structure of films of its ilk. It’s all a part of the film’s actual phoniness. The cinematography is full and bombastic, even when it’s taking place in a trailer park. It takes more than a few extra steps to ignore realism. Why shoot a scene in a car with two-shot closeups, when you can have one static shot from the back while the alleyway your racing down is film projection? Quentin Tarantino got away with it in his taxi cab scene with Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction, to this day praised for his artful artificiality. Those who want to critique the supposed low quality of Showgirls wouldn’t see that as an artistic choice, but an amateur and unintentional production value that fits into the mold of viewing the film as “bad”.
The same principle can be applied to nearly every scene of the film - down to the rambunctious conversations between the vile, empty, hyper-sexualized characters. Another iconic (for all the wrong reasons) scene that most would use to epitomize Berkley’s over-acting is a piece of dialogue about fifteen minutes into the first act. After first meeting the character of Molly (Gina Ravera) following a charmingly ridiculous and over-the-top moment where Nomi is almost run over by Las Vegas traffic, Molly asks questions, and Nomi increasingly gets more and more vicious with her handling of french fries and ketchup. Over-acting? For sure. And Verhoeven loved it. But look closely at this scene, and anybody with a professional eye on mise en scéne would notice that the filmmakers went the extra mile to make the scene more over-the-top by adding a string of ketchup that goes flying in the air. In typical comedy fashion, Molly’s straight-man reaction is that she follows the string of ketchup with her eyes, and turns back to Nomi with concern. Is the excessiveness that unintentional on part of Verhoeven’s direction of Showgirls? It’s the little details like that one that give us the answer that it’s anything but. That string of ketchup is there for a reason.
I now turn to Slant Magazine’s four-star review of the film, written by Eric Henderson. The man does such an impeccable job at defending the film in ways that are difficult to really do justice for. The magazine also, when doing a feature on what they considered the best films of the 1990s, featured Showgirls at #14. In the review, Henderson points out the smaller details, too. The things that you may miss on an initial viewing, or don’t click with you unless you actually take the camp style of the film seriously. He states: “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.”
So there are enough elements to the film that prove that Verhoeven was intending the camp tone, just as much as there are many sly choices in direction that show the film itself isn’t stupid when it’s focused on characters who are inherently cruel and/or ignorant - and even when it’s got itself stylized in such a way that feels like the antithesis to what the casual moviegoer or film buff would deem as good style in the vein of the Hollywood drama. Whether that approach charms you, repulses you, or whatever it be - it either clicks with your sense of humor, or it just doesn’t. Which is why, twenty years later, the film is still argued about - making Sight and Sound ballots, getting entire books written in its defense, and having the support of fellow filmmakers (such as Jacques Rivette and, unsurprisingly, the aforementioned Tarantino).
The film itself is pushed constantly for re-evaluation, but it already has received that. To an extent. But the film itself, unlike Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, for example - has an entire cultural status that is never going to fully click with the masses. There’ll be some that the film works for, there’ll be some that truly despise it. But there’s hardly anybody - now with it’s reputation - who feels the need to take it seriously.
But Verhoeven did.
Painted fingernails, sexual aggression, convention breaks, morbid humor, flying glitter…