Showgirls (1995)
By: Michael McQueen on August 14, 2007  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Roadshow (Australia). Region 4, PAL. 2.35:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 2.0. English (FHI) Subtitles. 126 minutes
The Movie
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Starring: Elizabeth Berkley, Kyle MacLachlan, Gina Gershon, Glenn Plummer, Robert Davi
Screenplay: Joe Eszterhas
Music: David A. Stewart
Tagline: Leave your inhibitions at the door
Country: USA
"Showgirls is funny, stupid, dirty and filled with cinematic cliché; In other words, perfect… Showgirls will hold up; it will be great trash forever" - John Waters

Sexploitation and trash are, in popular opinion, the least respected genres in cinema. Many of the classics that exemplify these sensibilities are produced on the fringes of the film industry for little, if no budget. Although many of these films find favour and acceptance amongst an enthusiastic audience of cultural deviants (hello, everybody!) it is exceptionally rare to see these genres cross over to mainstream audiences and receive any sort of 'respectable' critical recognition. Showgirls is, perhaps, the only example of the sexploitation/trash sensibility making a boldly ambitious leap from the underground, invading the mainstream world of big-budget Hollywood production. It is little wonder then that Showgirls stands out in popular memory as one of the most disastrous Hollywood ventures in history, not to mention one of the most critically despised.

Showgirls is the brainchild of Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, whose perverted imagination knows very few boundaries or limitations. Verhoeven initially made his mark on American cinema directing horror/SF/action genre films like Total Recall and Robocop, which showcased an enthusiastic talent already obsessed with sex and violence, albeit somewhat mannered and restricted by formulaic convention. Verhoeven's departure from generic staples was announced in spectacular fashion with Basic Instinct, a sleazy re-imagining of a hard-boiled noir-style murder mystery that became famous, or rather infamous, for actress Sharon Stone exposing herself in an interrogation scene. Naturally, the film baited censors, outraged conservatives and sent audiences to cinemas in droves. Clearly encouraged by all the attention and notoriety he was receiving and eager to capitalise on his newfound bad-boy reputation, Verhoeven set to work on his follow-up project, Showgirls. Billed as one of the most controversial films funded by a major Hollywood studio, the tagline "Leave your inhibitions at the door" promised more than mere teasing, titillation and half-glimpsed-at vaginas: Showgirls would be a masterpiece of sleaze, scandal and salaciousness – those who felt that Basic Instinct tread too close to the moral slippery slope had seen nothing yet. What Verhoeven promised, he delivered with aplomb. The product of grotesque budget expenditure ($40 million) and a directorial ego to match, Showgirls was a testament to how far the boundaries of Hollywood could be pushed and broken: a too rude, too crude exploration of the trash aesthetic pumped to life with all the vibrant razzle-dazzle decadence of Vegas and all the grimy sleaze of its dark underbelly. Showgirls fished the sexploitation film out of the cultural rubbish bin and gave it an industrial-grade coat of gloss; a nauseatingly lurid style that matched the alluring tawdriness of the sexploitation narrative. For Verhoeven, Showgirls would be his masterwork: an uncannily American fable about having it all and losing it, filtered through the sort of liberal sexual abandonment only a European director could envisage. As the trailer states: "Last time they took you to the edge; this time they're taking you all the way".

Showgirls became a cynical catch-call for the term "backlash". In addition to being critically mauled, Showgirls was one of the most poorly received films in recent memory: audiences stayed away in droves and the film lost a ton of money at the box office, causing it to be labelled as a financial disaster for United Artists. The film was nominated in twelve out of thirteen categories for a Golden Raspberry Award, including 'Worst Film of the Year' and 'Worst Director', both of which it won. Verhoeven became the first director to attend the ceremony and personally accept his awards, perhaps as a defiant stand against the mainstream that had abandoned him, or as a statement of artistic integrity and solidarity; that he would stand by his work, no matter what everybody else thought. With his ego bruised and his reputation tattered, Verhoeven eventually returned to the SF/horror genres, directing the power-house action flick, Starship Troopers and the disappointing Hollowman. Basic Instinct is still regarded as his masterwork, but the maligned Showgirls, after having spent years as a Hollywood outcast beloved only by perverts and trench-coaters, has garnered considerable currency as an underrated cult film, and a worthy addition to the Verhoeven canon. It has even been endowed with enthusiastic, if slightly embarrassed praise from film critics like David Stratton and Noel Burch.

I might as well come right out and say it now: Showgirls is one of my all-time favourite films and there's always a place reserved for it in my top 10. I first saw it on the big screen at university when my film class was studying censorship, and I immediately fell in love with the neon-bright gaudiness and trashy aesthetic of Verhoeven's vision. Unlike many popular films of this calibre, which attempt some edginess or sensationalism through depictions of sex and sexuality, Showgirls never masquerades its sleaziness as 'art' or attempts to promote itself as 'misunderstood': it is uninhibited, unashamed and gratuitous sleaze, no pretensions necessary. If you watch this movie with that principle in mind, there's a lot of fun to be had.

Showgirls opens with a tracking shot of Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley), a sumptuous blonde hitch-hiking her way to Las Vegas; "I'm gonna be a dancer" she informs the kind-hearted cowboy, Jeff, who picks her up. He smiles knowingly and tells her "You gotta gamble if you're gonna win". When they reach Vegas, Jeff hands Nomi ten bucks and tells her to play the slots, promising to be back with a job opportunity for her. Nomi has a bit of luck on the machines, but her initial jackpot is followed immediately by bigger loss: she loses all her winnings and discovers that Jeff has made off with her possessions. Angry and tearful Nomi runs blindly into on-coming traffic but she's saved from tragedy at the last minute by good samaritan, Molly Abrams (Ravera). This brief opening sequence immediately sets the tone for Nomi's adventure in Las Vegas: Nomi wants to win so she gambles, she gets all she wants but is losing more than she realises. She pays the price of success but finds that she may soon become its victim. She flirts with danger and brushes with death but regains her sense of self just in time to redeem herself at the end; not unscathed but at least intact. She then sets on a new path, wiser and more aware of who she is. At a glance, Showgirls appears to be trading in all-too-familiar Hollywood clichés; the sort of banal tripe usually reserved for Disney-funded brain-drains devoid of any intelligence. However, a glance beyond its pretty surfaces reveals a deeper, perhaps more allegorical narrative that Verhoeven intended.

Six weeks later we find Nomi living with Molly in a caravan. Molly turns out an honest living as a costume assistant for the Stardust Hotel. Nomi still harbours her dream of being a professional dancer but is making ends meet at the Cheetah Club, the lewdest-of-the-lewd strip bar in Vegas. It's a place of compromised standards and compromised morals where people go because they can't sink any lower. But Nomi has stars in her eyes, and she's determined to escape the trash pile. When she's invited backstage at the Stardust she witnesses all her aspirations performed in front of her in the hotel's musical-dance show, Goddess. It's also the first time she lays her covetous eyes on her rival, Cristal Conners (Gina Gershon) who embodies all the success, fame and glamour Nomi desires for her own. When she auditions for the show, Nomi enters into a competitive world that's more morally corrupt than the one she left, but she's blind to the filth that surrounds her and is drawn further and further into the pursuit of her dream, which she vows to accomplish at whatever cost. Her defensive mantra, "I'm not a whore", rings more and more hollow whenever she repeats it.

Unsatisfied with her role as an understudy, Nomi makes her grasp for it all: the spotlight, the designer clothes, the boyfriend with the big red car and tennis court-sized pool, the celebrity friends and expensive drugs: she pushes Cristal (literally) out of the way and steps into her spotlight. Only when she's won everything does Nomi realise how costly it all was and how much of herself has been compromised on the journey. Her new boyfriend Zack Carey (Kyle MacLachlan) is not who he seemed, she's lost all her old friends and exploited herself and others - the fate that befell Cristal now seems to be destined for Nomi as well. Worst of all, Molly becomes a casualty of Nomi's corrupt new world when she is raped at a party celebrating her triumph. Nomi may be feeling herself slipping away, but this is one violation of her moral character that all the bright lights of Vegas could not blind her to, if she were to ignore it. In a scene redolent of the rape/revenge films, Nomi seduces the A-List Rapist and unleashes a siren's retribution with well-aimed karate kicks to the head. With justice served and her moral compass re-aligned, Nomi bids farewell to the city of Las Vegas; her hat tipped low over her eyes like an outlaw she hitches another ride with Jeff back to Los Angeles confident that she has "won" her gamble, and the prize was herself.

Chronicling this tale of shame, degradation, redemption and triumph is Verhoeven who seems hell-bent on destroying the claustrophobic barriers of taste and complacent restraint Hollywood insulates itself in, waging an assault on middle-class family entertainment. If Janet Jackson's 'wardrobe malfunction' at the 2004 Superbowl proved anything it's that Americans are terrified of female nudity; in Showgirls, Verhoeven is determined to confront this vaginaphobia head-on, exposing nipples and vaginas like bullets from a machinegun. It's no wonder the pious puritans of film criticism balked as their bastions of taste and talent seemed to crumble as Nomi applied ice to her nipples. Regarding the treatment of his largely female cast, Verhoeven treads a fine line between empowerment and misogyny. On one hand he holds these women up and places them on a pedestal to be adored and worshipped; on the other, he takes perverse delight in detailing the degrading, debasing and humiliating journey they must endure; a game of domination and submission; witness Nomi's bare-breasted triumphs verses Molly's stomach-churning rape. Nobody vaunts excess like Verhoeven, who understands the American paradox that extreme highs can only be counter-pointed by extreme lows. The calculated garishness of the baroque visuals perfectly compliments this agenda: the dingy neon glare of the Cheetah Cub pulses and throbs like a sexually transmitted disease, whereas the tightly choreographed and obsessively rehearsed pyrotechnics of the Stardust blush and glow. Nomi shines in both environments, flaunting her every physical attribute to its erogenous extreme in order to claw her way to the top of the glamour ladder.

The plot of Showgirls is equal parts elaborate satire, po-faced sexploitation and savage social commentary masked as heavy handed melodrama. Verhoeven jumps between all of them, as if he's unsure of what he is really trying to say: on one hand he's glibly ironic and disingenuous, verging towards camp; on the other, he positions his soap opera as a social commentary. And just when we think we've got him all figured out, Verhoeven changes tact again, this time burying out faces in a sea of breasts and genitals, cramming in every censor-baiting detail before changing back again. For me, Showgirls is Verhoeven's critique of America; a conscientious allegory of values and morals under the guise of melodrama. It's a pelvic thrust in the face of conservatism, a middle finger raised to the self-appointed guardians of taste and decency. It is, also a film that unexpectedly reveals a social conscience; a heart that beats quietly on its ironic sleeve.

Nomi's story is that of a starry-eyed liberal optimist, a working-class girl with dreams of fame. Vegas is the garish neon grail of American consumerism and the Stardust is the allegorical capitalist ladder which she ascends. The shamelessness of the Cheetah Club, where a Japanese businessman exclaims at the squalor and debauchery surrounding him "In America, everybody's a gynaecologist", sits at odds with Nomi's dream of making it on her terms. In Vegas, even people are commodities; "I'll buy her for you" sneers Cristal to Zack, as they watch Nomi flaunt herself on a pole; a walking advertisement for consumer whoredom. Even all the while Nomi professes not to be a whore, she finds herself selling her soul piece by piece. Her attitude begins to change when her mantra is replaced by "I did what I had to do". Her success and the price she pays for it are contrasted with the failure of James and his aspirations: only the prostitute can survive in America; only the schemer willing to exploit themselves and take advantage of other people's unsuspecting vulnerability will rise to the top. Even then, the cycle doesn't end, as Cristal points out: "There's always someone younger and hungrier coming down the stairs after you"; the dark side of the American dream is Nomi with one eye on the spotlight whilst the other glances over her shoulder, waiting for that unsuspecting push in the back. The flickering neon sign outside James' apartment declares 'Jesus is coming soon': vain optimism in the face of overwhelming godlessness; a damning indictment of America's righteous front, the mask it wears to cover up its squalid underbelly. "Here they pretend they want something else and you still show them tits and ass!" says James as Nomi storms out of the Stardust in tears. Verhoeven wants to expose the moral hypocrisy and double standards of America. Showgirls' audience then should be proud to admit their desires: if you want tits and ass, Showgirls gives you tits and ass.

Showgirls is quite possibly the king of sexploitation cinema. Verhoeven may have made a subversive allegory of contemporary America, but he chose the explicit world of stripping and the Stardust for as muse. He also took the opportunity to resurrect the long-forgotten genre, thrusting the tawdry delights of sexploitation back into cinemas. If films like Bad Girls Go To Hell (1965) and Julie's No Angel (1968) are the lean, mean Golden Era glory days of the genre then Showgirls is their bloated, boozy and bombastic Vegas counterpart; as horrific a reincarnation to behold as Elvis in all his tight white jumpsuit anti-glamour, a mutated monsterpiece, a mere shadow of his former self. In sexploitation narrative motivations, character developments and acting aptitude are all subordinate to the main spectacle: gratuitous nudity and vulgar eroticism, both of which are overstated and exaggerated in Showgirls.

The main criticism here is that by uprooting sexploitation from its underground soils and transplanting it into the mainstream, Verhoeven robbed the genre of its soul, its base deviant underpinnings, whilst seeking little more than over-hyped scandal and cheap-shot shock tactics. Nothing could be further from the truth: by re-imagining sleaze as a high concept blockbuster, Verhoeven raises the bar for all exploitation pictures, as well as pushing the boundaries for what a 'vanilla' audience can withstand. Showgirls maybe an assault on the sensibilities of the average cinema-goer, but Verhoeven delivers his slap in the face with a kiss on the cheek; everything about this movie – the seductive naked bodies, the cartoon narrative and the glossy visuals – is mesmerising and oozes sex appeal. Its lofty production values and high-drama plotting negate the low-budget larfs that make sexploitation such an enjoyable underground phenomenon, but the lavishly groomed visuals finally deliver some much-needed sex appeal, rather than relying on sex alone to seduce the viewer. Popcorn cinephiles with the courage to watch outside the mainstream box and cultural deviants prepared to look beyond the underground gutters will be rewarded with a masterful and confident film, one that could care less about your approval but at the very least, demands your attention.
Showgirls is presented in 2:35:1 aspect ratio with a 16:9 enhancement. Some spots and grain visible as are the original 'cigarette burns': the movie still looks great, but lacks polish.
This version features well-mixed but unspectacular Dolby Digital 2.0. Given that most of the film centres around a musical stage-show, Digital 5.1 was a must: what a wasted opportunity.
Extra Features
This version of Showgirls features text biographies for Elizabeth Berkley, Kyle MacLachlan, Gina Gershon, Paul Verhoeven and Joe Eszterhas, plus 22 stills from the movie (most of them of Berkley). The theatrical trailer for Showgirls looks very washed-out and grainy, but is worth a look for its cunning marketing strategies: "How far would you go for your dreams?"; "The passion is real; the desire is intense; and the show is about to begin".

The Deluxe V.I.P Edition of Showgirls (Region 1 only) features English Dolby Digital 5.1, as well as French and Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround and superior extras like Commentary by David Schmader, a storyboard-to-screen featurette and a pop-up trivia track. Is also contains other fun additions like a lap-dance tutorial, Showgirls shot glasses and playing cards, and its very own drinking game "Pin the Pasties on the Showgirl" – the game where you and your friends get loaded and attempt to pin nipple-shaped pasties on Elizabeth Berkley's boobs whilst blindfolded! Hours of drunken sleazebaggery! Although the reviewed version will do most fans just fine, the absence of worthwhile extras that match the movie's excitement and intensity are sorely missed. Those truly dedicated to all things Showgirls should seek out the V.I.P Box for the superior sound mix and cheeky adornments.
The Verdict
Regardless of whatever critical sympathies it may have garnered in the last twelve years, Showgirls is best regarded as a film that panders to our uncontained lust for bare flesh, catering to those with a deviant bend and alienating anybody who isn't in touch with their inner sleaze bag: watching this film is tantamount to putting your hand up and announcing 'I am a pervert'. Inevitably, Showgirls will always be a love it or loathe it proposition. Those of the former persuasion will adore this film for its censor-baiting mainstream sexploitation, its ironic drama-with-strippers narrative and its exploration of the dark side of the American dream; those who fall under the latter category will despise Showgirls for the same reasons and dismiss it as an inanely shallow all-boobs no-brains vehicle for Verhoeven of no redeemable cinematic value whatsoever. You probably already know if you're the sort of movie buff who'll love this film: for anybody who prefers their female protagonists of the buxom, blonde and buck-naked variety, Showgirls is unmissable; a riotous romp of sexy style and stylish sex. I think I'm in love.
Movie Score
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