Paul Verhoeven directs Elizabeth Berkley, Kyle MacLachlan and Gina Gershon in this sex and showbiz romp where a troubled young drifter grafts and grifts her way to Las Vegas stardom.
I’ve never met anyone who has actually watched Showgirls and doesn’t love it. Is it everyone’s dirty little secret? It tries its best to be an unwatchable mess but it is too fast and sharp and gaudy and thrusting to do anything but enthral. A ridiculous potty mouthed pantomime.
Nomi (an OTT Berkley) is brash, disloyal, erratic. Her awful shock dialogue rarely fits the conversation, her actions are almost exclusively violent outbursts. She is not sympathetic, certainly not appealing. We follow her only as she is the star of this show… we are given no other options. And only in this 130 minutes long world. No one is chasing down Berkley’s next film. We only care as Nomi – the bi-polar thumper with rhinestone pasties for armour – threatens and thrusts her ways through dance numbers, stripshows and sexual encounters relinquishing the focus to no-one else. She exist solely as a showgirl in waiting, waiting to push her way onto centre stage. She cannot navigate the “real world” of even this highly artificial movie. Like a jiggling Larry David she’ll pour petrol onto a social bonfire, like a curvaceous Jake La Motta she’ll turn any business transaction or career opportunity into an chance to tell someone to go fuck themselves. All she can do off-stage is obliterate bridges and leave noses bloody. Self-sabotaging but focussed, vile but talented.
She can learn entire dance numbers moments after being shown the first steps, she will fuck her way to the top but no one other than the top is attractive. She’s not a whore, she owns herself, you have to be able to make her a queen if she is gonna give it up to you. Her attitude to her sexuality is complicated, muddled even. Listen, if you are sincere you bought a ticket to watch flesh and fucking, and if you are cold then you wanted ironic awfulness. So accept it, sex… it ain’t gonna happen sweetly in this world. Love conquers nothing.
On her march to power she loses sight of those who are loyal to her and the ones who at very least have the decency to exploit her to her face. Her Cheetah Club employers (sleazier than the Stardust but honest in what the deal is) are her adopted but rejected family, her roommate her unspoken lover. Not only does no man gets to own her, admirably she never succumbs to or seems at all interested in a studio mandated romantic interest. YOU! GO! GIRL!
You can’t get a fix on this destructive force of nature… she’s more like Con Air or Twister rather than any human character that has ever been presented on screen. A mid-90s CGI wrecking ball with no chain… smashing through side characters and subplots just trying to make it the end credits or unmade sequel with little care for three acts structures or emotional development. You can’t tame it, just marvel in her destructive wake. All she wants to do is headline a show in Vegas. She just wants to dance with her boobs out and her vagina bare. The spectacular dance numbers (whether around cheap pole, elaborate cabaret stage or dressing room rehearsal) are wonderful. Not in anyway sexy. Neither is the walloping routs of actual fucking. Lots of skin is displayed but little seduction or desire is generated. Only Gina Gershon’s glamorous cowgirl Bette Davis to Berkley’s Anne Baxter has any natural allure or moments when she can be nude and not look like tanned meat in a freezer.
If it wasn’t for a nasty final act gangrape, bunged in somewhat callously to catalyse some kinda conclusion, then all the misbehaviour, choreography and glitter of Showgirls would make it a perfectly acceptable epic for teenage girls. Sure there’s gratuitous nudity and swearing but there’s also chimps, and outlandish costumes, and big stage showstoppers, and girl power bonding, and life lessons about avoiding fit men who only want one thing. The message it haphazardly teaches about self worth and not trusting employers and pretty seducers are blunt. Yet maybe more valuable to impressionable women than what Disney or Molly Ringwald films program into them at an early age. Here the princes are rapists, the Blanes are looking to make you their white slave. Don’t be true to yourself, do whatever it take to beat the fuckers who see you only as a soft commodity.
Is Verhoeven’s much derided tits and tribulations extravaganza an intentional satire? Sure, if you want. He rarely makes a work that doesn’t have edge and sophistication. Whether dealing in violence or sex or both he knows he can overpower the viewer with so much hard edged transgression that on first watch they feel they’ve only witnessed a hypersleazy receptor frazzler. And any great directors can make horrendous mis-steps. But Showgirls ain’t it. It is its own beast. The American Dream as random pornography. The 1930s “let’s put the show on right here” musical as a totalitarian rise to power.
Verehoeven knows the only individuals that can win a game as rigged as Vegas / Showbizness / free market capitalism are violent sociopaths. To beat the grind of such a sharp racket a woman needs to gyrate hard and break ankles and fuck only the right dick. Never feel owned. Never get pregnant or emotionally attached… or known. Not be ashamed to use the looks and moves she has at her disposal when they have genuine currency. The director of Godess helpfully lays down the law of this jungle. “I got one interest here, and that’s the show. I don’t care whether you live or die. I want to see you dance and I want to see you smile. I can’t use you if you can’t smile, I can’t use you if you can’t show, I can’t use you if you can’t sell.”
Nomi might not be attractive or relatable to us but we sure relish seeing her trample over all the bullshit of an uncaring, venal, male America. She’s Patrick Bateman for the ladies. The mad psycho who’s transgressions and fantasies we never want to live out but love seeing play out. Watching a sledgehammer break the nightmare system is a great Saturday night in. Don’t worry about your inhibitions, leave your good taste at the door!
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We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here https://letterboxd.com/bobbycarroll/list/the-worst-movies-we-own-podcast-ranking-and/