Showgirls, director Paul Verhoeven’s stunningly misguided and exploitative film about the life and times of an up-and-coming Vegas stripper — sorry, dancer — is one of those movies that achieved inexplicable success. It was panned virulently by critics, receiving a basement-dwelling 14% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is the kind of rating usually reserved for late night cable flicks and movies starring the other Baldwin brothers. It cost $45 million to make, yet grossed less than half that. It received an impressive fourteen Razzie nominations and won eight, including worst film of the decade. It basically completely deep-sixed former “Saved by the Bell” star Elizabeth Berkley’s career — she’s still acting (if you want to call it that), but she’s never been in anything of substance since that (barring a bit part in The First Wives’ Club). Verhoeven had to slash the film just to receive an R rating, and yet despite all of that, it became one of the top 20 best-selling DVD’s ever released by MGM Studios. That is a mystifying combination of ingredients.
The reason I know all of this is because I stumbled across it on cable one night, and watched about 15 minutes of it. I was amazed. I promptly did a bit of research, which is how I am able to so lovingly edify you as to its award-winning crappiness. I decided that this film, this cipher of a picture, this breathtaking fucking mountain of tragedy that is loathed and loved by so many, deserves a second look. Also, one of you suggested I review it.
In other news, I kind of hate you. More than I hate the rest of you.
In any event, I turned the TV off that night, and a few days later picked up a copy of 1995’s Showgirls. I hadn’t seen it from start to finish since the very first time I caught it, likely in college, likely drunk off my ass. Or hungover off my ass, I’m not sure. The point is, I didn’t really remember it very well. This would be a new look at it, through older, more experienced eyes. A re-baptism in the sweat-soaked waters of the mind of Paul Verhoeven.
You know what I learned? Showgirls is worse than I remembered. That 14% is about 82% too high. It is an undeniably awful, wretched film. It is one of the worst I’ve ever seen.
You should totally watch it tonight.
For those who forget, Showgirls tells the gentle tale of Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkeley), a simple country girl looking for fame and fortune in Las Vegas by becoming a showgirl. I will repeat that, for those of you in the back: She is headed to Las Vegas to seek fame and fortune… as a showgirl. Because everyone knows that fame and fortune awaits simple country girls in Las fucking Vegas of all places — Lord knows that they’re not gonna end up hooked on black tar smack and giving five-dollar beejers behind the Can Can Room. So right off the bat, we know that Nomi ain’t the sharpest bulb in the sky. Anyway, she meets Molly (Gina Ravera), and the two quickly become bffs and roommates, and Nomi gets a job stripping at The Cheetah Club, which is managed by Robert Davi, who plays the second-skeeziest motherfucker this side of the Mississippi. There she meets Cristal (Gina Gershon) and eventually Zack (Kyle MacLachlan), playing the skeeziest motherfucker this side of the Mississippi. Eventually, she ends up auditioning for the show Goddess, which is sort of like Cirque de Soleil mixed with A Chorus Line as directed by Ron Jeremy. But because there are no poles or lapdances, it’s somehow elegant and praiseworthy.
Blah blah blah, fast forward and Nomi is the up-and-comer, clashing repeatedly with Cristal, who is deliciously, sinisterly bitchy. Nomi ends up inexplicably wooing and being wooed by Zack, while coveting Cristal’s position of head dancer… or glitter-nippled whore-queen… or whatever the fuck it’s called, and the rest of the film deals with her completing her quest for fortune and glory in the glamorous world of the Vegas showgirl. She undertakes this quest the way most do — by being a catty bitch, crying, and showing her vagina to strangers for money.
Jesus Christ, where do I begin. Let’s start with acting. Never before have I seen an assemblage of talent overact with as much relish and zeal as I have in Showgirls. Robert Davi, Gershon — these are decent, if unglamorous, actors, and they absolutely destroy any semblance of artistic goodwill they may have once had. Kyle MacLachlan almost permanently ruined my mental picture of Agent Cooper. But the special overacting award goes of course, to one Ms. Elizabeth Berkeley, who is so hideously, brazenly terrible, it’s actually sort of amazing to witness. It’s as if Verhoeven auditioned her, and said, “Well, you can’t act worth a squirrel’s dick. I mean, you are really fucking terrible. Wait, before you leave — are you willing to take your top off? This is a two-hour film, and your tits are gonna need to be out for about… hmm… say 90 minutes of it. And we’re gonna need some meaty full-frontal, too. Yeah? OK, then. You know what? Fuck it, instead of acting well, just act hard. Just drink a fifth of scotch every day before getting on set, and then picture a race car driving full-tilt into a brick wall. If you can emulate that, then, well, shit. No one else wants to act in this trainwreck.”
Woven into Showgirls are a half-dozen utterly bizarre and pointless subplots. Nomi’s relationship with James, a dancer who’s trying to make it big on his own, but can’t stop fucking everything that isn’t nailed down. Her old job at the Cheetah, which features Davi delivering lines like a glue-sniffing De Niro, including gems like “it must be weird not having anybody cum on you.” Of course, that sort of utterly degrading commentary is par for the course with Showgirls — it’s up there with Nomi and Cristal talking about how they used to eat dog food.
Therein lies the great question about Showgirls: is it deliberately exploitative? Or is it designed to try to show us how exploitative that world is? Or is it some sort of weird, purgatory-like nether world that somehow wants to be about exploitation, but becomes exploitative through that very exercise? Verhoeven claimed it was meant to be something of an exposé of Las Vegas, but if it is, it does so without any semblance of subtlety, nuance, or intelligence. Because make no mistake — you’ll be hard pressed to find a movie quite as tasteless as Showgirls. I’ve been to actual strip clubs. I’ve been to some bad strip clubs. Places with sawdust on the floor and girls with facial tattoos. Yet all of them felt like a suburban sewing circle compared to the the sensations emanating from the strip club scenes in Showgirls — filled with grunting and weird, dog-like barking and just a sense of utter vileness. If Verhoeven’s objective was to show strip clubs as nauseating scum-holes, well, mission accomplished. Hell, Zombie Strippers provided a more titillating view of them.
But I don’t think that was his objective. I think Verhoeven was trying to create a fantasy world, a graphic, sexually-charged environment that was both seedy and glamorous, grungy and tasteful. He failed, miserably. The goofy lighting, ridiculous sets and explicit, leave-nothing-to-the-imagination filming was, instead of a contrast of the dark and light and gray sides of that world, a cinematic bucket of vomit. With incredibly high production values. And tits. Lots and lots of tits.
It got worse as I kept watching, encountering things that I’d long forgotten or seared from my memory with alcohol. The highlight, and I use that term in the loosest sense possible, is Nomi’s eventual sex scene with Zack in his fabulous mansion filled with things so tacky, they must have been purchased off the millionaire version of the Home Shopping Club. In his pool, they engage in what can best be described as a reenactment of two blind, cracked-out dolphins having sex. It’s full of flailing and wailing and it’s possibly the least sexy sex scene I’ve ever seen. Verhoeven must have just said, “OK, Kyle, I want you to drag your pale, puffy ass into the pool and keep an expression that is vaguely reminiscent of constipation, but with a teensy bit of pedophile thrown in. But also try to look a little bored. And Elizabeth? Just look like you’ve got Tourette’s, epilepsy and wicked bad stomach cramps — all at once! This’ll make Last Tango in Paris look like The Family Circle. Trust me. I’m brilliant. You saw Basic Instinct, right? This’ll make Basic Instinct look like an Oscar winner.”
OK, I’m done channeling Verhoeven, mainly because now I want to scour my mind with rock salt and absinthe. Showgirls is a cornucopia of all things garish and tawdry. Sex-while-on-your-period jokes. Nomi constantly proclaiming that she’s neither a stripper nor a whore, but a dancer!. Of course, the rancid cherry on this fetid sundae is the completely unnecessary and utterly horrid rape scene, where poor Molly is violated by Hank from “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” (whose character might as well have been named “RAPE-O McRAPERSTEIN!!” from the moment you see him on screen). It’s as if a bunch of TV actors got together and collectively decided to choose the absolute worst possible career path.
What else is there to say? Stripping, violence towards women, rape, prostitution — Showgirls is like a misogynist paradise. It’s staggeringly terrible, a film so rampantly idiotic and relentlessly horrible that it, inevitably, developed something of a cult following. There are midnight screenings of it, and some critics have even claimed that the whole thing is a kind of satire, and that those condemning it simply don’t get the joke. I don’t know about that — I think Verhoeven, along with notoriously sleazy and terrible writer Joe Ezsterhas (Basic Instinct 2, Jade, Sliver) accomplished exactly what they set out to do. Create a sort of renegade, sex-splatter flick. What I don’t get is why they thought that was a good thing.
You know, I take it back. Don’t watch this tonight. Instead, take ten straight shots of Montezuma Gold tequila, chase it with chewing tobacco spit, spin around 10 times, and then hit yourself in the genitals with a shovel. Thank me later.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.