Why Showgirls (1995, Verhoeven) deserves more consideration than its camp classic status


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Originally posted on Vérité December 5th, 2013 as part of their 90’s column.

Note: While the edits that were made upon submission undoubtedly make the piece much better, I’ve removed the edits that either don’t quite align with my original thoughts or don’t feel like my writing style.

The task of summing up what makes Showgirls a great film of the 90′s, in a decade of such greatness, is a daunting one because of how tough it is to dig beneath the surface of a camp-tastic reputation that has long colored its public perception.

I was told it would be good to get a female opinion, but I don’t intend to spin its gender politics in a comprehensively positive light or to frame my perspective in that way. I can only speak to why I love the film and what makes its high trash of the highest order. A beguiling marvel of ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ cult cinema, Showgirls thoroughly lives up to such an odious accolade, whilst also being something far more complicated and successful than most give it credit for.

What makes Showgirls such a worthwhile curio is that nobody making it seems to be on the same page but always going for broke, resulting in both fortuitous success and spectacular failure. There is the underbelly male fantasy of Joe Eszterhas’ truly scummy script, where the backstage claw-her-way-to-the-top narrative of Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley) becomes replete with faux-lesbian exploitation and inexplicably stupid bouts of dialogue. At the same time, Showgirls functions as a Hollywood satire, using low-rent eroticism and and titillation to tell a cautionary tale.

Paul Verhoeven, that Dutch mastermind of genre-satire, takes a cynically cutthroat look at what makes success and who breaks it, in a bright lights industry greased by sex and violence. Through a tasteless and extravagant lens, there is a constant and deliberate effort by Verhoeven to elevate Eszterhas’ sleaze-play through excess, all the while with tongue firmly in cheek. He doesn’t try to transform what’s there so much as work with what he has to make the aforementioned script a construct for critiquing where identifiably American ambition and dedication get you in a world of corrupt idols and decision-makers. Oversexed and misogynistic to the point there none its explicit imagery is remotely erotic, sex is the satire.

Poor Elizabeth Berkley, as fearless as she is farcical in her misbegotten but unforgettable attempt at big screen stardom. Everything Berkley does is overacted. There’s even overeating in the scene where, pressured to recount her past, Nomi attacks a bowl of fries with ketchup and then throws them on the ground. Each impossibly forceful gyration is a misplaced effort that lends to some of Showgirls unintentional entertainment.

Of all the cast members, Gina Gershon is the one actor able to make the most of her role, saying ‘to hell with it’, and giving herself over to the film’s theatrics and the cat-eat-cat Vegas world Verhoeven depicts as a microcosm of superficial American razzle dazzle. Nudity becomes so commonplace and desensitized, it eventually acts as a type of clothing. For vice is also virtue here, dancers existing within the seedier side of entertainment industry by being the stars of the show, occupying and owning the same male-dominated structures the film ridicules. It is yet another mode of Showgirls‘ success/failure synchronization, which is undoubtedly problematic but far from simple.

Showgirls is also constantly engaging on a visual level; Verhoeven crams his frames with more, more, more. This is the American Dream unveiled for what it is, with more glitz than Gatsby; all of it fake but crucially, of the real world. Shot in and around glittering landmarks of the Las Vegas strip, Verhoeven mounts a glamorous production worthy of that most transparent of settings, with so much attention paid to the stage and the immoderate business of show, that Showgirls becomes a celebration of the extravagance with which the best entertainment (no matter how demeaning) ought to be enjoyed.

And so the experience of watching Showgirls is mystifying; at once unbelievable, scathingly camp, disturbingly satirical, wildly entertaining and head-scratchingly hilarious. The way ‘history’ and MGM have shaped Showgirls into a camp classic is enough to recommended it, but this sadly ricochets any serious reading of the film and its evasive intentions. A holy hell of a mess, it’s also one of the most misunderstood films ever made.

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