Showgirls (1995) is one of the most flamboyantly fabulous failures in film history, which makes it a must-watch for any self-respecting cinema voyeur. If you’ve seen it more than once, chances are you’ll want to see it again and again. It’s so, so ill-conceived and tasteless, you can’t possibly look away.
Stylistically, the film is a throwback to the schlock cinema of a bygone era, owing its look and feel to the colorfully prurient, unreal cinema worlds created in showbiz-themed films of the late 1960s like Valley of the Dolls (and of course the Russ Meyers “sequel” Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) and Myra Breckinridge. With its extravagantly over-the-top costumes and production design, artfully painted kewpie-doll-faced actresses sporting skimpy attire (when they are lucky enough to be wearing anything at all other than fairy dust and sequins), nothing whatsoever resembles physical reality in any way, shape or form. It’s 100% melodramatic soap opera fantasy, glossed over with a heavy hand.
|The fire and magic of Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley)|
The plot is pure All About Eve, with a smidgeon of 42nd Street thrown in for good measure, though I don’t recall if Ruby Keeler ever pushed Bebe Daniels down the stairs. Beat by beat, you’ll recognize the well-worn tropes from countless other show business films—the ambitious young acolyte, the insecure star, the producer who’s really a pimp, the frustrated director and choreographer, etc.
I feel like I should hate this film, because it has one of the most nakedly misogynistic points of view I’ve ever seen in a Hollywood narrative. The nudity is not what bothers me; the perpetually bouncing breasts (which inexplicably bring to mind the topless dancing zombies of Ed Wood’s Orgy of the Dead) and female objectification are adolescent and gratuitous but not particularly offensive. It’s the way the characters are drawn and the way they go about achieving their goals that I take issue with—practically every woman in this film is an out-and-out, high-riding bitch and walking paragon of vulgarity. Worse, the only sympathetic character in the script is mercilessly beaten and raped for no apparent reason.
|Every man's fantasy|
Most chillingly of all, this putrid attitude toward women is revealed in the so-called jokes of the squat, overweight and unlovely mistress of ceremonies at the sleazy Cheetah nightclub: “What do you call that useless piece of skin around a tw*t?” she asks the audience. “A woman!” When the pouting lips, curvaceous breasts and pert bottoms are stripped away, is that what men think of the opposite sex when all is said and done?
|The intense vulgarity of Mama Bazoom (Lin Tucci)|
This film is demeaning to women, so why do I enjoy it so much? (I think I know.)
I believe I understand exactly why this film has been elevated to cult status by a primarily gay male audience. Showgirls must not be read literally as the adventures of a group of women in the Las Vegas entertainment industry. Because the characters are NOT WOMEN. If, in your mind’s eye, you imaginatively cast every female character as a drag queen, it all starts to make more sense. Every actress who has the misfortune to appear in this film is a female impersonator.
|Is Nomi Malone a man in drag?|
In various reviews, critiques and critical essays on this picture (and there have been surprisingly many, for such a piece of glittering trash), the female characters of Showgirls have been described as automatons, mannequins, robots and blow-up dolls. True, not one of these voluptuaries can be described as a flesh-and-blood woman. But if you have ever spent any time in the milieu of female illusionists, drag shows or transexual cabaret (in West Hollywood, San Francisco, Fort Lauderdale or Key West, or perhaps even in today’s Las Vegas), you will recognize the cynical, cruel and hard-nosed archetypes of this gritty netherworld of show business. Though played by attractive and talented women, the brittle characters of Nomi Malone, Cristal Connors and friends are obviously gay men in drag. (And them guys are MEAN, take my word for it, honey! You don’t believe me? Watch RuPaul’s Drag Race!)
But you really can’t fault the principal performers, who actually do better than expected in entertaining the viewer and elevating the proceedings above swamp level. Each actor in this opus gives it their all. From Kyle McLachlan (who bares his well-rounded buttocks again for the love of thespus) to Alan Rachins, Robert Davi and Lin Tucci (as the aforementioned Cheetah emcee Mama Bazoom), the cast is uniformly strong and makes the movie eminently watchable.
|Alan Rachins as Tony Moss: "I'm erect. Why aren't you erect?"|
Much has been written unfairly denigrating Elizabeth Berkley’s performance as Nomi Malone, the twitchy, bitchy and often psychotic heroine. Propelled by a naked ambition to become a star (despite her comically inept and awkward dancing) and fuelled by double cheeseburgers and milkshakes (when everyone knows that real dancers eat brown rice and vegetables!), Berkley’s Nomi is as dumb as a rock yet cunning as a fox. Nomi is mean; Nomi is a jerk. Nomi dumps on everyone as punishment for being dumped on. It’s an impossible role to play, under-written and shallow, but somehow Berkley makes it memorable with raw energy, courage and chutzpah. Frankly, she nails it. It’s far from an Oscar performance, but she deserves a medal for her valiant attempt.
|Gina Gershon as Cristal Connors, Las Vegas super-villainess|
Taking her place in cinema history alongside Margo Channing and Helen Lawson is Cristal Connors, played with a garish flourish by the versatile Gina Gershon. Cristal’s an aging star (she’s pushing 30, after all!) and predatory lesbian, another drag-queen character played by a woman, but an exceedingly talented one. Gershon’s timing and delivery are right on the money; her scenes with Berkley crackle with excitement and palpable suspense. The two leading ladies display real chemistry in their catty face-offs.
|Zack (Kyle MacLachlan) and Nomi make the motion of the ocean|
Thematically, the film panders to the lowest common denominator of the average poor zhlub’s hopes, dreams and fantasies of success: The good life is all about sex and money, drugs and champagne, gambling and winning and fame and fortune. It’s a small and petty world of dog-eat-dog, a place where the opportunists find, use and abuse each other. It’s a glorification of our basest instincts, tarted up with lipstick and sequins and bare skin but ultimately, ugly and pathetic.
Speaking of base instincts, the creative team behind the stylish ’90s noir classic Basic Instinct is to blame for serving up this misogynistic stew of bare breasts and show business clichés. Director Paul Verhoeven (Starship Troopers, Black Book) and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (Fatal Attraction), both skilled masters of storytelling, took a wrong turn here that seemingly reveals arrested adolescent yearnings and an obvious frustration with and total incomprehension of the opposite sex. They prove themselves here completely unable to relate the story of a woman, so instead they rely on cartoonlike stereotypes of what unenlightened men must think women are, or should be, or might be, like. (And that’s exactly what female impersonators do.)
|What women must do when men aren't around|
To be fair, the male characters fare no better in this dark comedy—so there’s equal opportunity dehumanization. If the women are all whores and bitches, the men are all horndogs and scumbags. The entire showbiz milieu that Verhoeven and Eszterhas present here says a lot less about Vegas than it does about their own ambivalent feelings toward the film industry and their own livelihoods. Showgirls sheds light on Hollywood’s own hardened and cynical attitude toward the ever-loving “business of show,” treating all its talent like prostitutes and requiring the most Machiavellian of methods to claw yourself to the top of the heap.
But, in spite of itself, Showgirls is far from devoid of entertainment value, hence my love-hate relationship with this movie. Beneath the Valley of the Barbie Dolls and Playboy Centerfolds come to life, the hypersexual situations, the incessant bumping and grinding, is a rollicking good dark comedy about mean and nasty people doing evil and loathsome things. And furthermore, what red-blooded American moviegoer doesn’t love a movie chock full of bare-naked actors, feathers, spangles, pole-dancing, switchblades and a few well-placed karate kicks to keep the action rolling along? Showgirls is a splashy, flashy, trashy exposé of the show business urban legend. (And they don’t call it “show” business for nothing—they really do show it all, hence the NC-17 rating.)
|Does it look like they're levitating to you?|
In other words, it’s so bad, it’s great. Unforgettable dialogue highlights: “Well, you f*cked the meter reader!”/“Life sucks? Sh*t happens? Where do you get that stuff, off of t-shirts?”/ “I used to like Doggy Chow, too.” (Eszterhas commanded an unprecedented $4 million for this script—don’t you wish you knew how to write a screenplay, too?)
I guarantee, if you’re still watching this after 20 minutes or so, you’ll be hooked. And it ain’t over till “Caesar sings” (off key of course). And if you’re a repetition queen like me, one day you’ll actually be watching it for the 300th time...
If you need even more Showgirls, check out two of my favorite bloggers' takes on this cult classic: Le Cinema Dreams and Great Old Movies.