Showgirls is one of the sleaziest films ever made this side of the adult film industry. So incredibly slimy is this film that it becomes a guilty pleasure on just about every level. Director Paul Verhoeven, the guy behind RoboCop and Basic Instinct, is at it again with his sensory attacks in 1995’s Showgirls. Known for being incredibly seedy and grimy, Verhoeven’s penchant for exposing all that is disturbing and disquieting about the human condition is on display in his usual over-the-top way in Showgirls. The film is a veritable soap opera of depravity, nudity, and bad dancing. Almost legendary in its cult status, Showgirls is better than it should be on many levels and is certainly no ordinary character study.
Showgirls stars Elizabeth Berkley from Saved by the Bell fame as Nomi Malone, a temperamental and mysterious drifter who hitchhikes to Las Vegas. She arrives but is instantly robbed. After recovering from her robbery by making friends with a seamstress, Molly (Gina Ravera), Nomi moves in with her new friend and starts a job as a stripper. One fateful night, Nomi accompanies Molly to Molly’s workplace, the stage show “Goddess” at the Stardust in Vegas. Nomi becomes instantly enthralled with the production and meets the show’s star, Cristal Conners (Gina Gershon). Cristal and her boyfriend, Zack (Kyle MacLachlan), take a liking to Nomi after seeing her dance at the nightclub and the wheels are put in motion for Nomi to become a part of “Goddess” and become famous. The rest of the film follows the rise and fall of Nomi Malone as she stoops low to get high in the brutal world of Las Vegas show business.
Showgirls was controversial upon its release and earned the NC-17 rating. The film approaches themes of rape, lesbianism, and interracial relationships, which apparently were still notable in the mid-1990s. The film’s approaches to the themes were decidedly obnoxious, as the film’s famous rape scene is ridiculously over-the-top and intolerable and the approaches to other sensitive subject matter are equally odd. Showgirls appears to be wrapped up in the fantasies of writer Joe Eszterhas, who also penned Basic Instinct. Like kids in a candy store, Eszterhas and Verhoeven unleash a world of vibrant garish reality on audiences and the film feels like a gauche trip down the Las Vegas strip. Thinking about the ostentatious lights of the city, however, one can’t help but spot instantaneous parallels to the tawdriness of it all.
Because of this, Showgirls is actually an effective film. Berkley overacts every single scene like a logically pissed-off woman coming from a knotty life. She snaps at every gesture of benevolence, yet unwisely and candidly accepts offers from strangers like a peripatetic vain film heroine from the 1930s. Berkley’s Nomi is one of perplexing dichotomy, stumbling through the Las Vegas lifestyle munching cheeseburgers and searching for dignity in what is admittedly a much undignified existence. She’s a lost soul in a sea of lost souls and her job as a performer is to appear even more flawed than the most flawed of all. Berkley, in my view, accomplishes this by overacting and overreacting to just about everything that goes on around her. Unlike Anne Hathaway in Havoc, Berkley’s jump to maturity and pretension isn’t as daft or abrupt.
Showgirls is pure smut, no doubt about it. What makes it work as smut is its unabashed love for itself and its ability to know that it’s smutty and keep on powering right through the trash. There is no insight here, no innate message to the madness. Instead, Showgirls capitalizes on the theme brought to us in All About Eve: there will always be somebody behind you to push you down the stairs. Much like Anne Baxter’s taste for blood in All About Eve, Berkley’s taste for blood is very similar and she goes to incredible lengths to achieve it. In a world where nudity and sex has lost all meaning, Showgirls capitalizes on that element by bringing us an overdose of breasts and wonky sex scenes, almost lampooning the ridiculous nature of it all. The idea of having a pool lit up by palm tree cut-out lights while REAL palm trees stand behind it is the perfect encapsulation of the ideas within Showgirls. Everything fake is real again and everything tasteless is somehow the ideal formula for success.
Showgirls is a film that can be examined, picked apart, looked at under a microscope, and pieced together again. It is a film so in love with its own ideal and its own obnoxiousness that its DVD release featured a gaudy box set that featured a deck of cards, shot glasses, and a lap dance instructional DVD hosted by real strippers. The film’s self-awareness comes into play here and a quick perusal through the Amazon reviews of the DVD box set truly exposes the true nature of the film: people are having a great time watching this filth. So, if grime and luridness is your thing, you’ll probably love Showgirls. It’s not particularly titillating, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun.