"Sooner or later, you're going to have to sell it." —Showgirls
It's with equal parts excitement and dread that I tackle Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls, unquestionably the granddaddy of contemporary camp classics, if not of all time: Excitement because the tacky vulgarity that pervades every frame of the film has me laughing along with its legions of cult followers, who undoubtedly feel like they hit the What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?/All About Eve/Mommie Dearest jackpot. And dread because I feel like there's also subversive merit to Showgirls, a misanthropic, nastily satirical vision of America from the director responsible for Robocop and Starship Troopers. So the question becomes "How do I snicker at a film I respect on a certain level?" And more to the point, "What in the world was Verhoeven thinking? Does he want us to laugh our way through the film, or was it a serious miscalculation?"
I've seen Showgirls many times now, and I still don't know what to think, other than whatever the hell it is, it's a pleasure to sit through. It's a shame that Verhoeven wasn't allowed to explain himself on the DVD, since he gives bar-none the best commentaries in the business, but MGM is selling it now as a ripe hunk of cheese, with unflattering pull quotes ("An instant camp classic," "A masterpiece of flashy tackiness") and a snarky (though funny) commentary by humorist David Schmader. Perhaps I'm alone in my ambivalence, but there's something special about Showgirls, which is a little like A Star Is Born for an age in which innocence is dead and pursuing the American Dream involves endless degradation and compromise.
My colleague Nathan Rabin suggested that Showgirls could be seen as a companion of sorts to Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, Russ Meyer's ultra-trashy send-up/example of a youth culture consumed by exploitation and excess. The one major difference is that Meyer—and a screenwriting wiseacre named Roger Ebert—made it clear at all times that they were in on the joke; their glibness leaves a bad taste, as does the film's dubiously eroticized images of violence against women. Showgirls plays it mostly straight—in the gayest way imaginable, of course—which makes it a purer camp experience and opens it up to merciless ridicule. Yet the two films are attempting to critique, in a tone that's simultaneously prurient and moralistic, a society in decay. They're divided against themselves, and that lends them a compelling tension beyond all the surface lunacy.
The closest Showgirls comes to a thesis statement is the line quoted above: "Sooner or later, you're going to have to sell it." The line arrives very early in the film, when plucky ingénue Nomi Malone—played with, er, conviction by Saved By The Bell bad girl Elizabeth Berkley—finally loses all her coins to the house on a Vegas slot machine. The first in a long line of middle-aged sleazebags offers her a way she can win her money back in 15 minutes, wink, wink, and Nomi responds like she always does: with the white-hot anger of a thousand suns. She came to Sin City to be a dancer, not a whore, which is a little like showing up at a water park but not wanting to get wet. She will have to sell it in Vegas; she just doesn't know it yet.
In the meantime, Nomi is angry. Really angry. The opening credits haven't even ended before she pulls a switchblade on somebody, and she nearly causes three car accidents within the first seven minutes of screen time. Her anger shows up in her herky-jerky dance moves, which pop into place with a force that's more flesh-covered killer sexbot than modern-day Ginger Rogers. It shows up in her tense interactions with other people, when her hair-trigger temper can turn an innocuous exchange about nails or boobs into a potentially life-threatening situation. She storms out of every room, grinds like a feral animal, and crushes balls with the frequency of Kim Cattrall dropping innuendo. And even if you're just a jar of ketchup and a basket of fries, you shan't be spared her wrath:
In spite of her volatile personality, Nomi finds an important friend in Molly (Gina Ravera), who works in the wardrobe department at a Stardust stage show and gives Nomi a place to stay and a backstage pass to the cheesy nude extravaganza of her dreams. In the meantime, Nomi works the catwalk at Cheetah, a down-market strip joint run by an oily manager who offers job security in exchange for regular blowjobs. (And yet he's treated affectionately in the end, which speaks to how big the film's other scoundrels are.) Opportunity knocks when the Stardust's main attraction, Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon), takes an interest in Nomi much as a pimp might with a potential trick: She wants to turn Nomi out, just for the sport of it. When a chorus-girl position opens up in Cristal's show, Nomi rage-humps her way into it, with an eye on supplanting her curly-mouthed benefactor as the featured attraction one day. She also gets involved with the casino's entertainment director, Zack, whom Kyle MacLachlan plays as a floppy-haired, bare-assed tool.
Take away the sex, boobs, language, and other crude modern trappings, and Showgirls is actually an old-fashioned Hollywood story: Ambitious young ingénue from the sticks comes to the city with a dream in her head and a song in her heart, navigates a minefield of sleazy showbiz types, and comes out a big star in the end. (Incidentally, Showgirls would make a great double bill with Glitter, which is old-fashioned in a similar way.) I've already made the comparison to A Star Is Born, but it's also 42nd Street (about a chorus girl who steps in when the star breaks her ankle) or a reversal of All About Eve that casts Eve as the hero and Margo Channing as the villain. Having absolved herself of a checkered past, Nomi doesn't come to Vegas as an innocent, exactly, but as someone with a clean slate who's determined to get what she wants without dirtying it up too much.
Without getting too far into Marxist dogma, the film's basic point is that if you participate in a capitalist system, it will corrupt you. And what better setting to make that point than Vegas, the grotesque funhouse mirror of America? Nomi puts up fierce resistance, but she has a price, too, and Cristal feels like it's her job to make Nomi realize it. "You like her?" she asks Zack on an impromptu visit to the Cheetah. "I'll buy her for you." Nomi doesn't want to take any money from Cristal, but the decision is out of her hands: Her manager forces her to take half a grand for a lapdance, and after a few minutes of crazed tribal thrusting, Zack gets off and Cristal proves her point. All of which leaves Nomi feeling dejected and, yes, a little whorish: "You just got $500 for a lapdance," says her manager. "You act like somebody died."
The icy-hot exchanges between Nomi and Cristal are by far the most compelling in the film—partly because they're all about corrupting Nomi, partly because of the vapid mental jujitsu between the two actresses, and partly because they expose screenwriter Joe Eszterhas' hilariously bizarre notions of how women speak to each other. For me, there isn't a funnier scene in Showgirls than this heady dialogue on Doggy Chow and tits, which takes place in a fancy eatery that Cristal clearly picks to make her low-class, trailer-trash guest uncomfortable:
Here is the scripting of a man who was once the most sought-after screenwriter in Hollywood:
Cristal: I like nice tits. I always have. How about you?
Nomi: I like having nice tits.
Cristal: How do you like having them?
Nomi: What do you mean?
Cristal: You know what I mean.
Nomi: I like having them in a nice dress or a tight top.
And so on. It's like some adults-only version of Green Eggs And Ham: I do not like them in a box, I will not eat them with a fox. All of this tit discussion is Eszterhas' way of drumming up some sexual tension between the two, because there's nothing hotter (or more thoroughly a male juvenile fantasy) than lipstick lesbians who could fight or fuck at any moment. Verhoeven and Eszterhas teamed up earlier with Basic Instinct, and the two complement each other in an unusual way: Eszterhas writes the most vulgar commercial material in the business, and Verhoeven likes to comment on that vulgarity. I've never gotten the impression that Verhoeven respects Eszterhas' work as anything more than a means to an end—a vehicle through which he can make his own, separate points about American culture. (This as opposed to Ed Neumeier, whose scripts for RoboCop and Starship Troopers are closely aligned to Verhoeven's sensibility.)
Still, Eszterhas is responsible for the "everyone's a whore" theme, not to mention some of the ripest, most quotable bad-movie dialogue in Hollywood history. And when Nomi is faced with the decision to either stay quiet about her friend Molly getting raped by a popular Fabio-like performer or lose her status as Stardust's main attraction, Eszterhas also provides a more nuanced twist on the theme: Maybe everyone is a whore, but even whores can earn a sliver of integrity. In the end, Nomi loses a job that only superstars of Paula Abdul or Janet Jackson's wattage have the stature to fill, but she's the nearest approximation to a hero that Verhoeven and Eszterhas can bring themselves to champion. Laugh all you will at Showgirls—and how can you not?—but you have to appreciate its coal-black notions of redemption. Goodness knows, Nomi's was hard-earned.
Next week: Sexy Beast
August 14: Sonatine
August 21: Gremlins 2: The New Batch
August 28: Lars Von Trier's The Kingdom