DIRECTOR: Paul Verhoeven (as Jan Jensen)
KEY ACTORS: Elizabeth Berkley, Gina Gershon, Kyle MacLachlan
IMDB SCORE: 4.8
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 22%
SEX SCORE: 1.5/5
✔️ Showgirls does pass the Bechdel Test with lots of talk about dancing and work between the many named female characters
❌ But it’s not rewatchable. Regardless of how interesting and clever I think this film is, it is objectively bad.
❌ Extraordinarily considering how beautiful and naked they are, I don’t want to fuck the cast. They’re prickly and spiky and too too much to be fuckable
❌ And the hostile atmosphere meant that this movie didn’t inspire fantasies.
❓But is it sex positive? I’m going to leave this as a half mark of a maybe. I found it hard to decide as, superficially, it is not sex positive. There’s ample evidence of abuse, manipulation and extortion, but it never glamorises that attitude and does not shy away from showing how awful it is. It also approaches sexual taboos like period sex without any fuss. So…maybe?
As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…
STREAMING: YouTube (from £3.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com
[Content warning: rape, sexual assault, violence]
This is my 26th post for this blog – I’ve been writing for it for half a year! And this felt as good a time as any to admit that I have always, always wanted an excuse to obsess and analyse movies in this way. As much as sex Twitter and sex blogging is my heart and my home, movies were my gateway into the idea of Twitter and podcasts and blogs – I joined Twitter initially to follow cinemas and movie writers; my first ever blog post was an ultimately unsuccessful submission to the Prince Charles Cinema when they were looking for a movie blogger; and movie podcasts were the first that drew me to that form of media. Yes, once I found the sex and erotica, I didn’t look back, but I have carried on devouring movie media alongside.
And it was a movie podcast that lit the spark for this particular blogging project. The Dana Buckler Show, which used to be called How Is This Movie, has been my number one movie podcast for over 5 years now and most of my opinions on the business of movies, the complexities of the rating systems and the history of movies in general have come from these fabulously well researched episodes. Although I don’t always agree with Dana’s opinions on the films themselves, his insight and research is incredible and I am always fascinated to hear what he and his co-presenters think, in case it changes my opinion.
Which brings me to Showgirls – a film that is objectively trash. I know I enjoy a lot of films that others might describe as trash, but this really is awful. The acting is over done, the characters don’t talk like real people, the sex is not sexy and, although it has gained a cult following since its release on video, it was a box office failure that squashed the future careers of its star and director. This is a baaaaad film! This series of ridiculous gifs is proof enough!!
The Many Gifs of Showgirls: A Series.
— Fatal Attractions (@FatalAttractPod) July 6, 2018
Which is exactly what I thought after my first viewing and I discarded it without much thought.
But then I saw that The Dana Buckler Show had an episode on Showgirls and I thought I would give it a listen to see what he thought. I must admit that I was listening in the shower, not quite relegating it to background noise but definitely not expecting to stop and give it my whole focus, which is exactly what I did! I stood there, soap in my hair, mouth agape as Dana and Ashley made me see the film completely differently. And then I started wondering what other films I might have misunderstood, what other films about sex might have been trashed without reason or unjustly ignored because of their sexual themes, what other erotic films might contain undiscovered lessons…and, well, that’s where this blog began!
Showgirls is essentially a modern day retelling of All About Eve, set in the glamorous world of exotic dancing in Las Vegas. Nomi Malone (Berkley) arrives in Vegas, all set to make her fortune, and starts dancing at a strip club called The Cheetah. Unhappy with her role as a stripper and wanting to be a real dancer, Nomi auditions to be a showgirl and backing dancer at the big Vegas show, Goddess. The star, Crystal Conners (Gershon), soon takes a shine to Nomi and acts as a mentor of sorts. Nomi pays her back by pushing her down the stairs so Nomi can become the star instead! But sadly, fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and, after Nomi’s friend is brutally raped and Nomi exacts a vicious revenge, she leaves – to try again in LA.
And, oh my gosh, there is so much to say about this film!
Because I’ve come to realise that Paul Verhoeven may just be too smart for his own good. He knew exactly what he was doing when making Showgirls and he has made exactly the film that he wanted to make, describing it as ‘probably the most elegant movie [he’s] ever done.’ Just like Kubrick and Eyes Wide Shut, Verhoeven is a very good and very precise director and he wouldn’t have allowed the film to be released if it wasn’t what he wanted: ‘As for the finished product: I thought it was perfect. Otherwise I would have changed it. I had time to change it. I could change whatever was there.’
Yet Showgirls was a huge flop. Roger Ebert felt it was ‘a waste of a perfectly good NC-17 rating’ and it only made back $20 million in US box office takings after costing $40 million to make. And I find the film to be almost completely unwatchable. It’s just too much and it’s quite unpleasant viewing in places – Elizabeth Berkley is almost a masterclass in overacting, the movie is full of cliches and parts of it are pretty distasteful. And its failure had lasting consequences for all involved. Verhoeven was never given as much freedom again to direct risky movies and Berkley was immediately dropped by her agent.
My main problem with this film is that it staggeringly unsexy. Marketed as an erotic thriller and as an NC17 film from the team who made the staggeringly hot but only R rated Basic Instinct, it somehow manages to be a film about sex that is profoundly unerotic. I have never seen so much gorgeous and beautiful nudity look so plastic and unappealing. All you need do is compare Nomi dancing in the club with the rougher but infinitely hotter dancing in Dirty Dancing to see quite how unsexy this film is.
And the sex itself is hilarious! No one ever, ever has sex like this – and I don’t mean because movie sex tends to be unachievable. I wouldn’t be surprised if Berkley gave herself a significant injury as she writhed and whipped her torso around. Roger Ebert described it as ‘masturbatory fantasies,’ commenting on how ‘eroticism requires a mental connection between two people, while masturbation requires only the other person’s image,’ and I’ve heard it described as sex written by as 12 year old boy who has never actually seen anyone have sex. The sex scene in the pool between Berkley and MacLachlan is famous for being so awful – it’s a waste of champagne, terrifying to watch, and is all over in a matter of seconds. I really hope that no one watching it thought that that was what sex was supposed to be like. As far as the overacting, fake orgasms and unrealistic positions go, it’s even worse than porn!
Which, of course, is exactly the point, and this was the huge revelation that I learned from the Dana Buckler Show. Verhoeven was trying to show just how unsexy the sex industry can be and how none of it is real. Just as amateur porn is often hotter than the overproduced, hairless studio versions, this feels too fake to be erotic. And none of the characters are realistic. Nomi is stroppy and unnecessarily aggressive, Crystal Connors is a cliche who talks like she has been written by a man – ‘I like nice tits. I always have, don’t you?’ – Zack Carey (MacLachlan) is too slimy, too polished and slick. All of the women are unrealistically beautiful too. Of course, everyone in movies is hot but these girls are a level above even the Hollywood norm. They are all so fit with tiny waists, flat stomachs and incredible legs, as well as perfectly sized tits that bounce perfectly when they dance. They’re perfect. On top of this, Vegas is too bright. It’s too well lit, too colourful; it’s too much. It’s all too much.
Except for the rape scene near the end. That looks real. It has a touch of the Verhoeven ultraviolence that I recognise from RoboCop and Total Recall but the sexual assault is very real. It’s incredibly shocking considering everything that came before it. And it’s made even more striking as it’s intercut with some of the softest and most romantic moments of the film, as Nomi and Zack dance in each other’s arms. When all of the previous sex has been hilarious and ridiculous and over the top, the simple but brutal reality of the rape is incredibly powerful.
Having now watched Showgirls again, knowing what I learned from Dana and Ashley, I have a new respect for the film and the message that Verhoeven was trying to impart. As I think I previously said about Basic Instinct, it’s really fucking clever! It was just released at a time when we weren’t ready to hear it.
Because Showgirls is about the #MeToo movement, nearly 20 years before #MeToo really existed. It’s about how women who work as dancers and strippers are treated like sexual objects, regularly abused and exploited, and generally not considered to be real humans. Verhoeven exaggerates their beauty to make them perfect and then they can be objectified because they are not real; they’re caricatures. We’re not supposed to find them sexy and, instead, we’re supposed to feel uncomfortable about how they are being used and abused. And because it is all so exaggerated and so blatant, we cannot possibly miss how much misogyny is built into the entertainment industry.
‘Sooner or later you’re going to have to sell it,’ says the man who gave Nomi a lift into Vegas. ‘If you want to last longer than a week, you give me a blowjob!’ says the owner of the Cheetah. And, when talking about Nomi’s nipples, the choreographer states ‘I’m erect. Why aren’t you erect?’ It’s disgusting. And it’s treated as completely normal – this sort of behaviour isn’t what the film is superficially about. All of the women just shrug and carry on. And when Nomi pushes back after being asked to privately entertain an Asian client after being paid a lot for making a personal appearance, insisting that she is not a whore, it’s suggested that she’s the unreasonable one. Yes, it’s unpleasant but that’s how it works. It’s how you get ahead. I sometimes wonder if this is why the #MeToo movement caught so many men off guard – their behaviour was neither new or unique. Everyone did it, it was how the industry worked.
And Showgirls strongly hints that this how the whole entertainment industry works, not just the sleazy and cheap underbelly. Nomi hates working at the Cheetah as she is treated like a stripper and wants to be a real dancer, but everything is exactly the same when she joins the Goddess team. Worse, she’s treated the same but they pretend that it’s different, pretend it’s classier: ‘You want tits and arse, you get tits and arse. Here they pretend it’s something else and still give tits and arse!’ It makes her exploitation all the more unpleasant to watch – she thinks she’s got out, she thinks it will be different.
As they discussed on the Fatal Attraction podcast, there are also a lot of other taboos that Showgirls touches against that are rarely seen in other films. She mentions her period more often than I can remember from other films, including a moment when she almost has period sex. It’s also pretty rare to see an interracial couple in a mainstream movie, even more so in the 1990s. It’s trying to be progressive and sex positive, and it nearly succeeds.
When I look at the film this way, it makes me really sad that it hasn’t worked. It could have been so good and so important, but it just didn’t work. It may have been exactly how Verhoeven wanted it, but it looks badly executed. He may have told Berkley to act as aggressively as she did for a reason, but the reasoning has got lost. Sadly, it’s fallen between the cracks when it comes to the success of a shocking movie – it’s not so powerful that you instantly get it and can rave about it, even if you can’t bear to watch it again; it’s not easy enough to watch that you will watch it over and over, and the message can seep in over time; and it’s not superficially good enough to enjoy without understanding it.
I also think it’s fallen victim to the issues that plagued Jennifer’s Body – it was marketed as a sexy film to bring in a male audience, but that’s not what the finished product provides. In a way, I agree with Ebert’s take that it was a wasted NC17 rating – people went expecting it to be porn, essentially. Expecting it to be better and hotter and sexier than Basic Instinct but it wasn’t. And when giving a movie that rating was so risky, it’s not surprising that it backfired.
This will be a topic that I am likely to come back again, but the rating system in American movies absolutely fascinates me. Because it’s not the same as the UK version – NC17 is more explicit than the UK 18 certificate and UK 15 certificate is more lenient than the R rating. Borderline R rated movies, such as Basic Instinct, often end up with an 18 certificate without much complaint but it was a big financial risk to give a film an NC17 rating – particularly when it’s given that rating because of sex. Violence is less of an issue but sex is a disaster!
Interestingly, despite it being widely considered a flop, Showgirls is the most financially successful NC17 rated film! These films just don’t make any money but the $300 million success of Basic Instinct despite a similarly aggressive sexual plot fooled the movie industry into thinking Verhoeven could do it again. And perhaps he could have if he had insisted on the NC17 rating because he wanted to create a sexy film, but that wasn’t his intention. It was almost as if he wanted to mock the rating system by demonstrating how unsexy sexually explicit material can be. And Showgirls has proved to be very successful on home video – as The Dana Bucker Show postulated, sexuality is much more acceptable behind closed doors. It’s just a shame that neither Verhoeven or Berkley received the praise that they deserved at the time.
I can’t say that I enjoyed Showgirls, even with this new appreciation of its intention, as I didn’t – it’s unpleasant to watch, both in the exaggerated acting and cinematography, and because of the aggressive and exploitative message. I know it has its fans who value the comedy and hilarity of the whole concept but, to me, the sexual exploitation is too all pervasive and I hate that there’s no happy conclusion. Obviously. We don’t yet live in a world where that kind of resolution is anything but fantasy.
And that’s just really depressing!
Next week: Bridget Jones’s Diary