Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Showgirls


Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls must surely be among the most absurd movies ever made, a gaudy, nasty, hysterical tribute to excess and bad taste. Made from a script by the notoriously exploitative Joe Eszterhas, Verhoeven's collaborator on Basic Instinct and a seasoned peddler of sleaze, the film is a glorious mess, a neon overload of sexploitation. It's the inspirational story of an ambitious young girl who fights and claws her way to the top of her profession, struggling to be the best she can be, fighting to make her way on sheer talent and drive alone. Uh, yeah. That's what it's supposed to be, anyway. That's the kind of movie that Showgirls models itself on, the movie where the small-town girl makes it in the big city because she's just so talented, so tough, so pretty — she gets the gig, gets the guy, wins the hearts of all America in the process. These kinds of films are capitalist fantasies, melodramatically romantic visualizations of the idea that anyone in America can pull herself up by the metaphorical boot straps. There's a reason these kinds of films are so popular, why they're an enduring mainstay of the American cinema, virtually a genre unto themselves: everyone likes to feel like this success is possible, that anyone can make it with enough hard work and dedication. Everyone likes to think America is a meritocracy where those with talent rise to the top.

Showgirls is, defiantly, outrageously, not this type of movie, though it pretends to be right down to the very end. It is a remarkably straight-faced parody of the genre it supposedly represents, probably because its lead actress, Elizabeth Berkley, seems to think that's the kind of movie she's in. Berkley pours herself into her character, the aspiring dancer Nomi Malone. She stomps around, she pouts and cries and squeals (actually squeals!) with delight, she eats junk food with the ferocity of a true carnivore. She dances so vigorously she looks like she's in the midst of a particularly tough fight, flailing her arms around as though throwing punches. She pumps her hips and flashes her body for anyone who'll look. She intones Eszterhas' frankly ridiculous dialogue with earnest intensity. She completely sells every moment, and it's obvious: Nomi thinks that her arc in this film is one of self-discovery and self-realization, because that's exactly what Berkley thinks. By the end of the film, as she's unleashing vicious roundhouse kicks (Nomi, kung fu master!) at the head of a brutal rapist, or dramatically heading out of town in her six-inch stripper heels, she seems triumphant, redeemed, a new woman born from the shell of the old, a beautiful butterfly emerging from her cocoon. Or some crap like that, anyway.

In her own way, Berkley delivers an astonishing performance, though certainly not a "good" one. Then again, what would be a good performance in this context? The character of Nomi demands a certain badness, a wide-eyed enthusiasm and intensity. She's larger than life, and Berkley is the perfect actress to play Nomi because she's just so raw and sloppy, so awkward, so completely without barriers. She never seems to catch on to the fact that she's in a farce, which is probably a good thing, because that would kind of ruin the fun. And oh what fun there is. The film is delirious and pretty much batshit crazy, a neon-tinted orgy of American enterprise run amok. It's a delicious satire, because on its surface it doesn't seem satirical at all. It's a fairly accurate portrayal, one suspects, of exactly what goes on in this kind of milieu: the bitchiness, the catfighting, the trading of sexual favors, the ugly, seedy underside to all the glitz and glamour. Nomi arrives in Las Vegas, running away from her past, hoping to become a dancer. She starts working in a strip club, not exactly her dream, but this film would be a tragedy if Nomi wanted to be a ballerina and wound up just shaking her tits and ass instead. No, it's a comedy because the peak of her ambition, the one thing she absolutely wants to do, the dream job that would drag her out of this hellish strip club, is to be a showgirl in a flashy topless revue at one of the Vegas nightclubs. Yes, she's a stripper who dreams big: she wants to show off her tits and ass in a "classy" setting. (The quotation marks are necessary because this is Vegas' idea of "class," class as conspicuous consumption; the brighter everything shines, the classier it is.)

There's a hilarious scene when Nomi first sees the revue, which is called simply "Goddess." It's a faux-arty melange of leaping half-naked dancers, explosions and lots and lots of glitter, and at its center is the sexy, bitchy superstar Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon). The show looks like the Cirque du Soleil with bare boobs, gloriously tacky and gaudy. And Nomi is transfixed, raptly watching from the crowd as though confronted with a heavenly vision, her hands unconsciously mimicking the poses of the dancers on stage. Her eyes shine: she knows what she wants. Clearly, Verhoeven is having fun here, offering up all these kitschy surfaces without comment, as though to say, here it is, here's the American dream in all its glory, this is the pinnacle, this is something to aspire to. It's virtually the same attitude as the director took in his equally opaque satire Starship Troopers; both films offer up exactly what Verhoeven assumes that audiences want. It's a gesture of contempt, in a way, giving them what they want in the crudest, most overblown fashion. You asked for it, you got it. Want lots of mindless violence, things blowing up, blood and gore and video game special effects? Here's Starship Troopers. Want sex and glitz and conspicuous consumption, want excess and naked bodies? Here's Showgirls. One suspects that these two films together represent what Verhoeven sees when he looks at the American film industry, and it's apparent that he doesn't like what he sees.


This perspective gives the film a wicked edge, a biting undercurrent that elevates it to the level of a camp classic, albeit a deliberately campy one. It's all in the details, like the richly funny performance of Gina Gershon, who plays the whole film with a predatory, crooked smile, permanently baring her teeth as though ready to bite into her prey. If Berkley probably isn't in on the joke, Gershon definitely is, and she feeds into the campiness of the project, relishing the overblown dialogue, rolling her tongue around her lips, looking at Berkley's Nomi with naked lust in her eyes, pouting her lips out until they look like shelves. She's lively and funny and bitchily endearing. Berkley, on the other hand, plays every scene with a deer-in-the-headlights stare; her Nomi is half lost little girl and half vicious tough dame, with a switchblade and a temper.

This is fitting, of course, because one of the film's unspoken (but nonetheless central) jokes is that Nomi just isn't that talented: she looks at home in a strip club, and even seems to be a talented stripper, as far as that goes, but once she's elevated to the moderately more demanding burlesque show, with its complex routines and choreography, she seems out of her element, awkward and ungainly. She goes far because she generates "heat," which seems to be code for everyone wanting to fuck her, both the men and the women. And indeed, one of the film's recurring lines is that she dances like she fucks, which is especially funny in light of an early scene at a club where she's spastically dancing, flailing her limbs around, obviously thinking she's cool and sexy when in fact she looks like a malfunctioning machine; one expects to see sparks flying from her joints. Sure enough, later on, when she gets a comically overwrought sex scene with entertainment manager Zack Carey (Kyle MacLachlan) in Zack's pool, she fucks him by straddling him and then flailing wildly, flopping around in the water like a fish that's just been hooked. At the moment they orgasm, she throws her head back into the spray of foamy water pouring from a dolphin statue's mouth, another of Verhoeven's typically unsubtle jokes. The film is all about details like this. See also: the way, immediately before this jaw-droppingly unsexy sex scene, Zack switches on the green neon palm trees by his poolside, doing it with a suave flick of his hand, as though it's meant to seduce her. The even funnier second punchline is that it does seduce her; of course Nomi gets off on neon.

The film is bathed in neon, too, simply saturated in it. It must be one of the most garish, brightly colored films ever made, and its visual sensibility matches its over-the-top acting and soapish storyline. It's a brilliant, deadpan satire, hilarious and tacky and relentlessly overblown, nearly operatic in its frenzied excess. It's a film about the American dream, but not quite in the way it pretends to be: it's about people who scratch, claw, betray and sleep their way to the top, about crass commercialism and the marketing of sexuality (this last of course a great irony since the film itself was marketed on the strength of its sexual excesses). It's a film in love with its own melodrama, in love with the neon overload of Las Vegas even as it satirizes and mocks it.

21 comments:

Tony Dayoub said...

You get the idea that Berkeley threw herself into the part of Nomi so completely unaware of Verhoeven's intent to satirize the character and the milieu because of her own Nomi-like ambition to do anything it took to escape the child-actress ghetto she found herself in with Saved by the Bell.

I could see her saying, "Verhoeven is hot. Eszterhas is hot. They both just came off one of the biggest hits of the decade, Basic Instinct. I'm not going to question them. I'll just do whatever they want me to. They will make me a star just like they made Sharon Stone a STAR!"

Marilyn said...

Ed, interesting take on this film, but as you know from my review/defense, I really don't see this as a satire. I think it is very much of a piece with Black Book as a subversion of a standard American genre film - in this case the rags-to-riches myth mixed with the usurper to the throne. There is no transformation in the end, just a realization that the dream is hollow because humanity doesn't fall into the "doesn't suck" category. As for Berkley, she may have been as bad an actress as you suggest at the time, but she isn't anymore. That made me wonder just how bad she really was and how bad or controlling Verhoeven's direction of her was. It would be interesting to talk to them both about it.

Ed Howard said...

Tony, I think you're probably right about that. From what I've seen of interviews from around this time, she seemed to think this was the movie that would catapult her to stardom as a real actress. It didn't work out that way, of course. I'm sure she's not a bad actress in general but the performance she gives here is a blank-eyed, awkward, over-the-top mess -- which is of course exactly what the film calls for! So it's hard to say how much of her performance was intentional and how much just fit naturally into what Verhoeven was trying to do. These days, I gather, Berkley is reluctant to even talk much about Showgirls, so who knows?

Marilyn, what I like about the film is how open it is, how much roomn it has for differing interpretations. It's possible to appreciate it from multiple different vantage points. I like your take on it as an earnest appreciation of the Vegas milieu -- maybe I'm just bringing my own tastes to the film by calling it a satire of capitalist excess, but more likely I think Verhoeven himself has conflicting ideas about the kitsch culture on display here. I think he has genuine admiration for all this glitz and faux-glamour -- anyone who presented this stuff with such flare must have *some* love for it -- but at the same time I see Nomi's arc as a gradual revelation of the hollowness behind Vegas' ideas of success and fame and talent. And by extension, the hollowness of America's ideas about these things. In any event, it's a very complex film that, because of its complexity, supports a number of different readings.

Marilyn said...

I have a different reaction to Las Vegas than many people of my background (college-educated, artistically sophisticated). I actually admire the Vegas style as true Americana, a love of spectacle, an appreciation of a melting pot of entertainment. I remember seeing a show there that was like watching Ed Sullivan's TV show - Topo Gigio meets Moulin Rouge. It was very entertaining and very professionally done. Vegas dancers are really quite good, and the ones in Goddess could certainly kick on Broadway any day.

The Vegas idea of success really isn't connected to the showgirls' story. In Vegas, you can be a millionaire with one roll of the dice, but we can see the showgirls have to work and compete to get to the top. It's an interesting juxtaposition, where Vegas may be the immigrant's idea of American ("streets lined with gold"), but not the average American's. In Vegas, as anywhere, a little qui pro quo goes a long way (especially a town founded by a mobster).

Kevin J. Olson said...

Berkley isn't a terrible actress. She had a decent supporting role in the small film The Real Blonde. I'll be back later with some thoughts. I agree a lot with Tony's comments.

J.D. said...

One of the best comments I ever read about Verhoeven's American output is something along the lines of he gives American the films that they deserve.

You write:

"the film is a glorious mess"

Well said and I think that that is a large part of its appeal. It's like a cinematic car wreck that you can't tear your eyes away from no matter how ugly and messy it is.

Thinking about this film and reading your excellent post reminds me of how much I miss Verhoeven making films in Hollywood. Altho, I've heard rumblings that he's been attached to a few projects so who knows?

Marilyn said...

I hadn't realized that Verhoeven thought so highly of Americans.

Flickhead said...

Verhoeven intended this as a legit musical; the interviews on the DVD support no claims for satire nor subversion.

Which is why it works as satire and subversion. Its irony is natural, not manufactured.

With the right material and direction, Berkeley's a good actor, albeit underused. (See Roger Dodger.)

She doesn't work too often as she's financially secure. Her husband Greg is Ralph Lauren's nephew.

She and Greg celebrate Jewish holidays with a close friend of mine whose wife is also related to Ralph. I've yet to be invited, as my friend knows I'd probably leap over the dinner table and ravage poor Elizabeth there and then. You can see my sweetie with Greg -- Mr. and Mrs. Fabulously Beautiful -- here.

For what it's worth, I've seen Showgirls more than ten times.

In one nightclub scene the music is a dance remix of the theme from Raquel Welch's One Million Years BC!

Meanwhile, January 11 used to be International Showgirls Day.

Jason Bellamy said...

I was about to feel embarrassed about the fact that this is the first film in months that you’ve reviewed that I have seen. But apparently everyone has seen Showgirls. It’s been a while for me, but a few comments:

* I think Tony is correct that Berkeley thought this film would save her from the “ghetto” of SBTB, but the reason that show was such a ghetto for Berkeley was that she was so completely unsexy in it, despite seemingly always having a boyfriend of some sort. Her character was the awkward, goody-goody nerd who just happened to have some cool friends. Go back to when the show was on and, including some of those characters who appeared for one season or two to give Zack some tail to chase, Berkeley would have been at best your fifth prediction for the actress most likely to play a stripper in an NC-17 film (which it was upon release). Now, obviously the fact that she seems as earnest as her character, while Gershon clearly plays up the role, made her something of a joke. But did it hurt her career? That would be hard to argue. At that point, she no longer had a career.

* Berkeley was also decent in a small part in Roger Dodger, as I recall.

* Has there been a worse sex scene (excluding rapes or things otherwise designed to be unpleasant) than the one that produces Berkeley’s pool electrocution, I mean, orgasm? What I recall about the scene is that at some point she seems to be grinding her business closer to her partner's ribcage than his pelvis.

* I love Gina Gershon. I just had to say that.

* Finally, if you think this film is camp, just wait until you see it on cable TV with bras digitally added to Berkeley and Gershon in the numerous moments when they’re just walking around topless. Now that is funny.

Jason Bellamy said...

Er! Berkley. My bad!

Marilyn said...

Digital bras!?! Oh for crying out loud! Are we all children?

Kevin J. Olson said...

Finally, if you think this film is camp, just wait until you see it on cable TV with bras digitally added to Berkeley and Gershon in the numerous moments when they’re just walking around topless. Now that is funny.

Oh man! I thought I was the only one! Haha. I always have to stop my channel surfing when I see this film on E!, or some other channel, because of the digital bras. Great stuff.

And I agree...Gena Gershon is sexy as hell (as the picture to open this review surely shows).

Jason Bellamy said...

Digital bras!?! ... Are we all children?

All of us aren't, no. But your comment made me laugh because the bras look as if they've been scribbled on to the film by children. They almost change color as you look at them, a sort of Waking Life effect, if you will. I haven't seen the full movie in the theater since it came out, but if I can catch a scene on TV with digital bras, I MUST WATCH. It's almost Ed Wood absurd. Good times.

Ed Howard said...

Wow, you ain't kidding that apparently everyone's seen Showgirls.

J.D., I think the film is so much more than just a "car wreck," though obviously its camp messiness is a big part of its appeal. There's a lot of substance to the film as well.

Flickhead, just because Verhoeven says the film was meant to be a straight-up musical, I don't know if that means we have to accept that. I find it hard to believe that he intended the film to be taken entirely straight, without some consideration of its subtexts, whether we call it satire or subversion. The film definitely draws on the traditions of the musical but I think I'd take anything Verhoeven has to say about this film with a grain of salt.

Jason, I commented about that ludicrous sex scene too -- how could I resist? It's hilarious. I think stuff like that certainly supports the idea that Verhoeven didn't exactly intend the film to be a legit musical; he's mocking his characters too relentlessly for there *not* to be satire.

And I've seen bits and pieces of the cable version before; it really is kind of insane. I can't imagine what they were thinking by trying to come up with a version of this film that could pass the TV censorship. I'm sure Verhoeven appreciates it though: it's just more evidence of how backwards America is in regards to sex.

Craig said...

Now I'm embarrassed to admit I've never seen Showgirls.

I have, however, seen Roger Dodger, and Berkeley is indeed very good, as is that other former movie-dance-sensation, Jennifer Beals.

Jason Bellamy said...

Nothing new to add. Just had to stop by to look at Gina one more time.

(Couldn't you just abandon this Verhoeven foolishness and do a Gershon-fest? Even simply a pictoral one? And how the hell has Fox not surfaced with an opinion on this movie?)

Joe Valdez said...

Fantastic series, Ed. Paul Verhoeven brings out the best, and worst, in movie lovers.

I have to disagree with Marilyn or anyone who thinks Showgirls was meant to be some type of satire or commentary.

Flickhead points out that Verhoeven really thought he was making an edgy musical. During the publicity for Black Book, he came out and admitted that Showgirls was a bad movie.

I just find this flick to repellent and sloppy and in bad taste for no reason. I don't fault Elizabeth Berkeley either. Bad acting in a movie is never an actor's fault, it's the director's fault.

Ed Howard said...

Hey Joe, thanks for stopping by. Verhoeven can think whatever he likes about his film, obviously, but I do have a hard time believing he really meant the film to be a straight musical. There's too much beneath the surface, too many other layers, too many obvious jokes, for me to believe that it wasn't intentional. And of course there's the evidence of Verhoeven's other films, which point towards the ways of interpreting Showgirls.

Hitchcock always used to say that his best films were the ones that succeeded with audiences. If a film of his did poorly at the box office, he believed it was a failure and must have had something wrong with it. I get the impression Verhoeven is the same way about his films: while in Hollywood, he desperately craved some mainstream success, which is of course kind of perverse considering the increasingly difficult films he was making.

Me said...

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Adam Zanzie said...

Excellent review, Ed. This movie is... pretty good. Verhoeven and Eszterhas come up with a lot of interesting characters, they make it one hell of an entertaining show, and while Elizabeth Berkely goes really over-the-top, I didn't think she was half-bad. She did what Verhoeven wanted, and did it well, at least. She seriously rocked that pool orgasm, y'know?

If I hesitate to embrace Showgirls as a wholly great film, however -- and there were times when I wondered if it was actually going to shape up to be some kind of unsung masterpiece -- it's because of the film's last 30 minutes, which I thought were pretty awful. I was hoping the movie would qualify as a kind of NC-17 remake of All About Eve, since that seemed like where it was headed. But by the time the movie becomes a rape-and-revenge tale, and Nomi turns "good", gets out of Vegas and is wished well by Cristal, the movie goes gooey. Somehow I doubt that a girl of Nomi's mysterious background would turn down an offer to be a star for a lifetime and go back to hitch-hiking.

That's probably why a movie like Black Book works so much more: with that film, Verhoeven ensures it so that most everybody is a sinner from beginning to end. I'm assuming that Eszterhas ends Showgirls happily (well, so to speak -- a rapist has to get beat up, first, before everyone can be happy) because he feared a more pessimistic ending would spell box office doom. Looks like the opposite happened there. I guess I feel like the movie would have worked even better as satire had it followed All About Eve's logic: that once you start climbing to the top, you're bound to stay up there until somebody knocks you down. You can't just leave on your own -- because an Addison DeWitt type is always going to have you on a leash. This movie flirts with that concept but ultimately isn't willing to embrace it. Regardless, a good movie that didn't deserve so much harsh Razzie targeting.

Ed Howard said...

Interesting thoughts, Adam. While I certainly agree that Black Book is a better, more completely successful film (no contest, really, I think that's Verhoeven's best work) I don't really have the problems that you do with the ending of Showgirls. At the end, Nomi has realized that her fantasy Las Vegas is just a dream, so she takes off into a different kind of fantasy, heading off on the road after getting some revenge. The film riffs on sexploitation cinema tropes throughout, so it makes sense that the rape-and-revenge scenario comes up at the end.