Reviewing Showgirls 19 years after its failure is difficult. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard somebody talk about the movie, read about the movie, seen the movie, or have been influenced in some other way by the movie. The movie doesn’t change. In the 19 years that Showgirls has been on the Earth, not one frame has changed. Verhoeven hasn’t gone back and made a director’s cut. There hasn’t been an extended cut, or an Unrated cut. No extra footage has been unearthed. No deleted scenes. For all of the extra features in the litany of Showgirls releases, not one of them has been anything missing from the movie.
Showgirls is. Showgirls has been for almost 20 years. Nothing has changed about Showgirls except public perception, which has changed drastically.
Since its inception, Showgirls has gone from being an anticipated hit to a failure to a joke to an ironic masterpiece to a masterclass in duality. It started life as the follow up to 1992’s mega-success Basic Instinct by reteaming Joe Eszterhas with Paul Verhoeven. Upon release, it was critically panned, and ignored. The failure was so massive, it became fodder for late night television and winking one-liners. Then it became reclaimed as a piece of hilarious camp failure. Finally, it’s being reclaimed as an successful venture in campy excess.
I’ve been watching Showgirls for 14 of those 19 years, but with full knowledge of its travails for most of the first five.
Part 1: Sure-Fire Hit
In the beginning, there were two guys. These guys were major power players in Hollywood. The first was a European director who had three R-rated box office blockbusters in a row. The first was Robocop, which was #16 of 1987’s box office. The second was Total Recall, which was #7 at the box office in 1990. The third was Basic Instinct, which was #9 in 1992. The last of the three was a hard-R erotic thriller that ran up against the censors. The director’s name was Paul Verhoeven.
The second power player was a screenwriter who demanded exorbitant pay and front-end percentages. He claimed he made himself into a Hollywood player, and part of that was in the strength of his scripts. One of his most famous was Flashdance, an erotic dance movie about a not-quite stripper who also works the steel mills with dreams of getting into dance school. This screenwriter was also responsible for writing Basic Instinct. This screenwriter? Joe Eszterhas.
Together, the two had paired up on Basic Instinct, the last sure-fire success of the great erotic thriller boom of the late 80s and early 90s. Basic Instinct had grossed $117m, which would be well over $200m in today’s box office. So, when Eszterhas and Verhoeven wanted to team up again for an NC-17 exposé about Las Vegas, blowing the top off the corruption that lies underneath Sin City, MGM said “Where do we sign?”
Enter Elizabeth Berkley. Jessie Spano is a name that rings the bell in the heart of everybody of a certain age. That age probably being about 28-34 right now. In the 90s, there was a campy television show for tweens called Saved By The Bell all about high school that gave the idea that teenagers were gigantic fun-loving stereotypes. Jessie Spano, a tall thing girl, was played by Elizabeth Berkley. She was also the brains of the outfit, as well as the resident feminist. Which was funny because she was constantly either dating or being pursued by A.C. Slater, who was an objectifying chauvinist pig.
Elizabeth Berkeley was not exactly a top choice for the part of Nomi Malone, yet she totally fit the part in real life. Both characters were supposed to be about fame-hungry women who were rather naive at first, but ended up being manipulated by people to do unspeakable acts, leading to their own corruption. She would attract the young crowd, who might be just getting old enough to legally get into the theater. But, she wouldn’t have much of a draw outside the still-too-young-to-get-in crowd.
Still, Showgirls was supposed to be a huge success for MGM. Ads and marketing promised salaciousness on levels which had not previously been seen. The tagline for the movie was “Leave your inhibitions at the door.”
Part 2: Failure
In the 3 years since Basic Instinct, the erotic thriller genre had bottomed out. After a series of terrible rip offs, including Madonna’s Body of Evidence and Bruce Willis’ Color of Night, people were done with erotic thrillers and eroticism in general. Not to mention, the box office had bottomed out as well. 1992’s Aladdin made $217m in its run, but 1995’s top movie, Toy Story, only made $191m. Die Hard with a Vengeance made only $100m, and still landed a spot at #10. But, really, the erotic thriller had also completely died. There was no sexiness to be found anywhere in the top 20.
If 1994’s Color of Night was the nail in the coffin, then Showgirls became the sacrificial lamb. Not that Showgirls was a thriller. It wasn’t even erotic. That didn’t stop the movie from being marketed in a similar fashion to Basic Instinct. When Showgirls came out, it was panned, and rightfully so. But, most of the attention was on how unsexy of a movie it was. For all of its nudity, Showgirls is not sexy. There are naked breasts galore, full frontal female nudity, graphic sex scenes, and it still wasn’t sexy. It wasn’t supposed to be sexy, except during one intimate dance sequence. Everything was exploitation, and meant to feel like exploitation.
Showgirls was meant to be a dramatic movie, along the lines of Leaving Las Vegas. Showgirls is meant to be a vicious indictment on the exploitation of women by the Las Vegas powers that be, and how demoralizing it is to succeed in the industry. There is but one likable character, and the movie literally rapes that character with an in-movie Las Vegas star. I mean, brutally rapes her. Given that this was sold as a sexy and erotic movie, having characters be non-erotically nude, exploited and raped ran counter to what people were expecting. Showgirls pulled a brutal bait-and-switch.
Even so, everybody stayed away in droves. An R-rated movie is one thing, but an NC-17…you may be going past what the public wants to deal with. Not helping matters, Showgirls recieved a critical assassination. In the end, the movie ended up flopping with only $20m at the box office, not even making its $45m budget back.
The thing is, Showgirls actually is a failure. It’s All About Eve turned up to 11, with an unironic eye towards its excess. Showgirls thinks it is saying something profound and undiscovered when it puts women through the meat grinder, despite being a retelling of a previous movie. Verhoeven and Eszterhas both think they were being smart and funny, when all the humor came from moments that weren’t funny. They thought they were being dramatic when there was no tension. Showgirls was an epic failure of a movie. But, the story doesn’t just stop there.
With all the success that Showgirls was supposed to have, it became fodder for all the usual people who rag on pop culture. Jay Leno and others used Showgirls as shorthand for failure. It earned 7 Razzies on 13 nominations (including 2 for Supporting Actress which were lost to Madonna in Four Rooms). It became a punchline so much that it is immortalized in Scream 2, when the movie geek calls it the scariest movie ever. It was the joke that would not go away.
Part 3: Camp Classic
In 1997, in San Francisco, Peaches Christ would start holding Midnight Mass. Peaches Christ is the drag persona of Joshua Grannell, the then-manager of the single screen Landmark theater, The Bridge. During the summer, he would host cult movies as Peaches Christ. The first year, he included Showgirls, which was a massive hit. In fact, Showgirls was such a massive hit, it became an annual staple in the Midnight Mass schedule, and Peaches Christ still shows it to this day. Peaches also includes a stage show with recreations of her favorite scenes. With the purchase of a large popcorn, you can get a free lap dance from an army of volunteers of the usual San Francisco type (let your freak flag fly!). It now includes costume contests, and Rena Riffel even appeared at one of the screenings in 2012 as a guest judge.
Meanwhile, up in Seattle, David Schmader started hosting his own annotated screenings. He hosted screenings where he would sit at a desk and talk about the movie and go over it in detail. Much of his commentary was harassing or commenting on the finer points of it. Since he used the DVD (unlike Peaches’ 35mm print), Schmader could pause, rewind, or fast forward at will. He always skipped the rape scene, because it doesn’t fit in with the reclamation of the movie as a camp classic. But, he could rewind scenes, like the infamous Nomi Malone sniffle, ad infinitum at the audiences request. Schmader toured with Showgirls in this method when MGM called him to do a commentary track for the movie on their upcoming VIP Edition. After that, Schmader still does occasional screenings around Seattle and wherever he may be.
I didn’t personally catch up with Showgirls until 2001. I was younger than either Grannell or Schmader, so I couldn’t see it until years after its release. I’d heard the jokes, I knew it had won Razzies, I knew its line from Scream 2, but I hadn’t actually seen the movie. In 2001, my summer job was at a Hollywood Video, which had the Widescreen VHS of Showgirls. I was obsessed with Paul Verhoeven at the time (still am), so I knew I had to rent it. I brought it to my parents’ home, where I popped it in late night one night. I didn’t want to watch this dirty movie with my parents (who would, with its reputation?). Within minutes, I started to laugh. This wasn’t just a bad movie, it was a hilariously bad movie. About an hour in, I had to stop it because I knew I would be waking my parents up from laughing, and it was a good thing I did because that was just before the lap dance washing machine scene happened.
The thing with Showgirls is that it is about people who shouldn’t exist in the manner they do. The main character is a yelling, screaming, insecure egomaniac who waffles between ecstatic or furious. She has no gear other than those two extremes. And, she can’t dance. If she can dance, it isn’t with any rhythm known to mankind. Yet, everybody is drawn to this…monstrosity of a talentless character. They want to friend her, teach her, fuck her, exploit her, or do anything and everything else to her short of killing her. The world of Showgirls is so extreme, it becomes ludicrous.
The screenplay that Joe Eszterhas wrote is filled with gratuitous dialogue like “Ver-sayce,” “You’re not only a pain in my head and a pain in my dick, you’re also a pain in my ass,” or “I can barely thread a needle.” Some of the better dialogue warps time and space where you don’t quite know what’s up and down, like when James berates Nomi for giving a lapdance, citing AIDS (this actually happens). Yet, it’s all treated with a seriousness and gravitas as if we’re meant to believe in the proceedings we’re watching.
Verhoeven really went all out when making Showgirls, because the movie is beautiful. I mean, it is gorgeous and garish and gorgeously garish. The cinematographer of Showgirls deserves a fucking medal. There are so many shots in Showgirls of lights, and mirrors, and people in mirrors and long shots and saturated colors. The movie is top notch, and Verhoeven genuinely thought he was saying something profound. But, he was still working off Eszterhas’ trashy and terrible script. Verhoeven’s sincerity makes the movie even more of a howler.
By the time I finished Showgirls, I knew I had a gem on my hands. I started holding Showgirls parties with extremely simple drinking games.
Drinking Game #1
- One shot of beer or other low-alcohol beverage for every time there is a pair of naked breasts on the screen, per character per scene.
- Shotgun the bottle, or do a Jello shot, if Nomi attacks an inanimate object (radio, car, fries, etc).
Drinking Game #2
- One shot of beer for every time Nomi has a mood swing
- One shot of beer for every time anybody mentions food, breasts, hair, or nails
That’s all there is to getting ferschnickered while watching Showgirls. Remember, the key here is simplicity. The parties were generally epic gatherings of my usual freak and geek friends. Any party where a hetero fraternity guy macks on a trans female is a success in my book.
But, my story doesn’t end there. I have also fought drag queens for a copy of the VIP edition of Showgirls, had parties that covered David Schmader’s commentary, traveled to San Francisco twice for Peaches Christ’s screenings, and seen Schmader a number of times. I own the coffee table book for Showgirls (yes, this does exist). Showgirls is an epic piece of work that has so many intersecting layers of success and failure, reclaiming it as a campy failure also means loving it on some level.
Part 4: Intentionally Ironic Masterpiece
The problem with the youth is that everything must be intentional. The Room is an epic failure of a drama, which has later been deemed a black comedy. Some people go around saying they believe that Tommy Wiseau was actually making a post-modern failure comedy whose only intent was to be hated on.
Camp is generally a reclamation of movies deemed to be over-the-top in the most endearing way possible. Camp is used as a cultural examination and retroactive criticism of the mainstream. The first wave of camp reclamation of Showgirls was all about its status as a mainstream failure, as well as its own failed criticism of culture. The grotesque excess of Showgirls is part and parcel with loving the movie, but the movie was never intended to be a piece of camp. Paul Verhoeven believed he was making an piece of art, weaving Christian imagery into the dance sequences of Goddess.
So, I cannot hop on the train that Verhoeven intended Showgirls to be an over-the-top piece of excessive comedy. Yet, this interpretation, which seems to be gaining with every year, will carry on. Most recently, it was the subject of a book, It Doesn’t Suck, a serious look at the levels of camp through which Showgirls can be viewed, and how it is actually successful through its intentions.
Showgirls is the movie that never stops giving. Even though it was a flop at the box office, who still talks about Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, or even Dangerous Minds. Yet, the life of Showgirls has been long and arduous, and it shows no signs of stopping. I just wonder what the next phase will be.