It’s impossible to imagine at this point in its extensive exhibition journey, but, in 1995, “Showgirls” was a very big deal and an extremely serious motion picture. Coming off the astonishing success of their smoldering thriller “Basic Instinct,” director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas paired up again to investigate that abyssal trench of sin: Las Vegas. Presented with a hefty budget, an eye-catching cast, and a no-questions-asked use of the NC-17 rating by a major studio, “Showgirls” was ready to break new ground in adult-minded cinema, making smut a major moviegoing event.But we all know how that turned out.
"The legend of the pasties lives on"
A stranger in a strange land, Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) has come to Las Vegas to achieve worldwide fame as a dancer. After a series of humiliations and obstructions, Nomi finds herself stuck at seedy strip club, forced to tease the tourists for nickels. Enter Crystal Connors (Gina Gershon), the star of “Goddess” (the biggest revue in town), who catches a glimpse of the spastic pole dancer in action, requesting entertainment director Zach (Kyle MacLachlan) bring her onboard the big show. Rising in the ranks through raw talent and some rather devious means, Nomi is soon the toast of the town, alienating those who supported her at the very beginning, while engaging in a heated bout of competition with Crystal, who recognizes Nomi’s killer instinct while everyone else is distracted by her animalistic sex appeal.
It’s been said that “Showgirls” was intended to be Verhoeven’s glamorous tribute to the MGM musicals of his youth -- films that cheerily employed blinding color, stratospheric performances, and unmistakable emotion. To suggest that Verhoeven achieved exactly what he set out to do is a troubling realization, with the film certainly passionate and slickly made, but also thunderously misogynistic, sexually repellent, and overpoweringly diseased. In 1995, the film was nothing less than a trainwreck, baffling the raincoat crowd and sickening adventuresome couples. The picture was branded a sick joke and died a well-deserved death at the box office, taking any hope for a mass acceptance of the NC-17 rating down with it.
And then about a decade ago, “Showgirls” took on a new life, reassessed as a camp classic, with every idiotic idea dreamed up by Eszterhas and sold by Verhoeven reinterpreted as comedy gold, making the film less about oppressive filmmaking absurdity and more about a rollicking drag show with freakin’ Jessie Spano as the master of clothing-optional ceremonies. Suddenly, “Showgirls” popped its collar; it was a cool film to laugh at, not with, with its every last instinct to creep out the room rebranded as genius goofballery sent with love from the bad movie gods.
I stand somewhere in the middle of the “Showgirls” spectrum of reaction. Part of me clearly values the unleashed silliness of the picture; how the neon-drenched, studded-nipple theatrics have been embraced by cult admirers, who’ve done one hell of a job pushing past the inherent vileness of the screenplay to cough up something of comedic merit, digging through the glossy innards of the film to locate anything worth the derision. The other part of me remembers exactly what it was like to experience the picture theatrically during its initial run in 1995, which required a shower and a ceremonial ticket stub burning immediately afterwards. I’m of two minds with “Showgirls,” but I supposed that’s the idea 15 years later. It’s such a barnstorming picture of colossal lunacy, it’s just a lot easier and mentally cleansing to assume that Verhoeven and the gang were aiming for laughs, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Take away the coke-dusted dialogue, the “All About Eve” overtones, and the parade of flesh, and there’s one spectacularly photographed film to enjoy. Cinematographer Jost Vacano pushes the Technicolor candyland of Las Vegas, filling the frame with golden bodies and gorgeous lighting, fluidly moving around the sets and locations to covey the mania of Nomi’s rise to fame. It’s easy to become caught up in the frenzy of the drama, but “Showgirls” is a vivid picture with plenty of optical splendor to pore over, isolating that pulsation of sex appeal that makes Las Vegas such an enduring nest of pleasure. “Showgirls” proves it’s possible to enjoy an entire feature film with the mute button on.
As for the cast, nobody gets out alive. Sure, Berkley took the brunt of the critical battery, and she deserves plenty of lashes for her unreasonably psychotic performance as Nomi (the sex scenes here are legendary), becoming Verhoeven instead of simply taking direction from the lunatic. She’s appalling, but endearingly so, summing up the volatile temperament of the film with her swinging arms, hostile make-up, and bare assets. However, Berkley is secreting the same insanity as McLachlan, Robert Davi (as the control freak manager of Nomi’s strip club), Alan Rachins (playing the demanding producer of “Goddess”), Glenn Plummer (as Nomi’s challenging, exhaustively icky lover), and Gershon, who vamps it up as Crystal, creating genuinely itchy chemistry with Berkley that the film could’ve used more of. The acting’s agreeably confident, but it’s often headed in the wrong direction, rubbing up against the grandeur of the production, inflating the melodrama that feeds the film’s camp appeal. With the ensemble spending the most of the picture eating each other alive, it’s easy to see just how carried away Verhoeven became with this film.Despite numerous unwelcome topless shots from Lin Tucci (here as zaftig insult comic Henrietta Bazoom), various graphic references to menstruation, and a grand finale that spotlights a brutal gang rape (allowing the film to cross a vicious line that nauseates immensely), “Showgirls” can, ever so slightly, provide a merry time of mockery, creating a swell of stupidity that’s fun to surf. Perhaps it’s best to view the film ironically, otherwise the glittery grotesqueries start to feel like a rash that will itch forever in uncomfortable places.
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originally posted: 06/26/10 00:18:32