So, Showgirls. That just happened.
In 1995, director Paul Verhoeven was fresh off of his biggest American hit, the erotic thriller Basic Instinct. When the writer of Basic Instinct, Joe Eszterhas, sold his next script for a $2 million advance and another $1.7 million on production, Verhoeven was the natural choice to direct. Given that Basic Instinct made about $350 million worldwide by turning Sharon Stone’s vagina into a punchline, it was a natural choice to make the next movie even more erotic. Maybe alarm bells started to go off when every actress in Hollywood turned down the lead in Showgirls – Drew Barrymore, Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron, and even Pamela Anderson are said to have refused – but Elizabeth Berkeley was a fairly natural choice: teen-sitcom stars try to leave their previous roles behind with sexy, nudity-filled performances all the time, so why should it be any different for the Saved By The Bell ingenue?
Then filming started, and everything turned unnatural in a hurry.
Berkeley was the first and foremost problem. As Nomi Malone, the New York girl headed out west to find her fortune in Las Vegas, she’s simply in over her head. When the first man she meets on her way to Vegas rips her off, her response (which was probably in the script as “rage”) is a wild tantrum, the sort of thing that comes out of a teenager who feels she has been unfairly grounded. Watching her attack a plate of onion rings shortly thereafter is the first sign that this film is not just bad, but hilariously bad, worthy of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment.
I will say this about Berkeley: she had the dancing parts of this role down to a T. The only real characterization that Nomi has is that she can’t really dance but can fake it with her sexiness, and that is a tough thing to ask an actress to play. During Nomi’s big debut in the Vegas hotel show, Berkeley does a pretty good job of giving us “I’m totally on the verge of a disaster here, but I’m making it!” Her best scene is also the only good scene in the movie, the lap-dance that she gives to Kyle MacLachlan while Gina Gershon looks on; there’s a strange, complicated sexual power struggle going on in that scene, and she sells it well. Berkeley also does not seem frightened by the extreme amount of nudity asked of her, which was probably the reason that a legion of actresses turned down the role.
As the well-established dancer Cristal, Gershon is the only actor in the film who landed on her feet, more or less: her performance here allowed her to land a meaty role in Face/Off. Her performance is probably the best one in the film, because her character is the most believable one present. I won’t say she’s the most “real,” because no one in this movie is remotely real; they all seem to be floating through a cloud of unreality. MacLachlan varies so wildly from sensitive to scumbag that, if his character had a moustache, we would expect him to start twirling it. Worst of all is Glenn Plummer (whom you may recognize as the guy who gets his car stolen by Keanu Reeves in Speed), as a ridiculous character who can’t seem to decide if he’s a love interest or a stalker.
It was said in the room before the movie, and it’s probably been said many times about this film: there’s so much nudity in Showgirls that it ruins the prospect of seeing attractive actresses naked. Part of it is that the naked actresses in question are wearing bizarre showgirl costumes and stage makeup that looks fine from the back row but hideous up close. The other part of it is the only real satire in the movie that lands: every time you are watching a naked woman in this movie, she is also being watched, by characters who are various shades of scum. It feels like Verhoeven wants the audience to be uncomfortable with watching the nudity in this picture, and if he did intend that, he succeeded completely.
However that aspect of watching and being watched had been done already, and much better, in Silence of the Lambs. That’s the fundamental problem with Eszterhas’ script: it cobbles together themes from much better films. Nomi is headed along the path from A Star Is Born at first, but then the storyline with Gershon mutates into All About Eve, and there’s a healthy dollop of Flashdance (which Eszterhas also wrote) smeared over it all. This is the movie which exposed his weaknesses as a writer; after a subsequent double whammy of bombs with Jade and Burn Hollywood Burn, he’s barely been heard from since.
All of those concepts are then stitched together, Frankenstein-like, with some of the worst dialogue you’re likely to hear in a movie. Plummer’s collection of lines alone could fill a book of what not to say to a woman: his idea of apologizing after taking advantage of Nomi is to explain, “Look, I have a problem with pussy.” But my favorite, the most absurd example of a screenwriter falling too far in love with his own dialogue, is this admonishment delivered by MacLachlan’s Zach to his slimy underling Phil:
Phil: Zach, she’s jumping to conclusions, man!
Zach: Well, if I ever hear about this again, you’re gonna jump to your conclusion!
Because he directed the fantastic satires Robocop and Starship Troopers, Paul Verhoeven gets far too much credit for this movie being a satire, when in fact its wit is clumsy at best. The germs of good ideas exist; for example, it could be said of Plummer’s character that the hypersexuality of Vegas has so screwed up his view of women that his clumsy come-ons are the best he can do for romance. But whatever clever commentary might have been intended with this movie, it’s completely lost in the unintentional laughter inspired at every turn.
Verhoeven’s greatest failure is the sex scene in the pool between Berkeley and MacLachlan, in which Berkeley appears to be having a seizure, learning the backstroke, or imitating a captured trout – anything but achieving orgasm. That scene sums the film up in a nutshell: based upon the prior successes of all involved, somebody thought it had to be the right choice, but they could not have been more wrong.
Reviewed by Mark Young