You can’t blame a cinephile for being bored out of his mind from hearing time and time again how Blade Runner, or The Shining, or whatever other movie that is now considered a masterpiece was dismissed by critics upon its initial release. Whether or not you like those movies, it’s easy to see how the history of their release is hardly the most interesting thing about them. Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls, however, has the distinction of having such a complicated reception history that it makes studying the relationship between the film and its audiences through the years one of the most fascinating subjects of study for anyone who is interested in the cinema of the nineties.
For those who don’t know the story, the release of Showgirls was preceded by a couple of media milestones. The movie would not only be the reunion of director Paul Verhoeven and highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood history up to that point Paul Eszterhas -a team that had scored a huge hit in the erotic thriller Basic Instinct a couple years earlier-, but it was notoriously publicized as the first NC-17 release by a major Hollywood studio. Showgirls has the distinction of being the highest grossing NC-17 release of all time, but it was still a huge bomb, making less than half of its production budget, and being panned by critics for being one of the worst movies ever made.
It’s the merciless critical reception unleashed upon Showgirls that interests me the most, and it has to begin with how the movie’s twist on an overtly familiar plot makes it sound like a re-imagining of All About Eve as filtered through a crude cover version of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing“. It goes like this: A young woman from middle America moves to Las Vegas to make it big as a dancer. Nomi Malone (played by Elizabeth Berkley) starts out stripping at the low-end Cheetah club, but it isn’t long until Nomi starts climbing upward, and is pitted against famous showgirl Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon) as she faces the realities of the seedy and competitive world of Las Vegas.
There is no denying that the plot of the film is very dumb and extremely pulpy, and that it looks and sounds so much like a bad movie, that it’s not surprising most people thought it was terrible. As I said before, critics hated, and audiences didn’t care much for it either. It had the distinction of sweeping the Razzie Awards, which might have been a contributing factor in the movie’s subsequent re-emergence as a cult classic. During this part of Showgirls‘s existence, it was viewed as an unintentional camp classic. I know it’s hard to define what camp means, and whether or not camp can be unintentional is a whole other question, but the pleasures of Showgirls as a piece of “so bad it’s good” cinema are apparent, especially when it comes to Elizabeth Berkley.
I don’t know if I’d call Berkley’s performance good, but it’s definitely one of the most memorable pieces of acting I have ever witnessed, and the perfect performance for this movie. Here, Berkley is an unbound performer, never settling for a simple line reading when there is the opportunity to scream, or pout, or send a bowl of french fires flying through the air. She is a magnificently grotesque dancer, and delivers some of the most puzzling line readings I have ever heard. It has been widely assumed that, because this was supposed to be Berkley’s big break as a movie star, and because the movie was a huge failure, that Berkley’s performance was a result of accident and oversight. That she thought she was giving the performance of a lifetime, but was actually making a fool of herself. I think this is a false reading by people who find romance in making fun of bad movies, and that the real circumstances are much more complicated.
It’s practically impossible to prove the intention behind a piece of art, but I will try to do it nonetheless, because in order to classify Showgirls as a “so bad it’s good” movie; and Berkley’s performance as a result of aloof acting, one would have to ignore one of the most defining facts about Showgirls: it is a Paul Verhoeven movie. From Robocop to Starship Troopers, Verhoeven is an incredibly satirical director whose movies have a recurring tendency to use dark humor to criticize the capitalist way of life and the elusive American dream. Why, then, should be believe Showgirls to be different? Why do we think the more laughable moments in this ridiculous movie were accidental instead of intended by a knowingly sarcastic director?
To get it out of the way, no, I don’t think Showgirls was an accident. One should only look at the movie’s cinematography to realize the rise and fall of this “innocent” girl is intended as a critique on Hollywood and its perpetuation of empty success narratives. It is often a sign in the back of a shot or details of decadence that let us know what Verhoeven thinks about this screenplay. That Verhoeven is purposely indulging in trashy behavior and unfiltered excess is obvious, the real question is whether or not he is the only one in on the joke.
Retroactively, we know there is precedent for Verhoeven entertaining this kind of experiment. We know, for example, that he filmed Starship Troopers without letting his actors know the movie was intended as satire in order to get the performances he wanted. Then again, the satire in Starship Troopers is so blunt you would have to be an idiot (or a small child) to not realize the movie’s true intents. When it comes to Showgirls, however, the critical reception is enough to know the satire was much more carefully couched. The amount of misogyny in other Eszterhas screenplays, for example, makes me think Verhoeven might have decided to re-interpret the movie without the writer’s consent, while Gina Gershon’s knowingly perverse performance makes me think she knew exactly what the director was setting out to achieve.
To circle back to Berkley, she is the most fascinating, tragic, and mysterious factor in this equation. I would never call her performance bad, because her gigantic lack of measure is exactly what makes the movie work as effectively as it does. I would also not call her a bad actress. If anything, she is something closer to a victim. I mean, there is simply no way Verhoeven cast Saved by the Bell’s Jessie Spano as the lead of an erotic melodrama just because. I’m inclined to believe he saw in this young woman the very thirst for stardom he was trying to criticize in his movie, and proceeded to take full advantage of it.
Whether or not that’s an ethical thing to do, and exactly how bad we should feel for Berkley are complicated questions to answer, what’s simple is to recognize that Showgirls is not an accidentally good movie. That the earnest shell that fooled the world into thinking is bad is actually just the vessel for a nasty critique of individual exceptionalism. That the movie exploits of relationship to camp and unintentional badness to its own benefit. That it is, in fact, a triumph.