Tom Jolliffe takes a look back at Showgirls, once universally derided and considered one of the worst films ever… but is it actually misunderstood?
Upon its release in 1995, Paul Verhoeven’s trashy spectacular, Showgirls was obliterated by critics. It was a lavish, Vegas set tale with plenty of excess dismissed as vacuous, grimy and seedy. In truth, whilst Basic Instinct had a reasonable response critically a few years previously, it still had its share of detractors and indeed to many critics in 95, there was a feeling that Verhoeven’s quest to one up himself came at the expense of a coherent and decent movie.
The vitriolic response to Paul Verhoeven was a new high for a director whose penchant for violence and gratuitous nudity had often run him afoul of critics anyway (at least since he sold his soul to Hollywood). Then there was Elizabeth Berkley. Much was made of this young star transitioning from kids TV (having been most synonymous for her part in Saved By The Bell) to starring as an aspiring dancer who becomes a showgirl. When the dust had cleared on the film, which tanked at the box office (but given its reputation for lewdness was a success on VHS), it was often labelled ‘the worst film ever made.’ It wasn’t alone in its scorn, with many a film following the path laid out by Basic Instinct in the erotic drama resurgence. Demi Moore was savaged for Striptease, Madonna (as per) was obliterated critically for Body of Evidence.
Something odd has happened in the last decade or so though. People are now tuning into a new frequency from Showgirls, one that had previously not been discovered. Suddenly, people were seeing merits to the film. Now some view it in a so bad it’s good kind of way, but others have seen something even beyond that… they’ve discovered a caveat that actually makes Showgirls pretty good. After years watching ‘bits’ of the film as a teenager and wearing a VHS tape to within an inch of its life, I didn’t revisit it until recently. It was there on Prime. I started thinking not of boobies, because I’m not 15 any more, but instead wondering… ‘Does Showgirls have legitimate merits?’
And, actually… it sort of does. The key thing is to tune into this correctly. It’s not a searing drama and it’s certainly not erotic. In fact Showgirls might actually be the least sexy film ever made. 12 Angry Men is probably sexier. The Human Centipede is …(yeah, I could just keep cherry picking random titles). What it is, is a pulpy fantasy film. You know what else? Elizabeth Berkley got unfairly shredded by the critics. Here’s the thing. Sometimes films are bad and critics start throwing daggers and the daggers are thrown contemptuously at every aspect. You could have the cackest film ever made but what if John Williams scored it? It’s probably gonna have a great score. Well, those daggers will still be fired indiscriminately at Williams in some cases and when it came to critical derision, few films of the era got battered quite like Showgirls.
So yeah, this former kids TV star thrown into a big budget spectacle (that had some share of anticipation that year) was pelted with rotten tomatoes. Maybe the film was mis-sold (marketing pushed the T&A angle), and again, maybe people just didn’t know how to take it. There’s elements of Quentin Tarantino-esque whimsy and excess and hyper-reality in this that had QT made the exact same film this century, might have had people falling over themselves to praise it (though he’d have certainly tightened up several aspects which are legitimately poor).
Again, I don’t think people appreciated that what Berkley’s character does is part of the character and not simply an actress miscalculating her performance. Nomi Malone is an impulsive and somewhat volatile and highly strung dreamer. She’s prone to explosions of unrestrained tantrum. People dismissed it as Berkley over-acting, but this is her character. It’s the kind of thing Nicolas Cage has become iconic for (though in fairness in some cases even for Nic, that acclaim came in retrospect). Berkley is pretty complex here as a performer and doesn’t hold much back. It’s a shame it hasn’t ‘clicked’ with people until more recently, because of course it killed her career. I think she’s excellent. Then there’s Gina Gershon who is great. She’s all pouts and mind fuckery with almost sadistic relish, but she’s as great as we know Gershon can be.
Showgirls also has a pretty stellar soundtrack, with a couple of good Prince numbers in particular. The style of the film with the glitzy, lascivious dance numbers give the film a sweaty, grungy and frantic musical feel. It’s also a film that skews misogyny and scrapes away the neons and the glamour of Vegas to show it for how vacuous it can be. Verhoeven is a clever film-maker, and yes sometimes there’s a certain unsavoury fascination with gratuity but he still has a comment there to make, which I don’t think people got first time around. Some of the things which happen are ridiculous but Vegas is inherently ridiculous. This could almost be something Hunter S. Thompson would have come out with. I don’t think the more surreal moments or drops in logic are just out of being dumb. It’s like a bonkers year in Vegas fairy-tale book ended by Nomi hitching a ride in and out. The film also looks fantastic it must be said.
Look the film does certainly have issues, not least that every male cast member, bar Robert Davi and Alan Rachins are pretty terrible, but in part I guess looking particularly at Kyle MacLachlan and Glenn Plummer, they’re kind of playing vapid characters. Similarly there’s an inconsistent tone in places. I would guess given some of the history of the film, we’re probably seeing a cut Verhoeven didn’t like. The satirical edge in the film, now in an era where these kind of films are more appreciated, does come through, but perhaps not as much as Verhoeven would have initially liked. If you look for example at the satire which followed in Starship Troopers from Verhoeven it was hammered in harder, but in a genre it perhaps felt more easy to acknowledge in (as it did with RoboCop).
So whilst it may not be particularly great, it should be said that Showgirls is far from the horror show it was once considered to be and even… dare I say it… kind of good.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch) and Tooth Fairy: The Root of Evil. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/