“No, no — a little less. I want my nipples to press, but I don’t want them to look like they’re levitatin’!”
Does a movie still pass the Bechdel test if the women who are talking about something other than a man are topless the entire time?
Since 1995, Showgirls has been the Ultimate Bad Movie, ripe for making fun of. On the surface, its badness is obvious: the gaudy sets, the tacky costumes, the trashy dialogue, and Elizabeth Berkley giving every line reading 130%, amongst other factors. It’s not a movie that requires much thought to enjoy.
But if you do give it some thought, you’re in for a whole extra layer of fascination, because the more you chip away at Showgirls‘ badness, the harder it resists classification. (Like Nomni, Showgirls keeps insisting it is not a whore, until we start to believe it.) Most bad movies wear their failure on their sleeves, but there are very few sleeves in Showgirls, because sleeves cover flesh, and “less is more” was never uttered on the set of this movie. Showgirls is actually a startlingly well-made film, with compelling cinematography, beautiful (if bawdy) production design, and a fully committed cast. Everyone showed up for Showgirls with their A game, and we don’t get the sense that anyone actually missed what they were going for. Nomi’s wardrobe is too flashy-trashy to be a mistake. The dialogue is perfectly crafted, for what the film is trying to say in any given moment. As confounding as Elizabeth Berkley’s performance is, it feels like the woman she creates for us is intentional. The world that Showgirls shows us feels completely real and utterly convincing — it just isn’t Earth.
September 22, 1995
Budget: $45 million
Opening Weekend: $8.1 million
Domestic Gross: $20.4 million
The creative forces who made Showgirls the trash masterpiece it is — Paul Verhoeven, Joe Esterhasz, and Elizabeth Berkley — fought hard to realize a vision. I believe they were successful. The trouble is, all three were successful at delivering different movies. They were all bad movies — or silly, campy ones, at least — but the individual badnesses compound each other. It’s like a drag queen making herself up in a room of funhouse mirrors. It was never meant to be taken seriously in the first place, but there’s a right way to do cheese and sleaze, and there’s a way that’s nine times as cheesy and sleazy, with all that knowing-but-not-quite-knowing wretchedness reflecting back on itself.
Joe Esterhaz penned a story about a little girl lost in the Big Bad World of Sin City. Her name was Nomi Malone. She was unapologetic, openly sexual, and very flawed. She was also a teenager fleeing a dangerous family situation, with nothing but her body to sell. She tries to do so by dancing, though it turns out that’s just another way to trade sex for survival. I read the Showgirls screenplay, and it’s not exactly good, but it makes enough sense. I’d have a lot of notes, but on paper, it isn’t the worst film of all time.
That’s where Paul Verhoeven comes in.
Verhoeven was coming off of three back-to-back iconic hits: RoboCop, Total Recall, and Basic Instinct. None of these films were high art, and none were trying to be. But each had a certain cheekiness, playing coy as to just how much of the ridiculous, cornball excess on display was intentional. These movies had a Showgirls-like glimmer on their outer edges, but overall they resembled movies we’re used to, with characters whose actions follow a straightforward trajectory and make sense in sequence. Verhoeven is perhaps satirizing Las Vegas in Showgirls, not realizing Las Vegas is already satirizing itself. It’s not clear if Verhoeven just doesn’t understand America’s trashy little underbelly, or if he merely decided, “Eh, what the hell?” I have no idea what he was thinking, directing Berkley as he does, but her performance has to be his fault. It just has to. He encouraged her to really go for it, and then do that times ten… and she did. Berkley doesn’t seem interested in playing Esterhaz’s flawed, wayward girl or Verhoeven’s femme fatale. She gives Nomi some Saved By The Bell pluck, playing her as likable and upbeat even when she’s behaving like a monster.
I cannot, of course, list the numerous absurdities of Showgirls here. I would never finish. The movie is clearly bad, but in a spectacular and mesmerizing fashion. This isn’t The Room, a product of an amateur’s ego, but a bunch of competent people who know what they’re doing fucking up in all the right ways. It’s a rape-revenge female vigilante movie, an All About Eve-style backstage catfight drama, a “little girl lost” narrative, and a lesbian porno, all fighting against each other for dominance on screen. It’s misogynistic and feminist. It’s an expensive cheap movie. It’s a sex-positive slut shame. It’s a great bad movie.