Saturday Editor’s Pick: Showgirls (1995)

by on August 20, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Elizabeth Berkley Paul Verhoeven Stripper Vegas
Playing Fri Aug 26 & Sat Aug 27 at Midnight at IFC Center [Program & Tix]


Alt Screen Contributing Editor Nathan Lee for Film Comment (March/April 2007):

Have you caught up to Jacques Rivette yet, and acknowledged the legitimacy of Showgirls? Try this: suppress your sneer, click the slow-motion button, and witness fearless Elizabeth Berkley emerge from her plastic volcano backlit in sparks, clutching her tits and raging at the machine. Tell me that’s not magnificent in ways that have (almost) nothing to do with camp.
Okay, fine, so I’m a fag, but here’s Jonathan Rosenbaum: “Arguably it was the awkward yet provocative attempts of Showgirls to say something about America-Hollywood in particular-that spelled its commercial doom: it’s a film that fundamentally said, ‘We’re all whores, aren’t we?’ and the American public answered, in effect, ‘Speak for yourself.'”
Verhoeven is our Frank Tashlin, fronting a mirror on the fin de siècle plastic fantastic by means of hyperreal mise en scène coupled to a luxuriously tawdry imagination.

Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) stars in topless Vegas review “Goddess.” Theme by David Stewart:

Jacques Rivette in an interview with Frédéric Bonnaud, for Senses of Cinema:

Showgirls (1995) [is] one of the great American films of the last few years. It’s Verhoeven’s best American film and his most personal. In Starship Troopers, he uses various effects to help everything go down smoothly, but he’s totally exposed in Showgirls. It’s the American film that’s closest to his Dutch work. It has great sincerity, and the script is very honest, guileless. It’s so obvious that it was written by Verhoeven himself rather than Mr. Eszterhas, who is nothing. And that actress is amazing! Like every Verhoeven film, it’s very unpleasant: it’s about surviving in a world populated by assholes, and that’s his philosophy. Of all the recent American films that were set in Las Vegas, Showgirls was the only one that was real – take my word for it. I who have never set foot in the place!


John Waters has an alternate take:

Showgirls is funny, stupid, dirty, and Žfilled with cinematic clichés; in other words, perfect. Even better, the writer and director, no matter what they say today, don’t appear to be in on the joke. I saw the film opening night in Baltimore with an audience that took it seriously. “That’s what Vegas is really like,” I heard a woman whisper to her husband without a trace of irony as she exited the theater. Showgirls will hold up; it will be great trash forever.


On the occasion of IFC Center’s 2010 midnight retrospective of Verhoeven’s Hollywood films, Alt Screen Editor Paul Brunick wrote a praise-heavy profile of the director for The L Magazine.


At Salon, Charles Taylor offers some historical context for the initial critical backlash:

To fully understand the critical ridicule flung at “Showgirls” when it opened, you have to understand the expectations attached to it. The director Paul Verhoeven and the screenwriter Joe Eszterhas set out to make the first movie released by a major studio (United Artists) that deliberately sought an NC-17 rating. Because that meant the film’s marketing would be relatively limited, it was made on a modest budget ($40 million). U.A. was hoping that it would tap into a market that would show how movies could be profitable without a huge teen audience. Critics, too, were hoping for the same sort of commercial success, so that the 5-year-old NC-17 rating would attain the same acceptance that the old X rating had when studios released “Midnight Cowboy,” “A Clockwork Orange” and “Last Tango in Paris” with that classification. They had pinned all their hopes for commercial adult movies on “Showgirls” — and they reacted with fury when it seemed to aspire more toward exploitation than artful seriousness.


Luca Guadagnino, director of I Am Love (which happens to be playing at BAMcinematek this same weekend), pens an Italian-language ode to Showgirls in Nero magazine.
Mosaic portraitist Jason Mecier renders Nomi in Red Vines licorice:
Nomi Red Vines Mecier Showgirls Elizabeth Berkley
Eric Henderson for Slant:

Gleefully inspiring audiences everywhere to challenge conventional definitions of “good” and “bad” cinema, Showgirls is undoubtedly the think-piece object d’art of its time. It is Paul Verhoeven and Joe Eszterhas’s audaciously experimental satire-but-not-satire, an epically mounted “white melodrama” (to borrow Tag Gallagher’s description of Sirk’s early, less mannered, and more overtly humanistic comedies of error) and also one of the most astringent, least compromised critiques of the Dream Factory ever unleashed on a frustrated, perpetually (and ideologically) pre-cum audience. Many things to many people, and absolutely nothing to a great deal more, Showgirls‘ proponents and detractors still square off, digging nine-foot trenches in the sand (some planting their heads therein instead of their feet) and lobbing accusations of elitism and anti-pleasure. It is perhaps one of the only films to bridge that critical gap between Film Quarterly (which hosted a beyond extensive critical roundtable on the film last year) and Joe Bob Briggs. It is a film that will continue to bend brains and drain dicks long after the golf-clap (and Clap-free) cinematic “excellence” of your Jane Austen bastardization of choice is long dismissed. It is the very definition of the term “essential.”


Ultimately, Showgirls is one of the most honest satires of recent years because, as Noël Burch wrote in the aforementioned FQ roundtable, it “takes mass culture seriously, as a site of both fascination and struggle. And it takes despised melodrama seriously too, as indeed an excellent vehicle for social criticism.” Unfortunately, the critical and public brickbats thrown at Showgirls (to say nothing of the hosannas foisted upon those concurrent Austen travesties) demonstrates that most prefer satire when it’s dealing with the distant past to the extent that one can feel morally superior to the subject of ridicule without recognizing oneself in the mix. I can’t decide whether it’s a sad comment on the vapidity of pop culture or merely a reflection of business-as-usual that VH1’s “I Love the 90s” series studiously ignored including the film in its year-by-year roundup (it certainly inspired as big a shitstorm as the Snapple Lady, for God’s sake). But it’s an understandable omission, since Showgirls is truly one of the only 90s films that treats pop culture as a vibrant field of social economics and cerebral pursuit, and not merely tomorrow’s nostalgia-masturbation fodder.



Elizabeth Berkley’s 2008 debut as the host of Bravo’s dance-off reality contest “Step It Up & Dance” contained this sentimental highlight, described by New York Times television critic Margy Rochlin:

Early in the premiere episode, when the statuesque Ms. Berkley was introduced to the contestants, a bit of chaos ensued. One female dancer expressed her love by emitting an ear-splitting “Showgirls!” Then Michael Silas, a 25-year-old hip-hop dancer from Houston, performed a signature hand move of Ms. Berkley’s Vegas dancer character from the film — a sort of fast-paced cross-wiping motion in front of the face. As if they were conversing in a secret sign language, Ms. Berkley responded by executing the same frenetic dance move and shouted, “There you go, baby!”
Mr. Silas’s “Showgirls” reference could have been received as a stinging reminder of a career low point. But Ms. Berkley said she understood it to be a shout-out to the hard work behind shooting flashy routines. “A dancer seeing it knows that it took 18-hour days to do those big production” numbers, she said. “They’ve got to respect that because they know what I went through.”

Seriously, we can’t stop doing that dance.

Ben Horner provides a guide to midnight viewings of Showgirls at his blog. Follow the link to for advice on food and nails:

Honestly, it’s perfect in every way, and the only problem I’ve ever had in regarding Showgirls as the crown jewel of camp cinematic masterpieces is that it’s never achieved a Rocky-Horror-Picture-Show level of midnight movie cult status. Rocky Horror Picture Show, with its sing-a-longs and toilet-paper-throwing and audience shout-outs, embraces full-on audience participation; on the other hand, despite being 131 minutes of bare breasts and bitchery, the Showgirls audience has always struck me as relatively demure. Yes, seeing Showgirls on the big screen is comparable to a religious experience, so a certain amount of reverential silence is to be expected.


The Onion AV Club interviews David Schmader, the man behind a notoriously snarky commentary track on the VIP Limited Edition boxset (which came with Showgirls playing cards, shot glasses and “Pin the Pasties on the Showgirl” party game):

What do you look for in a bad movie? Is there a rubric you follow?


The platonic ideal is always going to be Showgirls. I did a series of screenings up here a year ago that made think, “What does Showgirls have? It’s firing on all cylinders, but what are those cylinders?” Constant surprise—so many bad movies, you recognize how they’re going to be bad and they play themselves out. It’s why bad J. Lo movies aren’t fun, because it’s like “She’s a maid—and now she’s in love,” but there’s no surprise to it. There’s usually not an element of surprise and horror to the badness.


Bad acting, bad directing—hubris is the main thing, also. With Showgirls, these were people at the top of their professional game, at least. That was the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood [Eszterhas]—he and Verhoeven were drunk with power after Basic Instinct. They had that weird Hollywood phase of glory where they were just pooping gold. And Showgirls was a part of it—there was so much hubris there that it wasn’t like picking on midgets. There’s no surprise when a B-movie or a Lifetime movie is bad—because the stakes aren’t so high.


And then the last thing is that magical je ne sais quoi. With Showgirls, it’s nauseating tonal shifts—they keep going between heartwarming and the foulest pornography ever.

This surprisingly seamless mash-up of Showgirls and The Black Swan recently went viral:


Also for Film Comment, but far less charitably, Nicholas Nicastro (Jan/Feb 1996):

Showgirls‘ Elizabeth Berkley (22) might well serve as the pin-up girl of “Do Me” feminism…. Incredibly, there’s been a concerted effort on the part of director Paul Verhoeven, screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, and Berkley to sell Showgirls as a tale of, alternately, female empowerment or sexual emancipation. The starlet recently told Detour magazine’s Dennis Hensley: “One of the things I like is that the women in the film are definitely in their power. They’re in control of their destiny and making their own choices. Nomi’s character…is tested with the question How far would you go to get what you want? What part of your soul would you sacrifice to get what you want?” In Naomi’s case, as with Berkley, the answer to “How far?” is very far indeed.


Showgirls is the fireball at the bottom of Paul Verhoeven’s tailspin. Since his arrival in Hollywood he’s cast himself as the Good Shepherd of sexual liberation, selflessly striving in film after film to separate Euroamericans from their Puritan scruples. He tells Hensley, “The way sex scenes are portrayed in Hollywood movies has not much to do with reality, and I feel that it’s exactly what I want to express.” Surely, every man with a mansion and a three-acre pool bedecked with gushing bronze dolphins would agree–spending a quiet evening at home pouring Dom Perignon over his Vegas showgirl employee/lover while she thrashes before him with blonde hair whipping in and out of the water, as in some fabulous conditioner commercial–that this, indeed, is the reality of sex in America. Apart from showing no notable talent at either acting or dancing, Berkley was a good choice to play Nomi. Her large eyes, set wide apart and magnified by a Helmsleyesque surfeit of eye makeup, flank a tiny proto-nose with flareless nostrils. Too unfinished to be beautiful, her face suggests some bizarre sexual pupate, a fortuitous hormonal miscalculation. Almost everything else about Berkley’s person–her lips, her breasts, her rear end–seems to be straining upward and outward, for the stars, until her shins and ankles taper recklessly toward the ground, conceding only minimally to the unglamour of gravity. Her particular ambition, supremely transcendent and unreflectively tacky, is stamped on her very frame. Give her wings and she’ll fly off an aircraft carrier.



A series of four (4) excerpts from the aforementioned roundtable in Film Quarterly (Spring 2003).


(1) Noel Burch:

Showgirls is especially remarkable for the way in which it associates gender and sexual issues with the class contradictions so often glossed over in Hollywood films. This is in fact an authentic “fallen woman film” in the grand Hollywood tradition: a working-class woman’s sinful past catches up with her just as she has gained access to the world of wealth. Those 30s melodramas were theaters of forbidden pleasure and social injustice; they were about how it is women who must always pay under patriarchy. Verhoeven and Eszterhas have contrived to celebrate the perfectly genuine attractions (not solely for the male eye, I would suggest) of the sexy Las Vegas revues—and more intimate ceremonies such as lap dancing—only to gradually undermine these representations with an exposure of the ferocious exploitation upon which they are founded. Critics I have read invariably emphasize the Žfilm’s “vulgarity,” perceived as consubstantial with that of the world it depicts. Yet the story of Nomi Malone, a dancer of undeniable talent (whose fate eerily foreshadows that of the extraordinary Elizabeth Berkley, whose career was nipped in the bud by a suspiciously violent critical reaction), is for me that of a working-class woman who rises from gutter to glory and Žfinally rejoins her class when a succession of ugly episodes is capped by the rape of her best friend by an idolized pop star.


It is Nomi herself who demonstrates the principle of “every man for himself” which presides over this world and over American society as a whole when she pushes the current star down the dressing-room stairs so that she can take her place. She is acclaimed by the well-heeled audience of a fashionable night-spot, but this success is then doubly ironized by the star’s unexpected gratitude—at last she can quit the rat race, she tells Nomi from her hospital bed—and by their boss’s contempt when he ferrets out Nomi’s shady past. His new star spits in his face, pretends to accede to the rapist’s desire for her only to punish him with karate kicks (in a perversely erotic scene redolent of the rape revenge movies), and goes back on the road, switchblade at the ready. A kind of happy ending: life in the gutter is a rat race too, but somehow cleaner. . . . It is also worth noting that the only solidarities possible for Nomi in this world of show biz are with members of her own class: two African Americans, and also, in one unexpectedly moving scene, the manager of the sleazy strip joint where she began her Las Vegas career who, though she had brutally walked out on him, comes to pay tribute to her talent and congratulate her on her success.


(2) Ara Osterweil:

Surprisingly, Showgirls is extraordinarily complex, and much more difficult to analyze than any of the other “trash” films that I have presumed to be its kinsmen. One aspect that never fails to perplex a virgin audience is its tone: it appears to connote a type of mainstream directness and sincerity. The film’s relatively large budget and seemingly high production values, as well as its then A-list director and writer team, suggest that it intends to satisfy its audience not as a conspicuous piece of trash, but as a scintillating, if disposable, blockbuster. One of the many ejaculations I had to contend with when teaching the Ž film was the accusation that Verhoeven didn’t intend it to be read as a radical piece of trash filmmaking or as a masterful, ironic parody. As unintentional debauchery, Showgirls somehow didn’t “deserve” the subversive status I was attempting to bestow upon it. If we were laughing at Showgirls —and dear God were we laughing—then it appeared that we were laughing at it, not with it, and this distinction made all the difference in the world. Rather than discarding the question of intention for its ultimate indecipherability and naïvete, it is important to acknowledge how utterly central this question has been to historical formulations of camp. By disregarding Showgirls because of its perceived lack of ironic intent, my students were dialectically reversing Susan Sontag’s dictum that the best or “purest” kind of camp was naïve rather than deliberate.


One of the true challenges of appreciating a Žfilm like Showgirls is that as a piece of camp, it is decidedly middlebrow. It is much easier to appreciate a “bad” camp film like Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, intended for an already marginalized audience of underground artists and homosexuals, than it is to excavate a bit of parodic truth from a lesbian fantasy marketed to a mainstream, compulsively heterosexual audience. If every blockbuster teen horror film, sitcom, and advertising campaign threatens to steal the signs of “being-as-playing-a-role” from the community of outcasts who Žfirst exalted it, then the political significance of camp begins to recede. The anxiety Showgirls created, and continues to create, among leftist intellectuals stemsfrom the fear that camp, like everything else remotely subversive, is in danger of being coopted by “the Man.” For me, the desire to steal camp back, wherever it may be located, has become a kind of categorical imperative, a yearning to redeem that which seems irredeemable.



(3) Chon Noriega:

What makes Showgirls unique as a satire is the way in which Verhoeven collapses the Lumière and Méliès traditions. The film has the strange sense of being an actualité for Elizabeth Berkley’s performance. This performance consistently stands out from the narrative proper: we are aware of watching a former television child actor do her own dance, lap dance, and striptease numbers. But we are also aware of watching her act. Anthony Lane is right in this respect: “She can’t act, but the sight of her trying to act, doing the sorts of things that acting is rumored to consist of, struck me as a far nobler struggle than the boring old I-know-I-canmake-it endeavors of her Ž fictional character.”

We end up with a rupturing of cinema’s sign system: character without characterization, method acting without interiorized motivation, and the blurring of realist and histrionic acting styles. The effect is disturbing when put into relationship with the film’s baroque visual style (vivid colors, a symbol-laden environment), not to mention the subject matter. Most reviewers noted the “absence of both drama and eroticism,” the “lack of characterization and narrative tension,” and the film’s dubious achievement of making “excessive nudity exquisitely boring.” Viewers do not get to have it both ways, the narrative justifying the erotics. Instead, they get neither; hence, the critical heteronormative rage as blood drained from erections… Its satire comes by way of camp rather than sarcasm, while its identification is anchored in female-to-female gazes and Nomi’s uncanny mimesis of Cristal’s mannerisms (and not just her dance moves).


(4) Linda Williams:

Showgirls is part of an important and longstanding tradition of enduringly trashy—though never really “bad”—American movies whose tawdriness resides in the vulgar status of its primary subject: the showgirl herself. She is a fiure American culture has both celebrated and despised as the quintessential commodification of womanhood. Her roots go back to vaudeville, Tiller girls, Ziegfeld girls, and early sound movie musicals immortalized by Busby Berkeley. Paul Verhoeven and Joe Eszterhas enthusiastically sought to update this figure in a postCode, post-feminist and post-Stonewall era in which it is permissible to foreground (and of course to exploit) the new forms of vulgar sexual display made possible by such cultural innovations as the lap dance. The vulgarity of this update is perfectly in keeping with the vulgarity of the tradition it updates, only American critics seemed too puritanical to embrace it.


It is not fair to judge Showgirls by the standards of a Last Tango in Paris or a Henry and June. But it may very well be that the portentious European art house sex of these films is the only kind of sex American critics can accept, while the vulgar, tawdry, showy Las Vegas sex that reworks the more authentically American tradition of the golddigger seems just too tasteless for the American critical establishment to stomach. More than one review excoriates Eszterhas for enjoying the titillation of lesbian sex, when it is precisely the bad-taste glorying in the bitchy role-playing of that titillation that seems to me to be the great fun of the movie. It is very easy to condemn movies that attempt to have trashy fun with sex. But I predict that Showgirls will reemerge one day, like Nomi and Cristal from their papier-mâché volcano, in triumphant glory to gain the praise that it deserves.

And last but not least, the original theatrical trailer:

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