Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #401
Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: September 22, 1995
Sub-Genre: Social Satire
Country of Origin: France, United States
Box Office: $37,700,000
Running Time: 131 minutes
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Producers: Lynn Ehrensperger, Charles Evans, Mario Kassar, Alan Marshall
Screenplay: Joe Eszterhas
Cinematography: Jost Vacano
Score: David A. Stewart
Editing: Mark Goldblatt, Mark Helfrich
Studios: Carolco Pictures, Chargeurs
Distributor: United Artists
Stars: Elizabeth Berkley, Kyle MacLachlan, Gina Gershon, Glenn Plummer, Robert Davi, Alan Rachins, Gina Ravera, Lin Tucci, Greg Travis, Al Ruscio, Patrick Bristow, William Shockley, Michelle Johnston, Dewey Weber, Rena Riffel, Melissa Williams, Ungela Brockman, Melinda Songer, Bobbie Phillips, Carrie Ann Inaba
Suggested Audio Candy
 Sisters of Mercy “Vision Thing”
 David Bowie “I’m Afraid of Americans”
I wish to begin this particular appraisal with comments from a number of different revered ‘critics’. This is an unusual approach for me but I feel it is necessary on this occasion before we commence.
“Showgirls approximates the feeling of someone sleazy putting the make on you. Its brand of sexual harassment makes you feel dirty and not at all flattered.”
“Even the grossest porn is more cheerfully sexual than this movie.”
“The film emerges as a plastic, awkward mess without a hint of eroticism or genuine sexuality.”
“Beneath the Vegas glitz beats the heart of a cheap B-movie porno in Showgirls, a movie that truly is so bad it’s funny.”
“To take Showgirls that seriously (as either trash-art or appalling pornography) wouldn’t be worth the exertion.”
“Not only is this movie really dumb, but it’s barely sexy, and not even close to explicit.”
“…a bad film, borderline inept, with an anti-erotic toxic charge about it. It deserved all the mean things people said about it.”
There we go. The general consensus on Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls is that it is one of the most over-cooked turkeys ever to disgrace the silver screen. There is one thing which all the above judgments have in common…they unequivocally miss the point. The whole reason I began appraising films in the first instance was to speak up against such single-minded claptrap. I am not suggesting that everyone isn’t entitled to their own opinion, on the contrary, film is a subjective media and one man’s gold bullion is another’s vat of ostrich phlegm. However, critics are supposed to represent. Film aficionados take their word as gospel and, when a film such as this (amusingly nicknamed Trashdance in one damning critique), is lambasted in the way that it was upon release, it saddens my soul to see the gift of enlightenment being squandered by those who cannot see beyond their own vitriolic tongues.
It wasn’t only the critics who made an example of Showgirls either. In 1995 it went on to amass a record thirteen Razzie nominations and walked away with seven wins, or losses as the case may be. Former child actor Elizabeth Berkley (Saved By The Bell) was crowned worst actress, Joe Eszterhas (whose script pays affectionate homage to Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ All About Eve) discredited for worst screenplay, Verhoeven was shamed as the worst director, and the film itself had the ominous pleasure of being labelled worst movie. I adore the fact that the director turned up to receive his award in person, a first for the Golden Raspberrys. This says everything that needs to be said, both about his character, and his winning sense of humor.
The film subsequently bombed theatrically and fell short of a return on its initial investment. However, this is where the statistics often do not tell the true story. Since then, Showgirls has gone on to amass well over $100 million in home video rentals and is one of MGM’s all-time bestsellers. Clearly many people were intrigued to see a film deemed as pure exploitative trash but this figure also reflects a change of tide for Verhoeven’s dazzling disasterpiece. Several esteemed film-makers including Jim Jarmusch, Jacques Rivette and my old pal Quentin Tarantino, have crawled out of the woodwork to offer their appreciation. Twenty years on we are entering a period of re-evaluation it appears. This is where I come in.
Sometimes a film is not destined to be appreciated until long after its release. Even dominant works such as John Carpenter’s The Thing and George A. Romero’s Day of The Dead were largely trashed by critics upon their initial release. Current climate plays a part and Showgirls was wrongly labelled as a sleazy, poor taste soft porn flick when, in truth, it was nothing of the sort. It presented social satire at its most biting; an expose into the way that women are extorted on the Las Vegas circuit and the sinister underbelly of the entertainment industry. Brilliantly, the closing shot suggested that the next stop was Los Angeles and we all know how corrupt Hollywood is as there have been many films since which have lifted the lid on that particular can of worms.
So about that plot then. It focuses on street savvy rolling stone Nomi Malone (Berkley), a woman with a veiled past, attempting to ascend the ladder of prosperity within the glitzy confines of the great theater of dreams that is Vegas. She arrives wide-eyed and is instantly seduced by its promise of glamour, whilst being left high and dry by the first of a veritable smorgasbord of highly dubious male characters. However, through her apparent misfortune, she meets Molly Abrams (Gina Ravera) and, after a shaky start the pair become inseparable. Her run of foul luck begins to change as she is spotted grinding her ferret by bisexual chorus line queen Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon) and her beau, hot-shot entertainment director, Zack Carey (Kyle MacLachlan) and invited to join the circus.
Let’s start with our leading lady shall we. Berkley’s turn as Nomi is seen as one of the most insincere and unmodulated performances in cinematic history when in truth this couldn’t be farther than accurate. Sure, she is erratic and prone to fiery outbursts decorated with profanity and vitriol. And yes her performance is so far over the top that it is halfway down the other side. But this is Vegas baby after all. She plays Nomi as Nomi is intended to be played; Eszterhas’ script is never intended to facilitate ad-libbing or falling out of sequence. She ploughed sixteen hours a day into wearing those heels and that’s enough to give Tim Curry severe bunions. Her performance is courageous in the extreme as she thrashes wildly and unabashed before our bulging eyes as she uses the rug that ties her whole room together to sell her authenticity as sultry and salacious siren.
Her supporting cast play their part well without exception but, for Keeper, two particular lights shine brightly. Ravera’s Molly is the only character in the entire picture with any true moral fiber. She is critical to our investment, particularly given the fact that Nomi’s action are occasionally contemptible. She tries valiantly to keep us grounded and, heartbreakingly, falls foul to the relentless trundling wheels of big business. This offers bleak insight into the sad fact that the virtuous cannot survive in Vegas. Eventually, they will be chewed up and spat straight back out on the sidewalk with twenty bucks in their G-strings. Given that the world we are witnessing is so lacking in honor, it is likely that she will then be charged the same $20 for gas money by some sordid passing predator and kicked out on her bony ass before the very next rest stop. That’s just the nature of the beast.
Glenn Plummer as James Smith is also notable as he frequents the closest proximity to any real generosity of spirit of any of the men depicted. Yes, he can act like a dick on wheels at times, but there are various hints of his best (if misguided) intentions. However, it is here that I find my only true criticism of Showgirls. The relationship between Nomi and James is a little underdeveloped and thus, when they part ways, the revelation is a little forced and out of sync. Should they have been given a few more scenes to reveal a little more of their curious chemistry, then the film would only have benefited on an emotional level. Having said such, I remind you once again that this is Vegas. No time for half-stepping; it’s on with the show regardless.
There is a banquet of flesh to be discerned and Verhoeven is never afraid to push the envelope in this regard. The majestic Dutch director has provided us with many outlandish parables over the course of his career. Total Recall, Starship Troopers, and Robocop, all provided ample proof of his undeniable talent for film-making. That is not to mention lesser-known masterpieces such as Black Book and The Fourth Man. Let’s not forget perhaps the most relevant of his movies when it comes to sexual excess, Basic Instinct. Every critic who took exception with any lack of eroticism here were clearly sitting there with their dicks in their palms and hand cream at the ready. It isn’t meant to be erotic you deluded blunderskulls; can you not see that? Tell me you can see that? Restore my faith in humanity please.
Everything is showy, overblown, and off-the-chain, with sound reasoning. However, Verhoeven’s sublime photography is always in tune with the story he is telling and deserves far more respect than it deserves. When I watched Total Recall I felt as though I was walking on the moon, halfway through Hollow Man I could’ve sworn I could feel an imperceptible Kevin Bacon unzipping my pants, and when Sharon Stone leaned down the side of her bed post-coitus during Basic Instinct I was the first to pull out and play invisible man. He sells each tale to the highest bidder, only here he asks you to take a gamble. Showgirls has long since been regarded as a three-legged dog of a movie whereas I prefer the term one-arm bandit as there is coinage to be won should you just play its game. I implore you to take another look as sometimes all that glitters truly is golden.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10
For the Pelt-Nuzzlers: Mr. Skin could have published an edition just based on the bare flesh on exhibit here. Verhoeven supplies it with such fragrant openness that we end up becoming desensitized just like the stage monkeys. That’s precisely what he drives at. This is the world he chooses to reveal for us and his film is one of the most sincere and fearless observations of the corruption and hypocrisy that exists within American big business ever committed to celluloid. Now put away those antibacterial wipes.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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