As part of our new occasional series in which we defend the indefensible, David Flint explains why Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls is a masterpiece.
It’s a bit of a cliché these days for critics to claim of any self-proclaimed ‘erotic’ film that the sex scenes are “not sexy, just boring”. This is despite the fact – and I say this having observed it in action at press screenings more than once – that these same critics will giggle like excited schoolboys throughout these same scenes. But to admit that an erotic film is either a good film or, God forbid, actually erotic is something that critics seem loathe to do, as if admitting so would somehow reflect on their own desires. To admit to enjoying erotica is to admit to being turned on, and that’s perhaps too personal an experience for many people to confess in public. Sex on screen is not universally frowned on – if it comes with a strong dose of disapproval, if it is done ‘tastefully’, or if it is deemed suitably non-exploitative, the critics will give it a pass. A bleak drama about the horrors of trafficking or a condemnatory look at the porn business can fill the screen with flesh and be praised for its blatant hypocrisy. To show sex as entertainment, as spectacle and as erotica is very different. No film critic wants to admit to having sustained an erection throughout a screening.
So Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls was damned from the get-go. Here was a film that was sold on the basis that it was going to be an NC-17 release in the US – the ‘adults only’ rating that had replaced the tainted X rating, and was supposedly for films of a fully ‘adult’ – but not necessarily sexy – nature. Of course, the sort of people who felt that the X was tainted were hardly going to have their opinions changed by a cosmetic reboot. Most films avoided the rating like the plague, preferring to accept cuts to qualify for an R rating – the US ratings system being so ham-fisted that it has no actual age restrictions other than the NC-17, and American culture being so prudish that any film saddled with such a rating would be banned from many cinema chains, refused newspaper advertising and so on. It was seen as a financial kiss of death. Many American filmmakers bemoaned this situation – indeed, the switch from X to NC-17 came about because films that might have been rated X were instead being released unrated or with cuts to avoid being associated with a rating that, for most people, had come to mean porn. But once the change took place, it was business as usual, and the film companies made no effort to either legitimise or popularise the rating. Had they done so, it’s likely that the theatre chains, the newspapers and the public might have come around very quickly – a couple of NC-17 blockbusters would have broken any boycott in now time.
So the decision to not just release a new film from a big name director / writer team with the rating could have been a giant step forward. But rather than support Showgirls in its efforts to break the taboo surrounding the rating, and open things up for filmmakers to explore difficult adult themes outside of low budget indie movies, the critics instead lined up to attack the film, even before it had been released. In Britain (where the film had a pivotal rape scene cut by the censors before being allowed out with an otherwise uncontroversial 18 rating), critics, as they often do, dutifully parrotted their American colleagues – by the time the film was released here, its reputation was sealed, and it would take a very brave critic to go against that. And British film critics have never been noted for their bravery or originality of thought.
Things weren’t helped by the fact that Verhoeven and his screenwriter Joe Eszterhas came to this off the back of the sexually provocative Basic Instinct, and that Eszterhas was something of a hate figure for film critics, possibly because his films like Sliver and Jade were effectively big-budget versions of the erotic thriller, and partly because they just didn’t like his loud personality. It’s likely that even an R-rated Showgirls would’ve been savaged, simply because the critical establishment and their obedient, slathering acolytes (just look at how big name critics are fawned over by wannabes and fan boys on social media) hated the man who wrote it. The film press were waiting to tear both filmmakers apart.
Showgirls eventually made $38 million at the box office, on a budget of $45 million, and so was officially a flop and ridiculously seen as a benchmark of how much money any NC-17 film could ever hope to make. Notably though, on home video, Showgirls has made over $100 million. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a financial failure even if the profits took longer to accumulate than usual. The film ‘won’ eight Razzie Awards (eventually being voted the worst film of the decade by those morons). If you are the sort of person who thinks the Razzies (a ghastly collection of smug, lazy trolls and fun sponges who hate films pretending to be witty) have any relevance or purpose, then you are – let’s not beat around the bush here – a cunt.
Showgirls is a Las Vegas cabaret twist on the classic A Star is Born story – the rise and fall of an ambitious (or ruthless), naïve and eventually corrupted performer, here transposed to the lap dancing clubs and cabarets of Las Vegas. Here, Elizabeth Berkeley is Nomi, the dancer with stars in her eyes who claws her way to the top, only to find that it is not the place she expected, while Gina Gershon (the only person involved in the film to get even grudging approval from critics) is her more seasoned and experienced rival, who has to be pushed aside – quite literally – for Nomi to make it. There isn’t actually very much sex in the film, though there is a lot of nudity, and some people have problems separating the two, it seems. What the film does have, in spades, is cynicism and a withering take on the emptiness of stardom. In a world where critics continually fawn over people who have probably clawed, slept and exploited their way to stardom, and where producers have exploited their power to grant fame and fortune at a price, Verhoeven and Eszterhas’ film continues to be an uncomfortable truth about just how stars are born – and how they are broken.
Much has been made of the shallow characters, the lack of taste and the general crassness of Showgirls, but for me, this is missing the point spectacularly. The characters in this film are all, pretty much without exception, shallow, tasteless people. That doesn’t mean that the film is shallow. Showgirls clearly understands the vacuous nature of the world it portrays, and it portrays it brilliantly. Nomi’s early mispronunciation of Versace and the way she is mocked for it nails the bitchy, empty, style-over-substance world that she has moved into perfectly. The much-scoffed at sex scene in the pool with Berkeley and Kyle McLachlan makes perfect sense – of course these characters would have sex as though they were in a porn film, in a garish setting. To single this out as an example of why the film is tasteless is missing the point spectacularly – the film clearly knows that it is being tasteless here. But then, I suspect that many of the people who hate Showgirls are the very sort of shallow, empty, arrogant and condescending characters that the film is ultimately about – after all, the sneering at the film comes from a place of arrogant condescension for the most part. I suspect that deep in their subconscious, the film hits a nerve and makes them uncomfortable, and generally when people like that are triggered, their reaction is simply more arrogant condescension.
Showgirls is certainly high camp and wildly melodramatic, and deliberately so. It’s like a 1990s version of Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, another film savaged by critics for many of the same reasons that they went after Verhoeven’s film, and now acknowledged as a genuine classic: everything cranked up to 11, every character a cartoonish exaggeration, every visual reference a sarcastic pop culture comment. Like BVD, Showgirls is a film that clearly knows exactly what it is doing. That some people – including some people who worked on it – didn’t get that doesn’t make it any less true. In a way, the last thing you want to do when making a satire is to let your actors know.
I’m not at all interested in people who view Showgirls sarcastically, the whole ‘so bad it’s good’ idea. These smug hipsters misunderstand the film as much as the critics who slate it; possibly, they are actually worse. These are the sort of people who think that hammer Films are ‘camp’ (and whatever you think of Hammer, ‘camp’ is the last word that should be applied to most of their films) and laugh at old films in the cinema because they don’t have the latest production values or mumbling performances. By any standards, Showgirls is not Birdemic or The Room, or even the genuinely bizarre pseudo-sequel Showgirls 2: Penny’s From Heaven; it’s not outsider cinema that elicits laughs because of the sheer bizarre nature of the whole production. Arrogant ‘fans’ who consider themselves above the film are just the worst. This is, simply and genuinely, a great film – no caveats are needed.
I’d say that much of the criticism of Showgirls is a knee-jerk attack on Verhoeven for showing sex rather than violence – and let’s not forget that the films he has been praised for, from Robocop to Starship Troopers, share many of the traits of Showgirls: excess over restraint, deliberate exaggeration, gleeful bad taste, one-dimensional characters. But the excess is violent, not sexual, and apparently that is more acceptable. I love those films. I think Verhoeven is a satirical genius. But I believe Showgirls is his American masterpiece, and deserves to be seen as one of the great films of the 1990s.
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