How do you explain Showgirls to someone who doesn’t know anything about this movie? First of all, is this a drama, comedy or a thriller? Or a softcore porn movie? Well, one thing is certain, this is a movie so bad that it’s good. It’s definitely worth checking out because you will rarely get an opportunity to see something so confusing. The plot is incredibly simplistic, there’s a lot of overacting, nudity and finally, the script is simply insane. You really have to see this movie to believe it. So, Showgirls follows a young and beautiful drifter that goes by the name of Nomi as she enters the world of exotic dancing in Las Vegas. So, let’s see if I can convince you to not only check out this movie but also that it’s actually pretty good.
I don’t know if you followed the hype around this movie back in the nineties but you should know it was big. I remember watching commercials for it for weeks and weeks. One thing was apparent, the cinematography was simply stunning. You had these lavish sets and choreographies with beautiful and naked young both men and women urging you to watch the movie. Moving on, I also don’t know if you were a fan of a teenage television show Saved By The Bell. I know I was, watching it as a kid and a teenager ferociously. And although I had a crush on Tiffani Thiessen playing Kelly, I certainly remember Elizabeth Berkley as Jessie Spano. Fast forward a couple of years and now she’s playing a stripper? Now, this is something I have to see.
So, let’s talk a bit about Elizabeth and her performance here. First of all, you have to admit she looks the part. Her body is just stunningly gorgeous and there’s no doubt about that. Secondly, she gave this movie everything she had, working 16 hours a day, completely nude in high heels. I mean, this fact alone demonstrates just how hard exotic dancers and strippers have to work. Not to mention that they need to stay in top shape because there’s always someone younger and better looking standing behind them. Thirdly, I also think we can all agree she bit more than she could chew here when it comes to the acting part. Especially if you look at Gina Gershon as Cristal.
However, her performance perfectly matched the mood of the movie. You have this spunky, bitchy, and bratty girl who obviously had a rough childhood trying to make it. She’s awkward, unsophisticated, and brash, just like I imagine a real girl coming from this world would be. She’s also brave, street-smart, and willing to chase her dreams. And finally, the director instructed her to act that way, to quote Paul: “I asked Elizabeth to do all that — to be abrupt and to act in that way.”
Showgirls was controversial at that time it was released for a couple of different things. This was the first movie that got the NC-17 rating intentionally, meaning it was designed to be shocking. There’s so much nudity here that by the end of it you won’t even notice it. And while there’s female full frontal nudity, there’s no male which is a shame. Same as in Lifeforce. Secondly, Showgirls explores the world of strippers and exotic dancers. And the official system of values will morally judge you if you even look at that world. You will be guilty by association, approving and loving this “filth”. And finally, the movie was objectively bad, so all the issues just compounded. Basically, Showgirls is a movie that’s easy to hate and pile on.
You can just imagine the stigma on anything related to stripping or any kind of sex work back then. Hell, here we are in 2021 and things are still fucked up. The real proportions of this hypocrisy were revealed with the profits from the home video market. Yup, you can bet your ass that this movie made over $100 million and became one of MGM’s Top 20 all-time bestsellers. After all, Paul Verhoeven was the man behind some hugely successful hits like RoboCop, Total Recall, and Basic Instinct. Man, add his next movie Starship Troopers to the list and there’s my childhood right there.
I went through several stages as I kept returning to Showgirls over the years. Of course, as a horny teenager, I first watched it for all the nudity. A couple of years later I started to enjoy the choreography and artistic side of it more, not to mention the huge waves of nostalgia that were hitting me. More years have passed and now I’m able to fully absorb everything about it. To revel in the unbridled campiness, to laugh at the incredibly bad dialogue, and to look at it each time from a different perspective. Just a year later we will have to opportunity to see Demi Moore in Striptease, a similar but much worse movie in my opinion.
While we’re dropping names, I would like to mention Les Anges Gardiens, a French movie about a nightclub owner played by Gérard Depardieu and his troubles. It also features a number of highly choreographed acts with nude models although it’s more of a comedy than anything else. Instead of actors, the movie used real dancers from the Crazy Horse troupe from Paris. To balance things out we also have Magic Mike, Chocolate City, and, to the lesser extent, The Full Monty when we’re talking about male dancers. Also, I would highly recommend checking out Hustlers starring Jennifer Lopez, based on a true story.
Ultimately, I think that Verhoeven and Eszterhas wanted to make a controversial movie full of nudity like Basic Instinct. However, they also wanted to pay back the girls whose stories they were borrowing. For example, that scene with Molly towards the end seemed totally unnecessary and it broke the mood of the entire movie. But when you look at it from a different perspective you can see what they were trying to do. Speaking about perspectives, just imagine how many girls like Nomi are out there struggling. From their perspective, Showgirls might be the movie that’s going to provide them with a lot of insights and hope that things can change for the better.
You should also know that both Verhoeven and Eszterhas interviewed over fifty professionals from the industry and incorporated their stories into the movie. This gives Showgirls a sense of authenticity and elevates it from the exploitation trash most people consider it to be. When you think about it, this movie hits the target audience perfectly with a very important message about the real exploitation and abuse these girls go through. Although I’m sure that most of the audience won’t see it that way, the same way I didn’t. However, some will, and I guess that will have to be enough. After all, this is a very complex and polarizing movie. What do you think about it?
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Writer: Joe Eszterhas
Cast: Elizabeth Berkley, Kyle MacLachlan, Gina Gershon, Glenn Plummer, Robert Davi, Alan Rachins, Gina Ravera
Fun Facts: Pamela Anderson, Angelina Jolie, Vanessa Marcil, Denise Richards and Charlize Theron auditioned for the role of Nomi Malone.