Paul Verhoeven’s trashy cult-classic isn’t exactly good… but it’s not as dumb as you think.
Frank Anderson is the head movie writer at The Renaissance Fan.
According to legend, a studio executive advanced screenwriter Joe Eszterhas $2 million to write the script for Showgirls based upon a premise he had written on a cocktail napkin. The executive was, undoubtedly, anticipating a hit on par with the Eszterhas-scripted Basic Instinct (1992); after all, Eszterhas developed the premise with the aid of Paul Verhoeven, director of Basic Instinct and Sliver (a mild success, also written by Eszterhas). Showgirls was not a hit. It earned less than $38 million against its $45 million budget, won a then record seven Golden Raspberry Awards* (Worst Picture, Worst Director, Worst Screenplay, Worst New Star, Worst Onscreen Couple, and Worst Original Song), the term “Showgirls-bad” entered critical slang, star Elizabeth Berkley’s career as a leading woman was effectively torpedoed, and Eszterhas, once the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood, would never again garner the multi-million dollar fee to which he had become accustomed. Today, Showgirls has achieved a kind of “so-bad-it’s-good” cult status, and, having found a market on home video, has become far and away the highest-grossing NC-17 movie of all time (take that, Henry and June!). Watching it though, one cannot help wondering if Verhoeven knew what he was doing, if the tawdry camp is intentional, and the director of The Golden Raspberries’ “Worst Film of the Decade” put one over on his audience.
It must be said that Joe Eszterhas’ script for Showgirls is bad. So bad, in fact, that it seems wholly unbelievable that anyone reading it would have thought that it could be the blueprint for a film that critics and audiences would take seriously. The key to Showgirls’ (possible) artistic success is Verhoeven’s disdain for Eszterhas’ script. While many directors might make changes to a lackluster script during shooting, Verhoeven clearly decided to shoot the script as it was given to him, playing up the inherent camp and creating a kind of gross satire of the traditional A Star Is Born/What Price Hollywood? “high price of fame” fable.
Verhoeven is no stranger to sneaking satire of Americanism into pulpy genre fare, most famously in his unimpeachable Robocop (1987) and Total Recall (1990), but also with his later misunderstood classic Starship Troopers (1997), which, like Showgirls, is widely believed to be brainless but might be brilliant. That Verhoeven may have used what was, on its face, a lurid nudity delivery system (which it is) as Trojan Horse for a satire of show-business excess seems entirely likely. Whether or not he is successful at doing so is a matter of debate. It’s hard to believe that a director of Verhoeven’s ability with the level of control demonstrated with films like Robocop, Soldier of Orange (1977), Black Book (2006), and, the film voted the best Dutch film of the 20th century, Turkish Delight, would go into Showgirls without knowing what he was doing.
Whether Showgirls is satire, trash, or, most likely, a combination thereof, its greatest victim is its star, Elizabeth Berkley. Berkley undoubtedly went into Showgirls wanting to shed the “nerdy good-girl” image she had gained playing nerdy good-girl Jessie Spano on four seasons of Saved By The Bell and believing that Verhoeven would, as he had with Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, transform her into a screen-torching sex symbol; she was mistaken. Verhoeven did Berkley no favors; her performance has all the nuance and naturalism of any of the best Saved By The Bell episodes, which is to say none at all. There’s no subtlety or subtext to Berkley’s performance. She is terrible, and it works for Verhoeven’s picture; if you are going to make a showbiz satire about an ambitious newcomer of dubious talent, why not cast the same? Unfortunately, Berkley’s performance is weird, tone-deaf, and not campy enough to be believed as intentionally bad. Verhoeven threw her under the bus.
For the most part, Elizabeth’s cast-mates suffer the same fate, even if they did not suffer the same long-term consequences. Kyle MacLachlan, who, when he was hired to play Showgirls’ smarmy showbiz svengali/hunk Zack Carey, was already a veteran of four David Lynch projects (Dune (1984), Blue Velvet (1987), Twin Peaks, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)). He almost certainly could have been relied upon to deliver an appropriate level of camp villainy but comes across almost as wooden as Berkley, albeit with a tremendous “90’s guy” haircut:
The only actor who seems to be in on the joke is Gina Gershon, who brings her usual hot-to-trot sexy campiness to the role of Vegas headliner Cristal Connors. Gershon leans into the part of the bitchy, sexually carnivorous Cristal with great verve and a questionable southern accent. When the following, homo-erotically, charged conversation happens between Cristal and Berkley’s up-and-comer, Nomi, only one of the actresses seems to know what’s really going on:
CRISTAL: You have nice tits, they’re really beautiful.
NOMI: Thank you.
CRISTAL: I like nice tits. I always have, how ‘bout you?
NOMI: I like having nice tits.
CRISTAL: How do you like having them?
One senses that in this scene Cristal is voicing Eszterhas’, and for that matter Verhoeven’s, sentiments regarding the female form. But even if the film is Verhoeven’s sly satire of lurid, oversexed show business, it is also the thing that it is satirizing. Nomi’s journey from the lowest rungs of world of Las Vegas entertainment to its highest heights is the, it seems, relatively short trip from being a dancer in a seedy topless club to becoming the lead dancer in a topless musical revue at the Stardust Casino. The point is that there is a lot of topless-ness, and even though the portrayal of strip club patrons as leering Neanderthals, as well as the villainous characterization of the Stardust show’s director who reprimands Nomi for not having erect-enough nipples, may be meant as a critique of the objectifying male gaze, the objectifying male gaze is served nonetheless by wall-to-wall female nudity.
Verhoeven gamely appeared at The Golden Raspberries to accept his “Worst Director” and “Worst Picture” awards, a rare acknowledgment for any “Razzie” nominee to make, especially so in the case of directors. While actors and screenwriters can at least attempt to shift the blame for a bad performance onto the shoulders of directors, editors, and executives (see Halle Berry’s acceptance of her award for Catwoman (2004)), directors do not have same recourse. If Showgirls is indeed as bad as the Golden Raspberries' voters believe it to be, there is no one else for Verhoeven to blame; film is a director’s medium after all, and it seems unlikely that a director would gleefully accept an award for a film’s schlockiness unless schlockiness was the intent. Only Paul Verhoeven knows…
*For all the referencing of the Golden Raspberry Awards in this article, it should be noted that the “Razzies” are just a yearly dog-pile on whatever film happens to have captured the nation’s negative attention that year, making the awards just as uncontroversial and unimaginative as the Academy Awards. Added to that boringness is a healthy dollop of un-ethicality, as The Golden Raspberries do not require their voters to have seen the films for which they vote. The staff of The Renaissance Fan calls for the immediate reformation/abolition of The Golden Raspberries.