Alive and kicking

When the stripper extravaganza "Showgirls" opened, nearly every American critic howled in a Victorian rage. They would have felt better had they surrendered to its great, dirty appeal.

Published March 31, 2004 11:17PM (EST)

A film scholars' round table on "Showgirls." It sounds like the setup for a punch line about those wacky academics who find value in any kind of popular culture, the perfect new joke for people who realize that their old gibes about the French and Jerry Lewis are getting a little tatty at the edges.

The round-table symposium on "Showgirls," consisting of seven pieces by academics and one filmmaker, did appear last year in Film Quarterly. I mean no condescension to the participants to say that the overall effect was very touching. As a critic who loves "Showgirls," who has loved it since it was released in the fall of 1995 and as it now enjoys heavy rotation on Viacom channels (VH1 and Showtime, in particular), and who bought it on laserdisc and then on DVD, I was happy to see the film being taken seriously but even happier by the sight of people owning up to their admiration.

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. The movie became a public joke, it did poorly at the box office, and the NC-17 rating was a commercial pariah and has remained so.

I first saw "Showgirls" a couple of weeks after it opened, in a sparse midweek evening crowd, and I was convinced I was watching a new camp classic. The movie had a brashness that made it more fun than many better movies, and a ferocious desire to entertain that bad movies seem to have lost. I admit that my love for "Showgirls" has to do with my love for melodrama, for displays of flesh, and above all for the disreputable, which can be a way of keeping in touch with the rude energy that's at the heart of the appeal of movies.

But a weird thing happened when I showed it to friends after it was released on laserdisc. They were just as amused by it as I was, but their amusement was absent of any real affection for the movie. "Showgirls," as everyone knew by then -- whether they had seen it or not -- was a bad movie, and thus everyone knew perfectly well how to take it.

I was no longer so sure. The film seemed less campy (and less sexy) each time I saw it. If true camp is unconscious ("seriousness that fails," in Susan Sontag's typically oblique and obvious formulation), then how could a movie as deliberate as "Showgirls" be camp? How could a director like Paul Verhoeven, who had consistently -- and often crassly -- gone for the outrageous in movie after movie, be unaware of what he was doing?

Verhoeven is not a director blessed with subtlety. When he's entertaining, as he is in "The 4th Man" or "Basic Instinct," it's because he finds a way to make his calculated effrontery funny. At his worst, in "Total Recall" and "Starship Troopers" and "Hollow Man," he operates like the sleaziest pimp, delivering the kinky, violent goods in a manner so bludgeoning that any intended irony erases itself. Verhoeven doesn't have the sensibility to do what Hitchcock did, making moviegoers aware of their complicity in the shocks they have paid to see. The unremitting cartoon brutality of "Starship Troopers" may have been intended as satire, but the movie drips with contempt for the mass audiences that go to the movies looking for just this kind of brutal thrill; the only way to be in on the joke is to share in that contempt. And it's just that superiority that seems to be celebrated in most of the admiring critical appraisals that have come Verhoeven's way in the past few years. The no-hope dystopia of "RoboCop" has to be acclaimed as a dark view of the future instead of just a pulpy excuse to make a brutal but entertaining vigilante picture.

Verhoeven delivers the flesh in "Showgirls" as blatantly as he delivers the blood in other pictures. The movie is loaded with strip scenes, lap-dance scenes, topless audition scenes, lesbian scenes. And Joe Eszterhas' dialogue is just as blatant. ("Molly," says one showgirl to a harried costumer, "they're gonna see a smilin' snatch if you don't fix this G-string"; the heroine's former strip-club boss after she's made the move to a big-time Vegas revue tells her, "Must be weird not having anybody come on you.")

What's missing in "Showgirls," and what makes it Verhoeven's best movie, is contempt for mass culture. For all of its deliberate outrageousness, all the points it scores off the tits-and-ass milieu, the movie isn't judgmental about the tackiness of Las Vegas. In the Film Quarterly round table, Noel Burch tries to make the case that American critics dismissed "Showgirls" because it's a ruthless indictment of America's capitalist ideals. (If that's so, then why, as Burch admits, didn't the film find favor in France, where Verhoeven is taken much more seriously?) But no one in "Showgirls" is more ruthless than the heroine Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley), and we cheer for her at every turn, just as we do for Scarlett O'Hara at her most manipulative.

That point is a lapse in what is otherwise just about the sharpest piece in the Film Quarterly round table. Burch gets it exactly right when he says " 'Showgirls' ... 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." If I'm reading him right, Burch is saying that "Showgirls" throws critics because it refuses to hold itself as superior to its subject, to deny the fascination and attractiveness of the flashy, trashy world it shows us even as it acknowledges its ruthlessness.

In that sense, for a certain type of educated audience, the ones for whom Las Vegas and strip clubs and the desire for fame are indicative of nothing more than the shallowness of contemporary culture, "Showgirls" is camp precisely because it takes seriously something that they don't. It isn't hard to sense a class disdain in the sneering directed at "Showgirls." "Despised melodrama," as Burch so succinctly puts it, has traditionally been aimed at the mass audience. Dickens and Griffith raised it to an art form (and so did Verdi and Bizet), but melodrama is still judged to be incapable of the nuance and intelligence of "high" drama. There is, though, an overwhelming, unsubtle bigness in melodrama that provides a large, meaty satisfaction. My guess is that at the root of the high-cultural disdain for melodrama is a disapproval of emotion that can't be tidily contained, a failure to understand how deliberate overstatement can be used to articulate a subject, and perhaps a belief that the art of the "lower orders" is beneath serious consideration.

"Showgirls," as Noel points out, is a classic rise-and-fall-of-the-bad-girl melodrama. Nomi Malone hitchhikes into Vegas to find work as a showgirl. Starting off as a stripper, she manages to get into the chorus of a Vegas hotel revue called "Goddess" and proceeds to screw, cheat and literally push her way into the lead. Except that here, there's more triumph than comeuppance in her fall. Nomi insists throughout the movie that she's not a whore, that she's operating on her terms. The struggling choreographer (Glenn Plummer) who's attracted to Nomi tells her that working as a stripper is more honest than flashing her tits in a gaudy Vegas revue and pretending that she's moved up in the world. The star of the show, Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon in one of the great bad-girl turns in movies), tells Nomi that everyone is a whore. At the end, when Nomi has done things she never thought she'd do in her pursuit of success, she stops kidding herself, adopts Cristal's style and, in the movie's last line, says that what she won in Vegas was "me." The suggestion is that she has learned the truth about herself, and the final shot of the movie finds her on the road to Los Angeles, where, having learned the tricks of her trade, she can become a first-class whore.

What makes that finish so remarkable is that Verhoeven and Eszterhas abandon the moralism that is the price the movies have traditionally made us pay for enjoying women like Nomi. Cecil B. DeMille was the master of making audiences feel upright and moral by condemning the very things he used to titillate them, and more recently no one has worked that territory better than Adrien Lyne in movies like "Fatal Attraction," "Indecent Proposal" and "Unfaithful."

"Showgirls" simply refuses to put the breaks on its id, to deny or decry the material and fleshly desires of the characters, precisely because they are the very same desires that movies have always encouraged -- even when pretending to disapprove of them. Movies have traditionally allowed us to enjoy the tough, salty girls in supporting roles, but it was the nice girl in the lead we were meant to root for. In Busby Berkeley's "42nd Street," the chorus hoofer played by Ruby Keeler gets her big chance when the star of the show breaks her leg. In "Showgirls," Nomi gets her big chance when she pushes the star of the show down a flight of stairs.

Along with "42nd Street," another one of the templates of "Showgirls" is "All About Eve," except that here we experience the story through the eyes of the hungry little gold-digger out to pick off the aging star. But the "aging" star isn't just the object of our pity. Gershon's Cristal (she tells Nomi she named herself after the champagne) is every bit the schemer her younger rival is. Cristal, who calls everybody "darlin'" in a voice that drips with both honey and vinegar, can't be the villain any more than Nomi is. The movie wants us to enjoy the deviousness of both these women without any moralistic wet blankets thrown on our fun.

In "Basic Instinct," Verhoeven and Eszterhas tried to encourage our identification with the sort of character that movies usually condemn, getting us to cheer on Sharon Stone's ice-pick killer. But the constant intrusion of Michael Douglas' cop kept derailing that amusing perversity. He was the conventional cop hero we were supposed to root for, and next to Stone he was numbingly dull. There's no conventional upright character here to get in Berkley's way. Stone's character was named Catherine Trammel. Nomi's last name might be Untrammeled. The movie starts with her zooming down the road to Vegas and never downshifts into a lower gear.

"What happens here stays here," says Las Vegas' new tourist slogan, rejecting the family-friendly image it had tried to embrace. Verhoeven and Eszterhas are saying that what happens in Vegas is simply an exaggeration of what happens everywhere else. Selling it and buying it are, for them, the truth of mass culture in which we're all happy hookers or johns. As movie messages go, that's a bit of barroom braggadocio no different from that of the gambler who tries to pick up Nomi in the opening scenes and tells her, "Everyone sells it sooner or later." The difference is, in "Showgirls," that nugget isn't held out as bitter truth but as the source of a satirical celebration of the way mass culture works.

The unapologetic lust for fame and money and the unimpeded pursuit of them are the keys to the movie's attitude and to its style. At times, "Showgirls" seems hell-bent on doing justice to the swank that every disreputable character in movie history would have chosen if they could have lived out their most excessive fantasies. (What flights of gaucherie would Barbara Stanwyck have indulged in if she'd gotten away with it in "Double Indemnity"?) Nomi may wear a dress by -- as she calls it -- "Ver-sace" (rhymes with "face"), but in "Showgirls" Versace seems to have been body-snatched by Frederick's of Hollywood. When Cristal takes Nomi to lunch, she's dressed like a rodeo hooker in skintight lamé pants and matching midriff wrap top with accompanying cowboy hat. The predominant style of Ellen Mirojnick's witty costume design is a trashy marriage of dance wear and lingerie. The movie takes the maxim "Dress for success" as seriously as any junior executive does. It's just that the girls here are dressing for far less respectable -- and far more spectacular -- success.

It's all part of film's wholly artificial world. The hotel's entertainment manager (slyly played by Kyle MacLachlan) lives in a mansion with four neon palm trees lining the swimming pool. At one point, Verhoeven includes a shot of Nomi sitting on a bench with a replica of the Sphinx and the pyramids in the background.

That's why the complaints about the movie's vulgarity and tastelessness missed the point. How could a movie about Vegas be otherwise? You can't make a tasteful movie about vulgarity. And unless you exaggerate a world that's already so exaggerated, it becomes just a gaudy, colorful backdrop. For the fantasy of Vegas, you've got to look at something like Stephen Soderbergh's remake of "Ocean's Eleven" (a movie I enjoyed). In that picture, Vegas is a playground with all the exploitation and crassness swept under the casino's wall-to-wall carpets. The dirt is right upfront in "Showgirls," and the joke of the movie is that it doesn't diminish Nomi's hunger or ours.

Vegas' unreality (the heart of its appeal) is nowhere more evident than in the production numbers we see from "Goddess," the show that Nomi schemes her way into. These are among the movie's high points and were widely criticized as though Verhoeven had no idea they were ridiculous. What's interesting about them is that they're perfectly calibrated to appeal to the all-American desire to feel, while you're on vacation, that you've stepped into a movie. Cristal emerges from an erupting papier-mâché volcano in a number that's like the old Italian sword-and-sandal epics reimagined as a choreographed love-in. She mimes getting gang-banged in a biker number that's like a disco version of one of the '60s AIP biker movies. The numbers are just naughty enough to make the tourists in the audience feel that they've seen something daring but not pornographic. And all the money on display tells you this parade of flesh is designed to strike the audience as "classy" in a way that a night spent watching Nomi at the strip club would never be. The sleek, hard bodies of the dancers and strippers have exactly the same allure as the hard sheen of car chrome seen under an oasis of neon. (The cinematographer, Jost Vacano, shoots the entire movie to look like one yummy temptation after another.) The nudity and sex, the stripteases and lap dances here are all about aggression, the expression of characters primed to gain the next foothold on the ladder. Berkley dances with the sort of choppy, abrupt movements you'd never see in a real strip club. Nomi's body is her fortune and she's too impatient to resort to the soft sell. No, it isn't erotic, but sex here isn't the motivator, just the product.

"Hunger" is the word that most accurately describes Berkley's fearless and untutored performance. In the early scene where she meets Molly (the immensely appealing Gina Ravera), Berkley stabs a straw into a giant soda cup, shakes a bottle of ketchup like a rabbit caught in a hunting dog's jaws, and mashes the ketchup into a plate of French fries. In the course of the movie, she takes ravenous bites out of oversize burgers and attacks a bag of potato chips. She's all appetite and movement, as if she were challenging Verhoeven to keep up with her. Berkley had her admirers, among them the great French filmmaker Jacques Rivette, who declared, "That woman is amazing" (he also called "Showgirls" one of the strongest American movies in years), but she bore the brunt of the jeering. One of the ironies of the critical reaction to "Showgirls" is that critics saw no contradiction in charging the film with reducing women to bodies for the audience's delectation while treating Berkley as if she were a brainless bimbo. "Her breasts may be more expressive than her face," wrote Anthony Lane in the New Yorker, echoing the kind of character assassination we'd expect from John Simon. But Lane, who has done more than anyone else to reduce criticism to the level of cocktail party chat and resurrect the notion of the clever, uncommitted "gentleman" critic, was not called to account for the sexism of that remark. (There is no more telling example of how much the idea of criticism and the idea of art has become devalued than the way otherwise intelligent people have been suckered into praising Anthony Lane.) Lane again: "[Berkley] 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-can-make-it endeavors of her fictional character." That he also declared, "There is not a whisper of satire in this movie" should give you an idea of just how seriously to take him.

It's easy to imagine that, given a starring role in a major studio movie after playing on the teen TV comedy "Saved by the Bell," Berkley felt something like Nomi's desire to prove herself. She works so well in the movie because she hasn't learned the more experienced actor's trick of self-protection. Her performance doesn't have the conscious irony of Gershon's or MacLachlan's, but that would be wrong for Nomi who, if such a thing is possible, is a wised-up naif. What the role needed was (no joke intended) naked ambition, and that Berkley has in spades. For the likes of Lane it may not be what "acting is rumored to consist of," but premeditated career moves should not be what acting consists of either. Asked by Charlie Rose recently if she had feared she was taking a chance with "Monster," Charlize Theron bluntly and admirably answered that taking chances was an actor's job. Berkley's performance shows some of the fearlessness that acting is supposed to be about.

In Film Quarterly, Chon Noriega ends his contribution to the round table by saying of Berkley, "In 'Showgirls,' her blood is everywhere." Noriega is referring to the way Berkley's career crashed and burned following the movie. If Hollywood did its part to chew her up and spit her out, critics did as well. Some have survived this treatment. Jessica Lange's wonderful parody of a breathy starlet in "King Kong" was reviewed as if she were really just the dumb blonde she played. Lang has had the last laugh. Berkley has not. She turned up as an in-joke in the truly vicious comedy "The First Wives Club" as a target for that picture's bitchy tirade against young women. And she was added to the ranks of young actresses who have to pretend to find something irresistible about Woody Allen in his "Curse of the Jade Scorpion," where she looked just right in the '40s setting. On the brighter side, she opens on Broadway Thursday in a revival of "Sly Fox," Larry Gelbart's hilarious updating of Ben Jonson's "Volpone." She deserves far better than she has gotten.

And Verhoeven and Eszterhas deserve to have "Showgirls" regarded as more than an embarrassment. The most American of Verhoeven's American movies, "Showgirls" is, like the city it's set in, a deliberately artificial ravishing of pop culture. It's a backstage musical, a rags-to-riches show biz exposé, a sex melodrama, and one of the great celebrations of that great movie icon, the bad bad girl. The only thing missing -- thank goodness -- is any desire to be reputable or moralistic or uplifting. With "Showgirls" Verhoeven and Eszterhas tapped right into the trash energy that powers American popular culture and understood how much that culture powers our fantasies of success. You get the sense they'd be appalled if they weren't having such a great time. When Nomi comes to the realization that, as Cristal told her, we're all whores, she's not condemned. She's welcomed into the fold. Near the end of "Die Hard," Bonnie Bedelia tries to shame Alan Rickman by calling him a common thief. "I'm an exceptional thief," he answers with a streak of pride. In "Showgirls" Verhoeven and Eszterhas are exceptional whores.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

MORE FROM Charles Taylor

Related Topics ------------------------------------------