Letters

Does "Showgirls" deserve to be reappraised -- or drop-kicked into film history? Salon readers weigh in.


Salon Staff
April 7, 2004 12:00AM (UTC)

[Read "Alive and Kicking" by Charles Taylor.]

I feel like I'm taking crazy pills!

Has Charles Taylor completely lost his mind?

Is this a joke? It is April Fools' Day. Please tell me he's kidding.

"Showgirls" is hands down the worst movie ever made. The worst. Ever. That is why I love it. For years, my friends and I have gotten together, gotten drunk and howled with laughter at this unparalleled train wreck of a movie. It's not camp, it's beyond camp. It attempts to take Las Vegas seriously, and fails utterly, triumphantly!

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It is true that Verhoeven may have known what he was doing, but not in the way Taylor is giving him credit for. He was trying to make a sort of skin-flick masterpiece, as Burt Reynolds' character in "Boogie Nights" aspired to do. And thus he produced a work of opulent, sublime cinematic incompetence.

"Showgirls" truly pulls out all the stops. The dance numbers are beyond belief. Nothing more tasteless exists in the history of cultural production. Taylor writes as if the film has some sort of one-to-one relation to actual Las Vegas. He has to be kidding. If ever there was a movie that takes place in a universe of its own imagining, this is it.

It is, in fact, an idealization of Las Vegas created by the two most sexist human beings in the history of human civilization (everything in Eszterhas' and Verhoeven's filmographies testifies to this). Most of the humor comes from the simple fact that the filmmakers actually seem to believe that what they have put on the screen is sexy or erotic. The swimming pool sex scene, the film's absolute apex, is quite simply the least sexy and most hilarious thing I have ever seen on film.

And Elizabeth Berkley did not know what she was doing, thank you. Her performance is not what courageous acting is all about. There is only one description for her performance, actually, and that is: the worst performance of all time. It is human ambition in its purest form, without the slightest shred of talent interfering.

Sorry to use one hyperbole after another. But see the film. There is no other way to describe it.

No, there can be no doubt -- Taylor has lost it. If his review was not a joke, then I honestly believe that his head, let alone his qualifications as a critic, should be examined. Most disturbing of all is that he completely avoids mention of the rape scene that does serve as punishment for Nomi's transgressions (it simply happens to her friend and not her). In this truly reprehensible sequence, which lingers on in an obvious attempt to satisfy the more base desires of the intended frat-boy audience, the laughter stops. Verhoeven and Eszterhas were actually serious. This scene is proof. They were lunatics.

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Taylor actually points out a sexist remark by Anthony Lane, so he does seem to be aware of the word "sexist." But it's frightening that he fails to observe that "Showgirls" is in fact violently, disgustingly sexist. What redeems the movie is that its sexism implodes; it doesn't function. That is precisely why it is so funny -- the monstrous sexist pig director has failed to convince. Then again, maybe some of us want to be convinced more than others.

-- Daniel Quiles

Kudos to Charles Taylor for his articulate focus on Paul Verhoeven's masterpiece "Showgirls," a fiercely delicious slice of neo-reality that dickless elitist critics could not handle by day, yet probably masturbate to privately night after night.

Back in '95, I, along with a lot of other L.A. party boys, was invited to attend a decadent party for the Hollywood premiere of "Showgirls." Happening Hollywood A-listers crammed into a vulgar old nightclub peppered with drag queens, pimps, punks and whores -- and after hours of drinking, drugs and badass eye candy, we were all whisked off to a midnight screening. By the end of the film I was stone-cold sober. Skipping the after-party I ran home to remove my makeup and down a tall glass of scotch. I do not drink scotch!

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Not since Kubrick's "Clockwork Orange" have I been so petrified by a film's ability to exploit and explore reality. I was young, naive and scared to admit that Kubrick's world really did exist. It did, still does, and so does Verhoeven's. But now, older, wiser, I can handle the truth. Mr. Taylor's point about the film's lack of contempt for mass culture hits the right nerve. Like it or not, our stereotypes have changed!

Elizabeth Berkley redefined the American prom queen, Gina Gershon gave us a woman with balls, and Kyle Maclachlan portrayed a modern everyman and his meat. Try as they might, the hypocrites of the world can no longer hide behind cries of vulgarity and tastelessness to cover up realities they cannot face. Thank you, Mr. Taylor, for raising the flag of truth, and maybe helping to set us free!

-- Ron Meyers

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Thanks for a great article that clearly articulates what I had always suspected but was unable to see: that "Showgirls" wasn't as bad as it seemed.

However, I must stick up for what I think is the most under-appreciated film in years: [Paul Verhoeven's next film] "Starship Troopers." What almost no one sees is that this great film is designed to be not about the future, but from the future. "SS Troopers" is a propaganda film of the type described by William Hurt's character in "Kiss of the Spider Woman" -- government propaganda disguised as innocent entertainment. Since what it is propagandizing is fictional (joining the Mobile Infantry to combat space bugs), it allows a wise viewer to study the machinations of propaganda in a clear, unpoliticized way. I have rarely seen a film in which each and every detail can be examined with such rewarding results -- from costumes to casting to the song they play at the dance.

But what truly elates me about this film is the way it transports the audience. Sitting in that theater, you are part of the project -- you are the audience from the future. The film treats global events, like the war with the bugs, as if you already know about them. In this way, the film itself becomes an artifact from the world it describes -- something rarely achieved in any art form. (The only other example I have found is some of the Edward Gorey stories that are individually bound. These can seem like lost books from a century ago, even though they were published in the 1960s. Often every detail of these little tomes is designed toward that end, down to Gorey's use of an archaic-sounding pen name.) The fact that these astonishing achievements went wholly uncommented on in the reviews I read was exactly what made me suspect that "Showgirls" might be the same type of overlooked jewel.

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-- Morgan Nichols

I greatly enjoyed Charles Taylor's retrospective on "Showgirls," particularly the poignant observations regarding the conflation of Elizabeth Berkley with her on-screen character. The article suggests that critics ought to have been able to tell the difference. Of course, as anyone who has attended a film junket knows, movie critics are not necessarily founts of sagacity.

Where I might differ with Taylor's opinion is with regard to "Starship Troopers." This unheralded classic is Verhoeven's best American movie -- a rollicking bad time at the movies. Verhoeven has never been better or more perverse, creating a dazzling action flick that is unstinting in its desire to make the viewer feel queasy about being excited. As a graphic demonstration of why wars are bad, "Starship Troopers" rivals "Saving Private Ryan" in painful imagery and soundly trumps it in moral denunciation. Watch again. I'm doing my part, are you?

-- Ron Yamauchi

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Charles Taylor may share his name with a bad African warlord, but to see an American critic finally giving credit to "Showgirls" shows that he really has a whole lotta soul.

-- Deon Maas
Johannesburg, South Africa

Has Charles Taylor lost his mind? Is he so hell-bent on swimming against the tide that he must do an in-depth analysis of the merits of "Showgirls"? "Showgirls" isn't amusing trash. It's not a tongue-in-cheek, fun "bad" movie that invites you in with a wink. It's an ugly movie, despite the beauty of Gina Gershon and Elizabeth Berkley's bodies.

I think it's a cop-out for Taylor to deride his fellow critics as "Victorian" and to suggest that they -- and those of us not looking for a clever critic's niche -- object to the graphic rape and ludicrous sex scenes because they're old-fashioned prudes. The bottom line is that this movie says nothing that hasn't been said 100 times better (and with even better "camp") without the symbolic equivalent of taking Elizabeth Berkley's face and mashing it into spilled food on the soundstage.

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-- Cat Needham

Thank you for the wonderful article on "Showgirls," which I have loved without reservation ever since I saw it at the dollar second-run cinema. I even made a pilgrimage to Versace in the Forum when I was in Vegas -- though not to Cheetah's, sadly. Next time.

Now, when people laugh at me for proudly owning the film and never, ever getting tired of it, I can point them to Mr. Taylor's insightful piece. His reasons may not be the reasons I first fell for the film -- but they've certainly allowed me to tumble further down the staircase. Just call me Cristal, darlin'.

-- Nicole Winchester

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I first saw "Showgirls" when I was 17 on opening night in the theater. Recently, I watched it on cable and I have to say in response to this article: Wow, do I read this movie differently.

Mr. Taylor leaves out a rather glaring episode in the movie. Nomi's African-American friend (her name escapes me) is raped by her idol. Taking the rape sequence into consideration, the movie reads as a scathing indictment of the Vegas culture, saying, basically, that at least being an "exceptional whore" isn't being a hypocrite and is therefore superior to the Vegas culture.

That message would, in my opinion, make for a good movie if the characters had any life at all. The movie was tawdry, but not shockingly so. Far worse than the lifeless strip and lap-dance scenes (even real strippers do a better job of looking interested) are the awful dialogue and the flat characters. I didn't buy Berkley as a stripper/whore when I was 17 and I don't buy it now; and the dialogue is a seemingly endless string of clichés devoid of originality.

I agree that Elizabeth Berkley shouldn't be blackballed for "Showgirls" and that it actually represents a laudable risk. But that doesn't make this a good movie. Trying to bridge the gap between high and low art and attacking stuffy critics are worthy goals, but "Showgirls" is not the film to use toward that end.

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-- Joe Fleissner

While I applaud Charles Taylor's attempt to get readers to reassess a movie that was received poorly on its first release, his choice of "Showgirls" is more than a little ridiculous. When you cut through all the bullshit (both then and now), the real problem with "Showgirls" is that it's just plain boring. Like virtually every other movie Joe Eszterhas ever wrote, there's not an ounce of life or energy or surprise to the film. It plods through its dull melodrama with dreary, TV-movie earnestness. Joe wasn't joking when he did the talk-show circuit and claimed that the movie was educational -- he genuinely believes this drivel has some intellectual validity.

I have no problem with characterizing most Americans as prudes, and I suspect the film wouldn't have done a lot better had it been good (Americans seem to prefer their flesh where it belongs -- on video, where you can watch it alone). But to try to fob off the wretched "Showgirls" as a proof of this is just silly. In spite of the efforts of the studio's P.R. department to convince us otherwise, "Showgirls" is not so bad it's good. It's just plain mediocre.

Don't believe the hype.

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-- Josh Olson


Salon Staff

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