Tawdry, trashy, and oh-so-terribly terrific, one of my favorite Vegas movies is the much-scorned Showgirls. Wait! Don't click off! Hear me out. This movie was a huge failure when released, but in recent years has gained somewhat of a cult following for those willing to view it with a cheeky camp-comedic slant. And I have to admit, I laugh like hell at it, too. But I'm not laughing at it because I'm looking at it with jaded irony. I laugh like hell at it because it's funny, and because people think they're so above it. The melodrama, the glitter, the sleaze!
Part of the reason this movie tanked, and took Elizabeth Berkley's career with it, is because of people's expectations. Director Paul Verhoeven and writer Joel Eszterhas had previously teamed up to create the sex-laden thriller Basic Instinct. For reasons I understand, that movie made the image of white-sheathed Sharon Stone nearly iconic as a femme fatale for the ages as she gave a mini-peep show to voyeuring investigators. For reasons I don't understand, that movie somehow carried a cache of respectability along with its lurid ice-pick-sharp sexuality.
So then Eszterhas and Verhoeven teamed up again to take on the daunting NC-17 rating. Showgirls was supposed to prove that a film could be commercially viable even with that new badge-of-dishonor slapped on it. People were expecting a suave, sophisticated movie with lots of explicit nudity and sex. What they got was a sleazy, shockingly crass movie with lots of explicit nudity and sex. To-may-to / To-mah-to, you know?
Instead of Sharon Stone in her slicked-back hair and chicly revealing designer outfits, we got the double delight of Elizabeth Berkley and Gina Gershon in enough synthetic fabrics and stage makeup to fuel an all-drag modern Broadway revival of "Annie Get Your Gun" for a full year. Snakeskin and spandex, lipstick, leather and lame, and glitter dripping from every eyelash, fingernail and tendril of carefully over-arranged hair.
In other words, Verhoeven and Eszterhas got it just right. This is, after all, Vegas.
But the crowds flocked away from this movie, forever staining the NC-17 rating and signaling a disturbing trend for major Hollywood movies to back away from blatant sex.
Fools. Not the studios. Audiences.
Apparently, it's perfectly acceptable for Sharon Stone to flash her snatch and we consider that tasteful entertainment. But for someone to actually say the word snatch? Tacky!
From the costumes to characters to the sets, Showgirls is quite probably the most stylized-yet-brutally accurate representation of Vegas put on film for that decade.
What was it that appalled the audiences? Was it Berkley's twist on the naked (pun intended) ambition of Nomi Malone? We like our hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold stories, and Berkley gave us part of that, but she also gave us the realistic depiction of the hardness that it takes to survive as a whore. Of course, that was the point of the movie. She didn't think she was a whore. Until she accepted that she is one.
The plot is simple. A stripper pushes her rival down a flight of stairs. But it's all those extra details, from the lurid lapdances to the splashy water-sex (still hilarious!) to the characters of Nomi and Cristal. They didn't show us that romanticized notion of a stripper-dancer. We like to envision those grad-school girls who strip to pay their tuition. We like to imagine artistes on the stage --deep spiritual beings for whom dance is a transcendent manifestation of their je-ne-sais-quios. But for both Nomi and Cristal, the dance was a manifestation of their aggressive ambition and willingness to barter their sexuality for their desired ends.
And oh, it was all so campy, darlin'. Gina's wisened Cristal isn't so much smart as she is tough and jaded. And Berkley's Nomi isn't so much a fresh-faced naif as a fresh piece of meat with her own sordid past. The relationship between the women wobbles between the sisterly and the sapphic, but there's never a single exchange between them that's not loaded with underpinnings of catty and jealous competitiveness. By large part, that tension and dynamic between them is built right into the script. Through timeworn archetypes, Gershon and Berkley manage to make these characters their own in their over-the-top way that's a joy to watch. Cristal is the star, struggling to keep her hold, and Nomi is the upstart, hungry to learn from her. But Nomi is also disgusted by Cristal's plain acceptance and crass commercial attitude. Nomi, desperate to be that "artiste" type, bristles when Cristal informs her that everyone is a whore.
And then, ultimately, Nomi's ambition and ruthlessness rise to the top as she sends Cristal plunging down that flight of stairs. She finds her fortune and fame, and just as quickly has to turn her back to it. (A much easier decision for her than for Ricky Gervais's Andy Millman.) She has to turn her back to it not because she thinks she's above it all, but because she's realized that she is a whore, but not a whore in control of her own destiny any longer. She's being pimped out. So she decides to make it on her own again. Well, there's that emotional journey that prods her forward. But there's also the fact that she stomped the shit out of some hotshot's face so she has to hightail it out of the city before she's charged with felony assault.
What's funniest is that some of the things that people found so ludicrous about this movie were actually just a bit ahead of the curve, even for Vegas. The stupendously stupid sex show at the major resort that was passed off as showy? Zumanity is a big hit out there! And there are plenty others like it. Berkley's flaky, psychotically-veering portrayal of Nomi? I fucking defy you to go troll about the Spearmint Rhino, Cheetah's, Olympic Gardens or any other gentleman's club and then tell me that those girls don't have the same melodramatic affectations and over-the-top, cheezy reactions if dissed.
There's a difference between exploitation and portrayals. Exploitation is when we trot out the tricks and get our titillation-factor and then sneer with contempt as we sit back with the moral high hand. But that's the beauty of Vegas. Vegas deals plenty of loser hands to the tourists, but they never deal the moral high hand. In the traditional "cinema" and "films", they sometimes pull the stops and let us get a glossed-up glimpse of scandalous (or in this case, silly) sex, but then the audience gets absolved for enjoying it because there's some moral comeuppance. That comeuppance never happens in Showgirls, and it's quite possibly the only kind of come-shot that doesn't happen in the movie. But that's also the beauty of it -- they aren't exploiting what they're portraying.
It wasn't all dressed up in a classic white sheath in Showgirls. Instead, Nomi makes her grand entrance into the showgirl scene with a black "Ver-sayce" dress, adorned with buckles. They put the sex and lust and desire and greed of Vegas out there, without ridiculing it. But the audience obviously prefers to keep "what happens in Vegas" quiet, like a dirty little secret. And you can't have a dirty little secret splashed all over the silver screen, can you?
Showgirls is tawdry, alright. It's tacky. It's over-the-top, stylized cheeze in the scenes, acting, and costuming. But it's also terrifically candid, and terribly, campily entertaining. You could call it a guilty pleasure, except they leave the "guilt" out of the formula here. That's why it's not a respectable film. But it sure is one hell of a movie, darlin'.