How does one approach the colossal elephant in the room that is Showgirls? Outside of perhaps Battlefield Earth, it may be the most lambasted and popularly despised film of the past quarter-century. At the time of its release, it was an unmitigated commercial disaster (unmitigated commercial disasters being the unofficial theme of the film year that was 1995), and to this day it almost universally reviled. Those that don’t revile it, a group that includes a heavy swath of more youthful critics and viewers who indulge in the film for its unapologetic descent into high camp and subversive anti-populism, mark it as some sort of misunderstood modern masterpiece. It is a deeply confusing film that openly solicits both interpretations with arms wide open and no concern whatsoever that its two guests have opposite aims and hate each other. But that is Paul Verhoeven for you folks, and whatever you think of Showgirls, it is probably, for better or worse, the culmination of everything he stands for. It is nothing less than The Paul Verhoeven film.
But is it any good? Well that’s another question entirely. Let’s start with the facts, which don’t really tell us much. Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkeley) saunters onto a desert stretch en route to the seedy glitter-pot of Las Vegas. We know little about her, except that soon enough she makes her mark as a stripper at a local establishment, a place we eventually learn is the proving ground for higher-paid stars. She attracts the attention of the older Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon), a famous showgirl and the head of the Las Vegas show Nomi desperately wants to rise into. Soon enough, she will, although the higher she rises, the more others will have to fall.
So what we have sounds part-ways bile-spewing nihilist All About Eve behind-the-scenes dissection of show business and part high-gloss anti-ode to those grand old MGM musicals of so long ago, something of a classical morality tale dressed up in high airs and the finest nonsense modern money can buy. Fine enough conceptually, but what wrong? Commercially and critically, Paul Verhoeven did. Verhoeven was always a particularly nasty-minded jester who seemed to make movies simply because he enjoyed making them, and specifically because he enjoyed making jokes at his audience’s expense. Not to mention at the expense of his actors, writers, and producers. Generally, these did well for him commercially when audience didn’t realize he was mocking his genre of choice and simply thought he was making a genre film, and he made a name for himself as someone everyone liked even if they didn’t understand. The problem is, Verhoeven was insatiable, and the success may have pushed him over the edge into the territories of filmland where bad and good, intent and effect, logic and fantasy were and are almost indistinguishable.
What he ended up doing, and what Showgirls ultimately is more than anything else, is a scathing critique of the grand entirety of the entertainment industry dementedly executed in the body of a film that apes the very skeletal structure of the film it is critiquing. In simpler terms, that means that the film is a self-critique, and a work designed to pull audiences in with a certain lie around its own existence, actively courting disagreement by promoting itself as a film which it subliminally, and often openly, hates and despises. Everything about the film on the surface tackles classical technicolor musicals with the highest composite of gloss and wide-expanse you can possibly imagine. This is adamant, consistent, uncontained, restless hyper-stylization with waxworks in place of legitimate human characters and as close to no amount of realism as you could possibly imagine. It is a film in love with the idea of an Old Hollywood musical and the gee-whiz faculties of the entertainment industry. And it absolutely hates itself for it.
Sound familiar? Showgirls is in almost every facet a more fully entrenched reworking of Basic Instinct, Verhoeven’s anti-noir from three years prior, and a hugely successful moneymaker on the back of how well it pretended to be noir more than on how well it actively indicted the entire genre. Audiences misinterpreted it and liked it, and with Showgirls, audiences misinterpreted it and they didn’t. Both films plunge so deeply into the visual vocabulary of their respective genres and render the genre meaningless and hollow, a lie propped up by Hollywood to paint over the fundamentally festering drought at the core. Both say, essentially: you want Hollywood excess? Take your Hollywood excess, and choke on it. Basic Instinct apparently wasn’t enough, for audiences bought the lie. Showgirls seems so indulgent and excessive, so gluttonous and unendingly opulent and corrosive with its petulant mass of open portals to Hollywood non-reality that it descends, or ascends if you please, into high-camp. Quite literally, it pushes show business excess to the point where it is almost impossible to believe. It openly flaunts the illusion of non-reality. Or to quote one of Verhoeven’s other great beasts, it flaunts the suspension of disbelief. And then it strings it up, tortures it a little, and carts it away never to be seen again.
As for Verhoeven’s partners in crime, this is the first time when some of them seem to be along for the ride. Gershon is absolutely wonderful in a showcase of lustrous physical dexterity and pointed verbal attack barks. She is clearly on board with Verhoeven’s vision, channeling the Grand Dame of Las Vegas as a venomous, grotesque myth who revels and enjoys every single second of her existence, a pastiche of show business types who survives not on self but image. But if Gershon can be understood, Berkeley is beyond words, giving one of the strangest performances ever essayed in a mainstream film of this budget. She dances like a writhing animal in seizure or dying from a bullet-wound, lost in some mindless corpulent indulgence of some of the most unmitigated nonsense and idiocy ever captured in a film. Nothing she ever once does resembles dancing in any meaningful sense. It’s more like some abstract showpiece of raw id where beasts and higher powers collide, which is to say nothing of her line readings which cannot but suggest she genuinely believed she was giving a meaningful dramatic performance and had no idea how to convey it whatsoever. Verhoeven clearly latched onto her torrid over-acting, for it was conceptually perfect for his brutal dissection of excess. There’s a certain sense of abuse in how he treats her, using her for her awful performance when she believed she was giving a great one, and this mirrors the way she herself is abused as a character in the film, further adding to the meta-text on display here. Not to mention, it compounds the sense that Verhoeven has never been shy about his own hypocrisy and his own involvement in the large Hollywood project he critiques. There’s a nasty plastic quality to the performance, the role, and the character, all simulacra of reality rather than genuine articles, each a critique of Hollywood types and hollow images. I’m particularly fond of the protagonist’s claim, when asked where “back East” she’s from, that she’s from “different places” – ie nowhere specific or local – as if to suggest that she’s a figment of the mind, a Hollywood construction, a mythical “small-town girl goes out West to find herself and succeed in showbiz” archetype not grounded in reality but plastically constructed, depleted of any real mooring in any actual place. There’s a definite impression that he got something over on many of his cast members, perhaps Berkeley included, and that he got one over on Hollywood too.
All of this is to say, yes, Showgirls is a good film, if an indiscriminate one. It is sharp and well-composed, utilizing delirious excess like the greatest weapon a filmmaker ever had. It is hard to claim that it is a masterpiece in hiding, however, or to say much of anything about it in any definitive sense. More than any other Verhoeven film, it melds the ideas of self-satire and self-belief until meaningful distinction can no longer be drawn between them. It’s like watching “Springtime for Hitler” in reverse, where the audience didn’t eventually get the joke, but the director did. It is also a difficult film, hopelessly brutal in a half-assed way that for all intents and purposes is the worst Hollywood self-examination ever (as with All About Eve, another show business stronghold must stand in for Hollywood itself so as to avoid the hounds from the movie producers, although Hollywood itself makes an appearance in the final, nasty shot). More than any film Verhoeven had yet made, defending Showgirls requires a certain willingness to buy into the idea that this is all Verhoeven’s intentional doing, that he consciously produced a bad film, rather than simply stumbled into one.
As a Verhoeven fan, and someone who knows how elegantly he can make a film when he wants, and as someone who sees the undeniable passion on display throughout most of Showgirls, I am willing to grant him his intent. Someone else may not be able to, and more than any other Verhoeven film, they may very well be right. This is what happens in the realms where bad and good are almost indistinguishable. They become meaningless, and a film’s success or failure becomes so tied to the subjective consciousness of the viewer that it becomes almost pointless to review or explain the film itself, except to save oneself from losing their mind at its bequest. There are a great many people for whom the fact that Verhoeven intentionally made a bad film will not excuse the fact that it is a bad film, and they’re not wrong. Still though, there’s always the camp. It’s marvelously good camp, and we can never have too much of that.