[box cover]

Showgirls: VIP Edition

MGM Home Video

Starring Elizabeth Berkley, Kyle MacLachlan and Gina Gershon

Written by Joe Eszterhas
Directed by Paul Verhoeven

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

Since its release to an unsuspecting public in 1995, the notorious Paul Verhoeven/Joe Eszterhas collaboration Showgirls has become, like Ishtar before it and Battlefield Earth since, a cultural touchstone. The film's title instantly became synonymous with wretched filmmaking — drop its name in mixed company and people will involuntarily shudder. The perceived campy awfulness of Showgirls has even inspired a small cadre of anti-fans to exhibit the movie at late-night shows in an attempt to create a cult around it alá The Rocky Horror Picture Show — but a cult following is a self-made creation and, no matter how much one may beat the drum that a film is "so bad it's good," that's something that audiences come around to on their own, thank you very much.

Consider the possibility, however, that Showgirls isn't a terrible movie at all, but a very effective movie that's grossly misunderstood. That doesn't mean it's brilliant filmmaking, by any means — because Showgirls is far from brilliant — but returning to it with some distance and some perspective, one can appreciate what Verhoeven was trying to achieve with the film. It's also surprising to discover that the picture isn't remotely as terrible as one remembers — heck, if you've sat through films like Adam Sandler's 8 Crazy Nights or From Justin to Kelly in recent years, Showgirls practically shines like a diamond.

The key to understanding Showgirls is understanding Paul Verhoeven. The Dutch director's American films are, at their foundation, social commentaries. That they're wrapped up in the colorful trappings of Hollywood big-budget films is Verhoeven's special brand of genius — that his films are continually marketed as simplistic blockbusters is where they sometimes go wrong with the ticket-buying public. After accusing Verhoeven of Fascism — and of idolizing Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl! — after the release of the initially reviled Starship Troopers, many critics have grudgingly come around to the fact that the film was never meant to be a straightforward, popcorn-movie adaptation of the Robert Heinlein novel; it's a satire about American politics, just as Robocop was, in the director's words, "my reaction to being thrown into American society and looking around with wide eyes, thinking 'This is completely crazy.'" Likewise, Showgirls is both a comment on the greedy excess of American popular culture — with the show-biz world of Las Vegas representing the worst of American vulgarity — and an exaggerated, camp-tastic riff on the classic chorus-girl-claws-her-way-to-the-top Hollywood picture.

Does it work as satire? Not always. But the artistic attempt is fascinating, and no matter how weak and occasionally vile Eszterhas' script is, Verhoeven's direction in Showgirls — the film's gorgeous, glossy look, its garish costuming, the canny mise-en-scenes, the intensely exaggerated performances — is mesmerizing. Much of it, admittedly, is mesmerizing in a slow-down-to-gawk-at-the-burning-fuel-truck sort of a fashion. But it's mesmerizing nonetheless.

*          *          *

Showgirls is, at its heart, a classically constructed fable — innocent girl comes to the big city to make it in show biz, comes up against bad people who try to corrupt her, sells a little of her soul in exchange for stardom, then has a change of heart and turns her back on fame. But Nomi is no innocent, which is the most fundamental twist on this age-old story. She is, in fact, a wee bit psychotic, and Berkley's instructions from Verhoeven on how to play her involve many whacked, completely out-of-control responses to simple situations. The famous french-fry scene early in the film is our first real clue that Nomi's off her nut — talking to her conveniently show-biz connected new best pal, Nomi expresses her frustration over losing her suitcase by angrily spraying catsup all over her fries, then spastically flinging them into the air and stalking off. The girl's got issues, most of them related to the idea of being a "whore" — the very use of the word makes her see red and respond by throwing tantrums, spitting in faces, and stomping out of auditions.

Even though she's working as a stripper and grinding the crotches of the Cheetah Club's customers for lap-dance money, Nomi steadfastly insists that she's a dancer, not a whore — no matter how often everyone she encounters on the way up the ladder, including the Stardust casino's skeezy-but-sexy entertainment director (Kyle MacLachlan) and his bitchy, bisexual star attraction (Gina Gershon), rightly claim that they're all whores, selling tits and ass for money. When we learn about Nomi's past at the film's end, her freakish behavior makes a little bit more sense. Despite the unsubtle revelation that Nomi's real name is Polly Ann (hence her typically excessive reaction to being called "Pollyanna" by the show's director), she's not a babe-in-the-woods being corrupted by those around her — she actually came to Vegas in a hilariously ill-conceived attempt to go straight, and her frustrations come from the discovery that she's merely traded one form of whoring for another.

*          *          *

A preponderance of the criticism heaped on Showgirls on its release was piled on ingénue Elizabeth Berkley in the lead role as dancer Nomi Malone, with reviews scorching the ex-"Saved By the Bell" actress for her lack of acting chops. In retrospect, this is both unfair and completely off-the-mark. The rock-stupid symbolism of her name aside, Nomi is a brilliantly realized character and Berkley's casting was an act of genius. No, she isn't a world-class actress, but she is a competent one, at least by weekly TV standards. But she was utterly out of her league in this movie, jumping from second-banana status on a mediocre teen sitcom to carrying an entire, big-budget Hollywood film on her slender back — which made her not unlike Nomi, who hitchhikes to Las Vegas without any clue of how she'll make it big as a dancer, then finds herself thrust headlong into the back-stabbing, nasty world of big-time Vegas stage productions.

That Berkley was given the role, rather than a name actress with box-office clout, was no accident — like Nomi, Berkley was hungry and willing to do anything asked of her on this film, no matter how degrading, to grasp a little stardom. Her passion as an actress to prove herself through complete personal debasement — from the cheesy, unsexy, exploitive choreography, to her underwear-free costumes and creepy sex scenes — gives her performance a freakish resonance and provides a level of entertainment almost completely separate from the film itself. In his famous deconstruction of Showgirls for the New Yorker, Anthony Lane nailed it when he wrote, "She 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 Berkley also appears to have been kept out of the loop regarding Showgirls' satirical bent seems quite deliberate — witness the unfortunate Casper Van Dien and Denise Richards in Starship Troopers, who fell victim to Verhoeven's directorial technique of letting some actors in on the joke (in Troopers it was Neil Patrick Harris; here, it's the deliciously smarmy Gershon and MacLachlan) while keeping other actors in the dark to make them look especially earnest and vapid. In Showgirls, that trick served the film beautifully — but it also had the side effect of utterly derailing Berkley's fledgling career when she was torn asunder by critics.

*          *          *

Part of the reason that audiences may have responded so negatively to Showgirls is that they simply didn't have the reference points to make sense of it. This reviewer, for example, absolutely despised the film on first viewing, thinking it vile, ugly, and just plain badly written. The characters' behaviors often make no sense, and the dialogue frequently strays so far afield from either logic or even normal human speech that it's awe-inspiring — that defining moment, for example, when Nomi and the show's diva, Crystal (Gershon) bond by disclosing that they both like the taste of dog food, or this exchange between the show's stage manager and director:

Marty: Tony, she's all pelvic thrust. She prowls … she's got it.
Tony: I wonder how she got it.
Marty: Well, she certainly didn't learn it.
Tony: She learned it, all right. But they don't teach it in any class.

Part of the problem may lie in that Showgirls is an homage to/amalgam of several classic film genres — the '30s backstage musical, the '60s sexploitation film, and the '90s sexy-lesbians-are-hot-and-scary genre pioneered by Eszterhas — as well as being a satire that's played completely straight. Sold to the public on its release as a sexy flick about topless dancers, audiences were totally unprepared for what they got — an exercise in subversive excess that makes violence sexy and sexuality violent, works overtime to make its non-stop T&A abhorrently non-erotic, and turns the traditional wide-eyed heroine into a frenzied sociopath in need of Thorazine.

Unsurprisingly, given its critical reception, Verhoeven has expressed personal disappointment over Showgirls, pointing the finger at Eszterhas' script. But what the director did with that script — a sincere screenplay which seems to actually mean its rags-to-riches message, filtered through Eszterhas' trademark woman-hating sexual hang-ups — was to turn it into something wholly different than what the writer intended. Like Douglas Sirk (or Todd Haynes emulating Douglas Sirk, for that matter), the film that Verhoeven crafted is far more complex than the story that the writer put on the page. By amplifying and exaggerating Eszterhas' misogynistic, cliché-ridden, hopelessly formulaic script, Verhoeven created both a commentary on the vulgarity of American culture and a vicious parody of unimaginative Hollywood blockbusters — and made the audience actually turn on the very narrative formulas that enticed them into the theater in the first place. Of course audiences hated the movie. They were supposed to hate it. And that's what makes Showgirls a work of art.

*          *          *

MGM Home Video has decided to treat Showgirls as a camp classic rather than the almost universally reviled film that it is, releasing the "VIP Edition" as a self-consciously ironic box full o' kitsch. The disc itself features a very good anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) of the NC-17 film, gloriously bright and richly saturated, with rather uneven Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (in English, French, or Spanish with optional subtitles in those languages) that jumps dramatically in volume during the musical numbers. Other than the volume problem, the audio is very clean and clear, with everything from flying french fries to divas tumbling down stairs coming through in glorious detail.

On board is an audio commentary by David Schmader, a self-described "biggest fan" of the film who's developed a cottage industry hosting live Showgirls screenings during which he makes snarky comments. His remarks here sound well-rehearsed, and it's obvious they're part of his schtick for his live shows. Some of his stuff is very funny, but there's neither enough of it to fill a full-length commentary nor is there much of actual substance — if you're gonna give a film the MST3K treatment, then commit to it fully and do more than just groan over the silly costumes. Commentary by Verhoeven and/or Eszterhas would have been far more valuable — and probably would have offered a superior level of camp entertainment, to boot. There's also supposed to be an optional picture-in-picture commentary by actual strippers during the strip-club segments, which was so difficult to find and access that after ten minutes your humble reviewer just gave up and moved on to the next feature.

On the extras front, the Lap-Dance Tutorial from the Girls of Scores (5 min.) offers lap-dance tips from those same real live strippers, including valuable advice like "We wear long gowns to look elegant, but at home you don't have to wear a long gown, you can wear anything you feel sexy in," and "Your partner will find it sexy if you spank yourself." It's hard to tell who this is aimed at — it purports to be a tutorial for women, but it's really just an excuse to show strippers' breasts. As it's neither sexy nor even especially informative, it fails on both fronts.

A Showgirls Diary offers a handful of skimpy two- or three-minute scenes showing Verhoeven at work behind the camera. It's not enough, it's not especially insightful, and it's really only interesting for the glimpses at Verhoeven's sketch-scribbled script pages.

The Trivia Track, though, is the now-standard "pop-up video" style feature and it's a lot of fun. Tidbits include information like the fact that Berkley's hair took two-and-a-half hours to do each day (involving lots of "glue and extensions"), that Japanese tourists contribute $300 million annually to the Vegas economy, and that the naked-breast count in Showgirls is 170. There's "Saved by the Bell" trivia and snotty comments sprinkled throughout. Also on board is the film's theatrical trailer and ads for MGM's special editions of The Great Escape and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The great big, glossy, pretty "VIP Edition" box also includes a couple of nifty Showgirls shot glasses, a deck of playing cards, and a stack of extremely stupid rules for playing Showgirls-themed drinking games. There's also a poster of a topless Elizabeth Berkley, plus a blindfold and a pair of suction cups with tassels so that you can use the poster to play "Pin the Pasties on the Showgirl." And no, unfortunately, I'm not making that up.

— Dawn Taylor

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