Village of the damned
Above: Elizabeth Berkley (Click to enlarge.)
Showgirls (1995 — 131 min. — UA) Directed by Paul Verhoeven. Written by Joe Eszterhas. Cinematography by Jost Vacano. Edited by Mark Goldblatt and Mark Helfrich. Starring Elizabeth Berkley, Kyle MacLachlan, Gina Gershon, Robert Davi, and Lin Tucci as Henrietta ‘Mama’ Bazoom.
“I've seen [Starship Troopers] twice and I like it a lot, but I prefer Showgirls (1995), one of the great American films of the last few years. It's Verhoeven's best American film and his most personal. In Starship Troopers, he uses various effects to help everything go down smoothly, but he's totally exposed in Showgirls. It's the American film that's closest to his Dutch work. It has great sincerity, and the script is very honest, guileless. It's so obvious that it was written by Verhoeven himself rather than Mr. Eszterhas, who is nothing. And that actress is amazing! Like every Verhoeven film, it's very unpleasant: it's about surviving in a world populated by assholes, and that's his philosophy. Of all the recent American films that were set in Las Vegas, Showgirls was the only one that was real — take my word for it. I who have never set foot in the place!”
The image of Rivette, creator of such modest, low-key works as La Belle noiseuse (1991) and La Bande des quatre (1988), enthralled by one of Verhoeven’s frenzied, mega-budgeted popcorn movies seems strange…until you realize the qualities shared by the people in their films. One step out of reality, wandering in a fog of wishes and ideals, they’re dismayed over the prospect of a life in banality. Rivette often deals in actors or painters or magicians or spirits for his characters; Verhoeven’s are the intolerant, aggressive bourgeoisie, often the products of caustic, unfriendly environments, people who know where the guns are hidden and how to use them, and rarely with a concern for consequence. Call it the cinema of impulse.
After doing some intriguing work in his native Netherlands, Verhoeven proved his box office mojo in American action fare: Robocop (1987), Total Recall (1990), and Basic Instinct (1992). He made a fortune, and was the best thing that ever happened to Sharon Stone. Total Recall benefits enormously from her haughty sensuality, as does Basic Instinct, Verhoeven’s first unabashed foray into glossy kitsch with an ice pick at its center. Both of her characters exemplify the adolescent male fear of independent, mature, beautiful women as vampires, using the promise of sex to drain the life from men who are, to the director’s understanding, innocent and hapless victims of circumstance.
When casting was underway for Showgirls Sharon was approaching forty — some fifteen years (and a few pounds) beyond the film’s naïve, star-struck lap dancer Nomi Malone. The part went to statuesque wetdream Elizabeth Berkley, Sharon Stone Lite. All things considered, she does remarkably well in the role. (Up to that point, her biggest gig was the TV show Saved By the Bell.) Seemingly oblivious to such overripe dialogue as “You look better than a ten inch dick,” Berkley’s completely immersed in the vacuous persona, even poignant at times, often charging like a bull in a china shop to points beyond the Method. A total fantasy figure, her Nomi maintains a radiant complexion and a firm twenty-inch waist on a steady diet of cheese fries, potato chips and Big Macs — undoubtedly Eszterhas’s kind of woman.
The media-fueled preoccupation with youth and appearance, gluttony and expensive toys, the loathing of middle-income people (characters here either own mansions or live in trailers)…greed, power, fleeting success, ego, vanity, manipulation, instant gratification…to say nothing of ferocious acrobatic sex that would land most of us in the hospital…these sundry elements permeate Eszterhas’s ludicrous scenario, which draws liberally from the well of 1940’s and 50’s backstage melodrama — specifically All About Eve (1950), this time with an exotic dancer gyrating her way up the ladder, stepping over the bodies in stiletto heels.
It was slapped with an NC-17 rating for nudity and simulated sex in its cheesy stage shows and austere dance numbers. Berkley and Gina Gershon (playing the Bette Davis part) look fabulous in and out of their clothes, but the pounding repetition of bare, wrinkle-free skin punches lust and desire into numbness. Lacking the acumen for successful and stimulating erotica, Verhoeven manages to flatten their magnificent physiques into meat. Clenched facial expressions, hyperactivity and the arrogant sense of entitlement euphemistically called “attitude,” so fashionable in the 90’s and prevalent among the pinched and modish cast, sours the senses, causing physical beauty and the mere thought of sex to seem vulgar and redundant. (Not that it’s completely asexual: Berkley’s lap dance with Kyle MacLachlan and the lesbian tease sessions with Gershon do have their moments.)
A case of the dragon consuming itself by the tail, Showgirls transcends the limitations normally set by genre and dramatic convention — and comes to embody every foul, odious thing it professes to abhor. That it evolves into a compelling (and very funny) reflection of western culture spiraling out of control for lack of dignity and shame was surely an accident. The picture was a box office bomb, killed by its MPAA rating and the reluctance of exhibitors to show it, causing Berkley’s film career to go south and sending Verhoeven back to the boot camp sci-fi of Starship Troopers. However, when Showgirls won a ‘Razzie’ award for worst picture, Verhoeven was on hand to collect the prize…even he thought it sucked. Perhaps too myopic to see, he may be unable to fathom it as an indictment of culture tainted by the very boorishness that made films like Total Recall and Basic Instinct hits.
Bloggers celebrating International Showgirls Day:
The Whine Colored Sea
Hell on Frisco Bay
When Canses were Classeled
Coffee, Coffee, and More Coffee
Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule
Showgirls screen grabs
Gina Gershon gallery