The sexploitation ‘masterpiece’ that killed a career: is Showgirls worth defending?

Climbing to the top: showgirl Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley) - Murray Close
Climbing to the top: showgirl Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley) - Murray Close

Take two of Hollywood’s biggest names – an avant garde director fresh from several blockbuster hits, and a screenwriter at the top of his game – add an enormous budget, one teen star desperate to make it big, a script full of bonkers sex scenes and zingy one-liners and, surely, you have the recipe for a bona fide hit.

Or at least that’s what MGM thought when they commissioned Showgirls from director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, about ingenue Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) trying to make it as a top show girl in Las Vegas, for $45 million – at that point the highest budget NC-17 movie ever made.

And yet the 1995 release ended up being a huge commercial and critical flop, bombing at the box office with just $37.8 million, being savaged by critics and torpedoing the fledgling career of its young star, who was looking to shed her saccharine Saved by the Bell persona with a raunchy lead role.

Over two decades later, however, and Showgirls is still claiming the spotlight, with this year not one but two documentaries made about its misunderstood nature. The first, You Don’t Nomi, created by documentary maker Jeffrey McHale, received rave reviews when it aired at the Tribeca Film Festival last May and is out on VOD this Friday.

The second, titled Goddess: The Fall and Rise of Showgirls, will mark the film’s 25th anniversary when it comes out later this year. So why are we still so fascinated by a film that won seven Razzies, including one for the Worst Film of the 1990s, and was dubbed by critics as “tawdry”, “sleazy and forgettable”?

McHale’s documentary aims to address this very question. “We’re still taking about it because we’re not done with it,” McHale said in an interview with Salon. “We can’t figure out how it got made, its intent, the way that the media and critics responded to it, and how audiences have found it and reclaimed it for themselves… When people see this they want to know: how does this thing get made? You want answers.”

While definitive answers have proved hard to come by, with everyone from the film’s makers to critics flip-flopping over whether it was originally intended to be a powerful, heavy-hitting drama or a knowingly camp tour de force, we have to cast our minds back to peak Nineties cinema to understand how a film dubbed a “masterpiece of sh-t” by Toronto film critic Adam Nayman ever came to be made.

Back in 1995, Verhoeven was fresh off a run of huge commercial hits, including Robocop, Total Recall and Basic Instinct, the latter of which he collaborated on with Eszterhas, who also wrote Flashdance. This was the era of 9 ½ Weeks and Fatal Attraction, when more was more and sex and erotica sold big time in the box office.

In many ways Showgirls is the culmination of this era, as Nomi's journey from stripper to, well, high-end stripper, was summed up by one critic as “All About Eve in body glitter and thongs.” Filled with unforgettable sex scenes - including one involving a swimming pool and so much thrashing that some were genuinely concerned Berkley might have been electrocuted - and lines like “must be weird not having anyone cum on you”, no one could accuse this film of being proper.

The critics had a field day tearing it to shreds when it was released, competing with each other for the snarkiest write-up. “Valley of the Dulls” screamed one headline; “Trashdance” proclaimed another. “When chimps invade the dressing room and all they do is defecate, the film enjoys a rare moment of good taste,” was the New York Times assessment.

A career low: Berkley in Showgirls - PA
A career low: Berkley in Showgirls - PA

Few publications deigned to give it more than one star, with Canada’s Globe and Mail giving it none at all. Their fury came largely from the staggering budget that was spent on the film - $45 million, equivalent to around $100 million in today’s money - but also from what was perceived as the film’s intrinsically sexist and misogynistic views.

Though some have insisted that Nomi was an empowered female protagonist, it’s hard to deny that at a time when women were struggling to break glass ceilings, the depiction of a character whose sole focus was making it as a high-class stripper was jarring. Nomi is considered first and foremost as a body, her characterisation (and indeed, story line) falling short. The film may have supposed itself a commentary of female exploitation, and yet no explicit commentary is ever made. Add in the the relentless nudity (I lost count of the number of nipples I’d seen within the first 10 minutes) and a rather sickening rape scene, and you’d be hard pressed to claim it as a feminist triumph.

Indeed this rape scene, in which Nomi's roommate Molly (Gina Rivera) is beaten and sodomised by rock star Andrew Carver (William Shockley), was rumoured to have been turned down by real life rock star Gregg Allman, for whom it was originally written by Eszterhas.

Critic Adam Nayman, however, author of a book making a case for the hidden genius of Showgirls called It Doesn't Suck, felt the scene accurately conveyed the brutal normality of rape. “One way to look at it is, that scene - one of only two actual sex scenes in the movie - takes a certain male violence that has been latent the whole time and brings it to the surface. It's rape as the release of repressed tension, and also as metaphor since Carver (that name!) is the face of an entertainment-industrial complex that ‘just wants to party, baby’ and corrupts/ruins everything it sees. Verhoeven treats rape as hideously unpleasant, completely un-titillating and (worst of all) common and plausible.”

Verhoeven never was one to shy away from pushing boundaries – the Dutch filmmaker’s scathing depiction of the Netherlands (dripping scorn on everyone from the police to the press) in his 1980s film Spetters effectively got him exiled to Hollywood, where he then changed tack and started criticising his adoptive home instead, targeting the country’s law enforcement and toxic masculinity in films like Starship Troopers and RoboCop.

Some argue that Showgirls shares that intent, shining a lens on America’s love of sleaze and excess, and yet no one can quite make up their mind over whether the film was supposed to be funny or whether it took itself deeply seriously – least of all the director himself.

“It's been reclaimed as camp, as kitsch, a grist for the academic mill, as auteurism, as ideology, as moneymaker, as a fun night out with friends, as everything,” Nayman told American radio station WBUR last year. “I've argued – in the book and elsewhere – that Showgirls needed those aggrieved initial reactions to contextualize that which is bold, daring and exceptional about it, and maybe the resurgence is simply a case of an idea whose time has come.”

While Verhoeven has tried to distance himself from the film since its critical failure, claiming it was made as a deliberate satire, and Berkley said in a 208 television interview that it was always intended to be “fun and over the top”. McHale doesn’t buy that. In his documentary he points to excerpts from the director's companion book to the film that discuss its themes with laughable pretentiousness, alongside clips of Eszterhas talking with solemn self-importance about the film’s examination of "moral values and spiritual choices, innocence and corruption."

Elizabeth Berkley with Woody Allen, Helen Hunt and Charlize Theron celebrating their film The Curse of the Jade Scorpion - Reuters
Elizabeth Berkley with Woody Allen, Helen Hunt and Charlize Theron celebrating their film The Curse of the Jade Scorpion - Reuters

One of the film’s stars, Kyle MacLachlan (Nomi's boyfriend), was more definitive with his summation: “We were playing the whole film for drama and if anyone tells you differently, they’re lying.”

He went on to say: “It had to be taken seriously as we were filming it. Only when it was assembled and I saw it for the first time, I thought, ‘Oh boy, this isn’t going to be pretty.’”

The film’s greatest victim was Berkley herself, who went from promising Hollywood starlet to untouchable almost overnight. The critics reserved their harshest judgement for the 23 year old’s performance, unable to contain their mirth at her ridiculously exaggerated deliveries and hysterical overreactions in almost every scene. “When she’s not trying to be nude, unpleasant or both, she’s tries hard to act, but she’s about as convincing as Joan Crawford,” sniped the San Francisco Chronicle.

After the savaging, Berkley all but disappeared from sight and was immediately dropped by her agent. “The film was made fun of and her acting was ridiculed,” said McHale. “It was definitely hard at the time and she’s been open about that. It halted what career momentum she hoped to have.”

Gina Gershon and Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls
Gina Gershon and Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls

Berkley, who took many dancing classes in her teens, stopped dancing as a result. “It was a bit of a difficult time for me personally,” she explained to Variety in 2013, “because a lot of doors were shut at that time. I had to find my strength and my confidence and go back out there again. I think that because it was so criticized, it was humiliating – doing anything that was connected to the film was not fun. So I think being able to find a relationship to my dancing, which something I loved, has been healing.”

Berkley, who was paid $100,000 to star, has said she does not regret the film. “I truly believe that everything we walk through and go through is a lesson. Was it difficult and did it hurt? Yes. I became more discerning about my choices and wanted to feel safe again... But I think [Showgirls] was embraced and found its way for all its grandeur. There’s a sense of humor underneath some of the darkness.”

She has only appeared in a handful of things since, including a role in the film First Wives’ Club, Woody Allen's The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, and a few TV movies and dramas; in 2013 she was a finalist on Dancing with the Stars. She was never given a lead role again.

“Would you talk about a boyfriend you broke up with, how many years ago?” she asked a New York Times writer when quizzed about the film. “I’ve moved on.” Questions were raised over who was to blame for her ludicrously extreme approach – was it down to Berkley’s limited range or Verhoeven’s characteristically heavy-handed manipulation of female characters?

MacLachlan and fellow co-star Gina Gershon - who played body-stockinged diva Cristal Connors - emerging relatively unscathed in comparison. McHale’s documentary delivers a moment of sweet gratification, then, when it shows Berkley introducing a packed Hollywood screening of the film in 2015 and receiving a standing ovation after performing one of the film’s signature dance moves – her emotion on the night is palpable.

“I had the most extraordinary experience making the film,” she said before the screening. “When a dream is happening, it’s unlike anything you can ever imagine. Which is why, when the movie came out, it was more painful than anything you can imagine. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on that moment, because why do that? We don’t live in the past. I’m just bringing it up for a point, to tell you that 1995 was such a different time, where taking risks like that were not embraced. They were laughed at. They were shamed publicly. To be a young girl in the center of that was something that was quite difficult. But I found my own resiliency and my power and my confidence...”

Berkley in 2002
Berkley in 2002

Despite its financial failure, the ongoing fascination with Showgirls has made it one of MGM’s most successful productions. “I think the prevailing knowledge is that Showgirls stands outside the rest of his work, if you look at Total Recall and Robocop, people don’t understand Showgirls, but it makes perfect sense,” McHale told feminist website Jezebel. “Showgirls is Verhoeven at his purest. ” It has spawned countless spin-offs, including a successful musical in New York, and even a collection of sestinas by poet Jeffery Conway.

And, of course, the queer community has embraced it with open arms, recognising in Nomi a protagonist who escapes her past and reinvents herself with her chosen family while using her sexuality to gain power - both Nomi and Cristal are now regular fixtures at drag nights.

Earlier this year, writer Rachel Rabbit White wondered if the initial outraged critical reception might have had something to do with prudery; that critics didn't want to admit the film aroused them. “It’s as if the vehemence of the critic is coming from the shame of being caught in their horniness,” she wrote for Garage magazine. “Embarrassed from the direct titillation elicited by the extended nudity, their only resort is that of denying that they are horny — or to morally condemn that which made them horny.”

It begs the question: what makes a film a success or a failure? Showgirls may have been a box office bomb, but it’s now hugely profitable. And, crucially, we still can’t stop talking about it. As Verhoeven himself said after picking up one of his multiple Razzies: “If you make a movie that everyone considers as bad and it disappears into no man’s land, that’s much worse than being glorified for worst film of the year.”