After reading I. Q. Hunter’s passionate defence of Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls in Unruly Pleasures I amused myself by looking up online reviews of the films. And yes, it really does seem to be every bit as universally reviled ad he claimed it was. I figured a movie as hated as this one just had to be worth seeing. And I was right. I think it’s fabulous.
Yes, it has obvious camp pleasures, and I’m very susceptible to such things. And it’s extremely trashy. But then how do you make a movie that is not only about Las Vegas and strippers and lap-dancers, but is also about Hollywood and capitalism in general, without being trashy? If you do, you’re not really being honest. Perhaps that’s why Showgirls is so disliked. It’s just too honest. It shows the American Dream a little too clearly. It’s also, despite the Vegas setting, very much a movie about Hollywood and the Hollywood version of that American Dream. It’s major influences are not exploitation cinema, but movies like 42nd Street, A Star Is Born, Sunset Boulevard, and All About Eve. The plot is pretty much directly lifted from 42nd Street. It’s Busby Berkeley with tits and ass. But then, so was Busby Berkeley. If Busby Berkeley were still alive I’m sure he’d have been delighted to arrange the production numbers. Verhoeven even includes (obviously deliberate) a ridiculous coincidence at the end to reinforce the idea that this is a movie. It’s exactly what you’d expect in a Hollywood backstage musical of the classic era. And the sudden eruption of brutal sexual violence within the context of such a deliberately artificial film has a much greater impact than it would otherwise have done.
Elizabeth Berkley’s much-derided performance as the central character, Nomi, a stripper who dreams of becoming a headliner at a major Las Vegas venue, actually works very effectively. A better actress might well have ruined this role. Gina Gershon as the established star who stands between Nomi and her dream her and Kyle MacLachlan as the entertainment director for the club are both perfect. And there’s some priceless dialogue. Although it got an NC-17 rating in the US it’s a movie also totally lacking in eroticism, which is of course the point. None of the sex or the nudity has anything to do with sex, it’s all about selling. It’s just business. I can’t help feeling the NC-17 rating was simply imposed in the hope that it would ensure the failure of a movie that dares to savage Hollywood with such viciousness. American censorship truly is bizarre. Forget everything you’ve heard about Showgirls and see it anyway.