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How 'Showgirls,' Awful But Exquisite, Has Endured For All These Years

Elizabeth Berkley as Nomi in "Showgirls." (Courtesy The Brattle Theatre)
Elizabeth Berkley as Nomi in "Showgirls." (Courtesy The Brattle Theatre)

When I first saw Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls” on its calamitous opening night at a New York City multiplex back in 1995, I never could have ever imagined anybody would still be talking about it 23 years later — least of all me.

Expecting a juicy T&A romp and delivered a spitefully campy backstage melodrama, the midnight crowd of drunken dudes (and believe me, it was all dudes) turned on the movie with an unsettling anger, shouting obscenities and throwing trash at the screen. Furious patrons stormed the lobby when it was over, yelling at the ushers and demanding their money back until a nervous manager sheepishly emerged and handed out coupons for free soda.

Verhoeven’s opus was supposed to legitimize the NC-17 rating and bring adult entertainment to mall cineplexes. Instead it was laughed (or shouted) off screens and the title became shorthand for money-losing nudie craptaculars. But you never can tell what art will stand the test of time, and somehow “Showgirls” has persevered over the past two decades, to a point where this month brings us not one but two 35mm screenings of the notorious megaflop, in the hallowed halls of both our Brattle and Somerville theaters.

Toronto film critic Adam Nayman’s 2014 book “It Doesn’t Suck” takes its title from a catch-phrase repeated by Nomi Malone, the lap-dancing ingénue so memorably played by out-of-her-depth tween TV icon Elizabeth Berkley. In it, he makes a considerable case for “Showgirls” as a sui generis work of cinema art, or in his words, “a masterpiece that is somehow also a piece of s---.” Nayman will be hosting Thursday night’s Brattle screening, which he’s perversely paired as a double feature with Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s beloved 1950 farce, “All About Eve.” The films have a lot more in common than you might first expect, as he and I discussed via e-mail last week.

“Verhoeven himself said ‘Showgirls’ was ‘All About Evil,' and in general the movie has a lot of references and callbacks to backstage musicals and melodramas,” Nayman explained. “Both scripts are quite loquacious, nasty and (sorry) full-frontal in their satire and critique. You really can imagine Gina Gershon saying, ‘It's going to be a bumpy night,’ right?”

Indeed, it’s amusing to notice the overlaps when watching these films back to back, as the caustic classic features Anne Baxter’s fawning Eve Harrington insinuating herself into Broadway star Bette Davis’ circle much in the same ways Berkley’s Nomi ultimately usurps the career of Gershon’s dancing diva. The films’ awards trajectories, however, were inverted, as “All About Eve” received a record 14 Oscar nominations while “Showgirls” was up for 13 Razzies, a considerable achievement considering that there were only 11 categories.

That “satire and critique” is what didn’t quite come through in 1995, as mine wasn’t the only American audience unaccustomed to the adversarial, occasionally abusive relationship Verhoeven films tend to have with their viewers. “Showgirls” boasts an incredibly sophisticated visual sensibility in which the story’s thematic doublings are played out in mirrors, reflections and repeated motifs. At the same time, the screenplay by Joe Eszterhas is jaw-dropping in its brutish inanity. The application of such movie-making elegance to this sub-moronic drivel imparts a sour, almost punitive quality to the picture, similar to the way in which Verhoeven films like “RoboCop” and “Total Recall” periodically taunt you with blasts of sickening violence, as if to say: “This is what you came for. Are you not entertained?”

Maybe the main reason I’ve never been able to embrace “Showgirls” simply as an object of glittery kitsch is because of an extremely graphic, late-movie rape scene in which Nomi’s mousy roommate Molly (Gina Rivera) is savagely beaten and forcibly sodomized by rock star Andrew Carver (William Shockley, in a role Eszterhas was rumored to have written for Gregg Allman, who had the good sense to turn it down). Whether by accident or sinister design, this deeply disturbing sequence takes place right around the time when inebriated audiences are starting to sober up. I can never get past it, but Nayman finds this literal buzzkill vital to the movie’s effect.

“I have a whole chapter on the scene in my book and always talk about it at Q and As. We did one in Toronto in May and the discussion was really intense, vital, respectful and polarizing. 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.”

There are plenty of much better movies than “Showgirls” that I have spent a lot less time watching and thinking about. A film so exquisitely made can’t possibly be this incompetent, or can it? The deliberateness of its design and general bizarreness of the performances have somehow continued to captivate and draw me back in for repeat viewings over the years, even without an audience of irate New Yorkers tossing empties at the screen.

“I think that there are all kinds of ways (and faiths) in which a ‘bad’ cultural object can be redeemed,” Nayman concludes. “What's amazing about ‘Showgirls’ is that it ticks nearly every box: 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. 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.”


“Showgirls” and “All About Eve” screen at the Brattle Theatre on Thursday, Aug. 16. Adam Nayman will be leading a discussion and signing copies of “It Doesn’t Suck” between features. “Showgirls” also screens as part of the Somerville Theatre’s Midnight Specials series on Friday, Aug. 24.

Sean Burns Twitter Film Critic
Sean Burns is a film critic for The ARTery.

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