Bad movies are not a simple matter. There are nearly as many categories of terrible movies as there are for great ones: insultingly stupid (Batman & Robin), unintentionally funny (Birdemic), unintentionally, painfully unfunny (White Chicks), so bad they’re depressing (Transformers), and so on. But the most rewarding terrible movies are those we know as “so bad they’re good” — entertaining in their sheer incompetence, best braved in numbers, where the ham-fisted dramatics and tin-eared dialogue become fodder for years of random quotes and inside jokes. And in this spirit, Flavorwire brings you July’s edition of our monthly So Bad It’s Good feature: the notorious stripper/dancer melodrama Showgirls.
Last month, Elizabeth Berkley came home. At a packed outdoor screening at the Hollywood Forever cemetery, the onetime Saved by the Bell star made a surprise appearance, in front of 4000 fans, to finally make peace with Showgirls. The 1995 film effectively put the skids on Berkley’s career. “It was so criticized, it was humiliating,” she later confessed, though in all fairness, Showgirls was criticized because it is unabashedly terrible. And, as with many widely known terrible films, it became something of a cult classic in the years that followed, embraced for its campy soapiness, inherent tackiness, and endless supply of straight lines for wisecracking viewers. It’s a testament to the cult of Showgirls that, after 20 years of running away from it, Berkley finally made this gesture of affection towards the movie that she (quite unfairly) took most of the lumps for.
Which is not to say she’s good in it — let’s put that leap to rest here and now; this is one bad performance, and it’s bad from the opening frames. Helpfully posting up right next to the highway sign dictating mileage to Las Vegas, Berkley’s Nomi Malone is picked up by a skeezy Bruce-Campbell-as-Elvis type, who invites her to “sit a little bit closer, if ya want.” She responds by frowning, pulling a switchblade, and sternly instructing him to “chill.”
It’s difficult to properly articulate exactly what’s so hilarious about the moment, but I think it’s Berkley’s commitment to it — or, to be more precise, overcommitment. If the theme of Showgirls is, as is bluntly articulated by a casino denizen assuming Nomi’s a hooker, “Sooner or later, you’re gonna have to sell it,” then the visual through-line is Nomi’s furious physicality. Every movement is done, seemingly, as an expression of pure, unfiltered rage: flicking the switchblade, throwing the backstage curtains, chewing a hamburger, even counting money. Oh, and double that for having sex (she seems to have a seizure in the midst of her pool romp with Kyle MacLachlan, who appears in the key role of Actor At His Lowest Post-Twin Peaks Ebb), and for her dancing, which is a lot like how she has sex.
“You’ve got more natural talent when you dance than anyone I’ve ever seen,” insists the imaginatively named “James Smith” (Glenn Plummer, who deserves better), a choreographer who appears on the periphery of Nomi’s journey with the ubiquity of Bruce Willis in North. Based on the evidence we’re given, Mr. Smith should look around a bit more; in the nightclub scene where they first meet, Nomi’s moves give the impression that a squirrel is desperately trying to escape from her underpants. But, he reminds her, “dancin’ ain’t fuckin,” to which she screeches back, “What’s that, more WISDOM?” Berkley has many lines like that (usually accompanied by fierce hand acting), the most famous of which is, of course, her response to club owner Robert Davi calling her a stripper: “I’m a DANCER.”
That delineation is the primary concern of the plot — and I use the term loosely — which finds Nomi dancing at the Cheetah Topless Lounge (where her act includes such, to put it mildly, hygienically questionable moves as licking the pole) but longing for a spot in a strip casino’s big topless dance show, Goddess. It looks like the “Satan’s Alley” number in Stayin’ Alive but on a lot more coke, and the fact that it represents some kind of high bar of chic sophistication tells you a lot about Showgirls’ sense of good taste. At any rate, thanks to Nomi’s roommate Molly (Gina Ravera) — who offers her a place to stay about five screen minutes after Nomi beats up her car, throws up, and tosses away her French fries (she’s a forgiving sort, Molly) — Nomi lands an audition. It’s run by the dictatorial Tony Moss (Alan Rachins, who clearly thinks he’s got the Baldwin in Glengarry role or something), who insists Nomi use ice to get her nipples properly erect. And Nomi, who I can’t emphasize enough licked a strip club pole in an earlier scene, draws the line there. (Predictably, she tosses the ice angrily.)
Anyway, blah blah blah, she eventually gets into the show, and becomes frenemies with star Cristal Conners (I love how everyone is named like a character on a prime-time ‘80s soap), brought to life with a broad wink and a come-and-go accent by Gina Gershon, who at least had the good sense not to play any of this the least bit seriously. She and Nomi try to out-trash each other in a truly bewildering discussion of eating dog food, but when Cristal slights and humiliates Nomi, our girl responds by shoving her down the backstage stairs and stepping into the show’s featured role.
Oh, and before and after that, there’s plenty of hubba-hubba bisexual play between the two of them, including kisses, near-kisses, flirtation, Cristal saying “darlin’” a lot (I mean, a lot), clothes-tearing, and Cristal complimenting Nomi on her “great tits.” Any eroticism is all but diffused by the image of screenwriter Joe Eszterhas hunkered over the computer, pounding out his masturbatory material; smirky girl-on-girl action was his and director Paul Verhoeven’s brand, with Showgirls following their hit collaboration Basic Instinct into the marketplace.
Before its release, there was real talk — and hope — that the movie would de-stigmatize the five-year-old NC-17 rating, which was intended to separate adult-oriented films from pornography, but was treated by theater and video store chains with the same contempt and invisibility. Showgirls wore its scarlet NC-17 as a badge of honor, but it didn’t get the job done; it was understandably spit-roasted by critics, and it tanked badly at the box office. (As mentioned, Berkley took an unreasonable amount of the blame; yes, it’s a bad performance, but she’s capable of good ones, and it’s hard to imagine any actor turning Eszterhas’ pile of coal into a diamond.)
Only later would it find success on home video, first as erotica for those who didn’t want to venture into a theater to see Jessie Spano naked, then to a cult audience that reveled in its campy, unintentional hilarity. Or was it intentional? Some boosters have posited that it’s ACTUALLY as a satire, which wouldn’t be too far out of character for Verhoeven, who snuck sly streaks of commentary into the likes of Robocop and Starship Troopers. But sorry, that’s bullshit; he’s still playing in the overheated, straight-faced key of Basic Instinct, and if he and Eszterhas were really making a comedy, they a) wouldn’t need the “comic relief” provided by the Cheetah’s burlesque-style emcee (Lin Tucci), and b) probably wouldn’t have included the brutal, left-field sexual assault on poor Molly, the kind of scene for which chapter skips were invented. (Nomi bucks a directive from her employer to enact revenge on the Michael Bolton clone responsible, but the picture kinda flattens the tough, girl-power message by making sure she does so while topless.)
When you get down to it, Showgirls’ problem is a simple one: everyone in it is just vile. I’m not one of those dopes who insists you can’t make a movie without “sympathetic characters,” but I do require compelling ones. The thin, terrible people of Showgirls are equally loathsome; you don’t have a rooting interest in Nomi or her “dream,” and as a result, Showgirls is 131 minutes of watching trashy, vapid people being terrible to each other. That they do so with such perverse pleasure, and while mouthing such inane dialogue (Eszterhas was paid a reported $3.7 million to write such lines as “Must be weird, not havin’ anyone come on ya”), makes Showgirls a pretty decent accidental comedy. But you’d better have the remote control close at hand.