A questionable masterpiece Showgirls
It has been nearly 20 years since first made waves. Now, Adam Nayman argues that it should be considered a classic.
You need to be careful,” said the voice on the phone, and because it belonged to my mom, I listened. I had called her one afternoon in October 2012 to tell her I’d secured my first book contract: I was going to write about Showgirls— a movie so lurid that the Motion Picture Association of America branded it with an NC-17 (the ratings-board equivalent of a scarlet letter) and supposedly so laughable that critics wore out their thesauruses looking for synonyms for “terrible.”
The film bombed at the box office, swept the Razzie Awards and waylaid the career of its leading lady, Elizabeth Berkley, almost before it began. As a teenager in the mid-’90s, I surreptitiously snuck into a screening in Toronto, hoping to get a glimpse of something forbidden; I left thinking that the movie was actually pretty good and that it was funny on purpose—not by accident, like the newspaper critics kept insisting. Since then, I have discovered that I’m not alone: There are other fans determined to apply some shine to Showgirls’ tarnished reputation.
The question was whether I’d be tarnishing my reputation by taking this on. My mother has always encouraged me to be fearless in my work. When, as a naive teenager, I told her that I wanted to be a writer—and, even more worryingly, a film critic—she didn’t frown and ask me if I wouldn’t be happier trying to hack it at law school or dental college and watching movies in my spare time, like normal people. I’m a chip off the old block in a lot of ways, and that includes my taste in movies. My mother once tried to rent the 1949 Olivia de Havilland classic, The Heiress, and the library accidentally passed her a copy of The Terminator; the next morning, she raved about it to my brother and me.
But now, by pitching a book about Showgirls, maybe I was biting off more than I could chew. It was one thing to try to reclaim Showgirls on aesthetic grounds: Like most of the movies directed by Dutch madman Paul Verhoeven, it’s beautifully made, with voluptuous camera movements and witty allusions to vintage Hollywood musicals. But there is more beneath that glittering surface: As a parable about the dark side of showbiz ambition, Showgirls is as bumpy a ride as All About Eve. At the same time, h
the copious amounts of full-frontal female nudity, combined with some of the broadest bimbo stereotypes and viciously misogynistic dialogue ever committed to celluloid (sample line: “she’s all pelvic thrust”—and that’s meant as a compliment), result in a movie that makes a lot of viewers uncomfortable, if not downright angry. So when my mother, who doesn’t have a prudish bone in her body, told me to be careful, I figured I should listen.
I wanted to be especially careful when it came to talking about the performance of Elizabeth Berkley—Jessie Spano on Saved by the Bell— who tried to launch a grown-up career and became the film’s biggest lightning rod for criticism, receiving some of the cruellest reviews of all time. In a film that is subtly sarcastic, Berkley’s body-and-soul-baring fervour stands out. It’s uncomfortable to watch an actress being serious when everyone else in front of, or behind, the camera seems to be in on some larger joke. But I’ve always thought that it’s the contrast between Berkley’s earnestness and Verhoeven’s mischievousness that gives Showgirls some of its strange power. And considering that the film’s subject is a business in which women allow their images to be manipulated by men, I’ve always found Berkley’s performance to be moving rather than merely ridiculous.
Still, Showgirls is clearly a sleazy piece of work. It’s exploitative—especially when it comes to its female characters. But it’s also actively about exploitation. Why didn’t more people notice that self-reflexive quality in the first place? To call the film “bad,” as so many did back in 1995, is to ignore its complexity as a piece of filmmaking. If I think it’s closer to being a masterpiece than a piece of shit (or maybe a “masterpiece of shit”), that’s a matter of taste (or lack thereof). But at a time when pop culture seems almost exclusively geared toward providing audiences with guilty pleasures, I’d argue that Showgirls wasn’t just better than advertised; it was downright prophetic. n
Talking about the film with the women in my life—my wife, my mother and smart, thoughtful writers and critics— allowed me to get my head around being the male lead cheerleader for a movie few root for. But when you write a book about a movie that got terrible reviews, you have to expect some of your own. If I end up reading the cliché that my book, It Doesn’t Suck. Showgirls, is something only a mother could love, it would be the highest compliment I could receive.