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.

ELLE (Canada) - - Radar -

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.

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