Retro Review: SHOWGIRLS Behind the Sequins: Silly, Strange and Smart?

By Mark Arson, Contributing Blogger

SHOWGIRLS (1995); Dir: Paul Verhoeven; Writer: Joe Eszterhas; Starring Elizabeth Berkely, Kyle MacLachlan, Gina Gerson; First in Taboo-La-La Series hosted by Blast-Off  Burlesque at Plaza Theatre, Sat. March 19, Plaza Members Party at 8 PM with complimentary refreshments; showtime at 9 PM featuring costume contest, audition to recast Nomi and audience recreation of the infamous pool scene; age 18 & over only.

Some time ago at my day job, a coworker tossed off something that could be easily misinterpreted as innuendo. Another one says, “That’s what you call a double entender!” A third coworker takes it upon themselves to correct him, “It’s pronounced ‘entendre.’” As she walked off, we all smiled to each other at the obvious irony; the person who considered themselves the “smart one” simply wasn’t smart enough to get the joke. SHOWGIRLS is notorious for being one of the “worst movies of all time,” and while I’m not here to question the intelligence of anyone who genuinely thinks so, I’d like to at least make the case for it being not just a good movie, but a great one.

Director Paul Verhoeven seems to have gone out of his way to have made the absolutely driest satire possible, intentionally trying to make viewers unsure if the movie is serious or not. His other work has similar ambiguities. TOTAL RECALL was designed so that the viewer couldn’t be sure if the events from the film were real or hallucinated by the main character, and STARSHIP TROOPERS never spelled out whether it was pro- or anti-war, or even if the audience should get behind the humans in the film. The ultra-violence in these aforementioned films is replaced here by ultra-sex, much like in BASIC INSTINCT (also penned by SHOWGIRLS scribe Joe Eszterhas); if you’re not completely numb to all the naked flesh by the middle of the film, then you’re probably too young to get in. Verhoeven’s works are personified by both ambiguity and excess. He’s likely either a genius or insane, but more likely both.

Gina Gershon in SHOWGIRLS. Copyright United Artists, 1995.

In short, SHOWGIRLS is ridiculous and plays out like a cocaine-fueled trip to Oz. Excessive colorful lights and ridiculous set pieces abound (neon palm trees and dolphin statues that spit water into a rooftop pool! In the same scene!), and almost every character is a predatory caricature of a person. Gina Gershon looks like she’s about to eat someone alive, either for pleasure or out of spite. Kyle MacLachlan looks like a giant Ken doll with a Nazi youth haircut. William Shockley simply looks terrifying. Nomi (Elizabeth Berkely) “dances” by thrashing around like she’s trying to simulate sex at superhuman speed, the infamous lap dance scene being an extension of this. Maybe this version of the dark side of Vegas is a parody of the age-old concept of “being at the wrong place at the wrong time,” except the wrong time is all the time, or maybe it’s supposed to take place in some dystopian near-future (like THE WARRIORS, a film which I feel is similar in spirit. Please don’t hate me for saying that.)

Elizabeth Berkley in SHOWGIRLS. Copyright United Artists 1995.

I’ve already detailed how silly the film is, so what (else) is so good about it?  The camerawork and direction is flawless, all the frantic action of the clubs and the backstage areas fully captured. The shows that are put on at The Stardust are ridiculously elaborate, complete with pyrotechnics and insane costumes, albeit not ones that include tops. Nobody involved seems the least bit disinterested, and if anything, several performances are way over the top, which suits the rest of the film just fine. Several one-liners are so sleazy that they practically dare you not to laugh at them.

Essentially, SHOWGIRLS is too strange to be serious and too well-crafted to be bad. Hey, it is the #1 most profitable NC-17 movie of all time (Verhoeven had to trim nearly every one of his other American films down to get an R-rating, so he wasn’t exactly in unfamiliar territory). You really don’t have to get the joke to enjoy the film, and you may not like it even if you do. Still, I’d be hard-pressed to find a reason why you wouldn’t enjoy a trip to the seedy underbelly of insane SuperVegas. Only if you’re over 17, though…

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2 Responses to “Retro Review: SHOWGIRLS Behind the Sequins: Silly, Strange and Smart?”

  1. Torchy Taboo
    on Mar 20th, 2011
    @ 4:39 pm

    Great article Anya!
    As ‘Caddy Shack’ is to the Pro Golf circuit, so ‘Show Girls’ is to the larger Burlesque/strip-teasers community….though I can’t imagine golfers basing boozy ‘clothing optional’ slumber parties on their viewings of ‘Caddy Shack.’
    In BQ circles, there has been much public forum on the question of just how intentional was the ridiculous, not to mention many of us coming to grips with the personal questioning, ‘do *I* look that insane onstage?! And if not, how can I?’…I think the consensus would completely concur with your take on the movie.
    Thanks to the Plaza for showing it & Blast-off for the fun & games at the event.
    Torchy Taboo

  2. Torchy Taboo
    on Mar 20th, 2011
    @ 11:46 pm

    Ooooopps…Great article MARK!

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