Did you know that Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Psycho were not critical darlings upon their initial release? Only later when director Francois Truffaut started obsessively praising them in Cahiers du Cinema did they become regarded as classics in a canon we take for granted today. Perhaps now it is time to similarly reassess Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 tacky tour de force Showgirls. Yes, Showgirls.
When it first hit theaters, critics frothed at the mouth to malign every aspect of the NC-17 film: the script by Joe Esterhasz, the acting — especially by Saved by the Bell’s own Jessie Spano, Elizabeth Berkley — and the campy, sleazy sexuality in every frame. The New York Times called it a “bare-butted bore,” — how Janet Maslin found this hilarious hot mess boring is beyond comprehension.
Truffaut’s fellow filmmaker Jacques Rivette said it was one of the best films of the 1990s, and aptly summed it up as about “surviving in a world full of assholes.” The passing years have been kind to the film. There are Rocky Horror Show-esque audience participation screenings, box sets, and the studio has recouped the $40 million budget. It is even rising in estimation among many film scholars.
Now Canadian film critic and writer Adam Nayman gives the much-maligned movie the book length theoretical rethink it deserves with It Doesn’t Suck. Showgirls, out now from ECW Press. Adam talked to Out about the film’s growing stature. Don't be surprised when they are teaching this orgiastic opus in film school:
Out: Why write this book, defending one of the most hated movies of all-time?
Nayman: I’ve been obsessed with it ever since I was 14 and snuck in to see why Showgirls got zero stars in The Globe and Mail. As a critic, I’m an auteurist, and I like Paul Verhoeven, his other films get way more attention. Also, if I waited any longer, someone else would have done it!
Do you consider it camp, or is that too degrading a term?
If you go by the idea that camp is failed seriousness, there is a lot of that, but the director is also an accomplished satirist. He’s someone who is not above putting forward little failures in interest of a greater success—which is how I view Elizabeth Berkley’s performance.
Verhoeven is a satirist, and moviegoers miss the point that his movies—Robocop, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, and Starship Troopers—are all sendups of Reagan-Bush America and consumerism.
When the texture of his films are cold, metallic and violent, critics have no trouble seeing that, but with Showgirls and its sexuality, people tend to get very worked up or giggly, and the satirical point gets obscured by all the flesh. That’s why it’s misread on such a wide scale. It became a cultural scapegoat as “the worst thing ever.”
It was called “All About Eve in a G string,” and when Black Swan came out, one critic called it “Showgirls for the NPR set.” Why do you think that this bitchy tale of the older/younger female competition is such an evergreen story?
Good question. It’s about excess and hysteria and melodrama, which are coded culturally as female qualities, and women are pushed into that kind of role as actors. It allows for certain loosening of decorum. If Black Swan were made by anyone other than Aronowsky, it might have enjoyed its trashiness. He’s so serious that it almost becomes camp. It was like a bad Roman Polanski movie.
The “badness” of Showgirls is usually blamed on either the script or on Elizabeth Berkley. I love when you say in the book that she spits out her lines as if they are poisoning her. Where do you lay the blame?
The other actors seem to be in a different film than Berkley. That erratic flailing quality makes the movie kind of amazing. I am sympathetic to her. With a more accomplished or seasoned actor it may have been a better film, but it wouldn't have the strange aura that it does. Whatever Showgirls is, it is only because of Elizabeth Berkley.
There were rumors that as they conceived the film, the main roles were to be played by Madonna and Drew Barrymore.
I’ve heard that, but I couldn't find any proof. No one who is a big star already would ever do a movie like Showgirls. They had to go with relative unknowns. Remember: Sharon Stone was an unknown before Basic Instinct.
Do you have a favorite line of dialogue?
Yes, Robert Davi, who plays the sleazy club owner/father figure, has the line, “It must be weird to not have guys come on you.” Pretty much every word in the lunch scene at Spago is amazing, even though that was held up as the worst, it's hilarious. Particularly the dog food stuff.
I love every filthy utterance by Henrietta Bazoom, the MC at the strip club. If you watch Orange is the New Black, that actress, a now much slimmed down Lin Tucci, is in the show.
Wow that’s great; I’ll have to watch her.
In the book, you talk of the "masterpiece/piece of shit" conundrum that is Showgirls. In the final analysis, where does it land on that scale?
I propose a third category: That Showgirls is a masterpiece of shit. I think the film is so much better than its reputation; I may go overboard in elevating its status. If Jacques Rivette thinks it is good, who am I to argue?
Adam Nayman will be doing a book signing for It Doesn’t Suck. Showgirls and introducing a screening of the film at The Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, NY on Saturday June 14. Find ticket information here.
Now for a fun compilation of Showgirl’s craziest moments: