SHOWGIRLS: Paul Verhoeven Retrospective [Two Cents]

Two Cents is a Cinapse original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team curates the series and contribute their “two cents” using a maximum of 200-400 words. Guest contributors and comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future picks. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion. Would you like to be a guest contributor or programmer for an upcoming Two Cents entry? Simply watch along with us and/or send your pitches or 200-400 word reviews to [email protected].

The Pick: Showgirls (Paul Verhoeven Retrospective)

Cinapse is relaunching Two Cents for 2024 with a focus on cinematic discovery and discussion. This column is intended to generate points of connection as cinephiles revisit beloved classics or explore new territory together. We’ll kick things off with a curated month of Paul Verhoeven titles that our team was eager to either revisit or experience for the first time. Ed kicked this whole retrospective off with Robocop and next up is Dan with Showgirls.  Dan’s first viewing of the film took place in 1995 thanks to a bootleg VHS tape he rented from a Russian rental store, and it stuck with him ever since. When Ed brought up the idea of a Verhoeven retrospective, Dan was the first to volunteer to dig into this title that haunts him to this day.

The Team

Dan Tabor

Continuing our deep dive into the filmography of the Dutch auteur Paul Verhoeven brings us to a film that perfectly encapsulates the excesses of the 90s blockbuster – 1995’s Showgirls. With the film’s bombastic heapings of nudity, violence and misogyny – it feels like its operating as almost a parody of the then current mainstays of the multiplexes; probably/allegedly fueled by a metric fuckton of cocaine. The film is also a terrifying example of how you can’t really judge an actor by a single performance. Fresh-faced Elizabeth Berkley had proven she had some decent acting bonafides on TV, before taking on the bad girl extraordinaire Nomi Malone, a prostitute who hopes to go legit as a Vegas showgirl; who is completely without any and all subtlety. Every sentence is a profanity filled declaration, and every movement is a garish spasm. Nothing is low key about Nomi and that larger than life caricature is completely intentional by its director. 

Keep in mind there was also a period in the 90s where audiences believed Natalie Portman was a terrible actor, simply because of her terrible performance in the prequels thanks to Lucas’ direction. 

I first became fascinated with Showgirls because the film that came before it, Basic Instinct, was so damn good, and still hits today mainly thanks to Stone’s devil may care performance. In the beginning I was compelled to try to solve it like a puzzle. Showgirls was even written by the same writer as Basic, Joe Eszterhas, which means their next foray into the erotic thriller sub genre had to be good, right? The thing about the erotic thriller is they’re a rather precarious balancing act, since they have to work by appealing to both men, women and couples. With the inception of Showgirls, I basically imagine that scene from Scarface, where Tony Montana pulls his face from a mountain of blow, but instead it’s Joe Eszterhas – allegedly – doing something similar as he then sits down at his Apple Powerbook to knock out the script over a long weekend for a 3.75 million dollar payday.

Again, allegedly. 

The other thing about Showgirls that drew me in later in life is – rather than embrace that madness that forged it. As some creators have, and attempt to contextualize and deconstruct the dark drug fueled alchemy that turned the failed blockbuster into a cult sensation, Verhoeven instead now says he was trying to make a comedy the whole time, and we as an audience just figured it out. This changing the narrative around a film, to capitalize on a newfound cult status isn’t something new, and feels completely disingenuous to those that you can tell took the material seriously, especially the film’s lead. Berkeley thought Verhoeven was forging her into the next Sharon Stone, through his over direction and instead annihilated her career and then simply cast her aside. I mean this whole ‘I meant it to be a comedy’ might also fly, if he didn’t also publish a book of essays Showgirls: Portrait of a Film when the movie was released documenting how it was supposed to be this transgressive masterwork. 

So, I personally enjoy the hell out of Showgirls as both a bizarre oddity by a great director, and because it features a singular performance in Berkley’s Nomi, that just feels like it’s going so big you simply have to respect it or get out of its way, and as the kids would say ‘its definitely a vibe’. Showgirls as it stands is one of the greatest cinematic car wrecks IMO, because not only did the premise have so much potential on paper, but the carnage was so damn entertaining. 

(@danthefan on X)

Ed Travis

Showgirls has flummoxed me. This viewing for Two Cents was the first time I’d seen the film, and let me tell you, it was a wild way to ring in 2024 as I was literally watching it late on New Year’s Eve. I’ve been a film critic for upwards of 20 years so I’m fairly used to formulating opinions that are hopefully vaguely intelligent or at least backed up by sound reason. But for the life of me I can’t decide if Showgirls is a good movie or not. In favor of Showgirls, the film is certainly daring and pulls no punches in terms of its depictions of sex and the seedy world of Las Vegas strip clubs. Director Paul Verhoeven does what he does in pushing boundaries and flirting with taboos and it’s an “extra” or “maximalist” type of story that likely was wildly ahead of its time when it bombed upon initial release.

On the flipside, I don’t believe the narrative was particularly compelling and lead character Nomi does not feel like an actual human being. Late in the game, and I mean late, we learn exactly where our heroine came from and some of what has motivated her as she rises and bounces through the Las Vegas strip club scene. Perhaps knowing some of her background earlier might have made her more compelling? I got a lot of Staying Alive vibes from Showgirls. In the Saturday Night Fever sequel much of the original pathos of the first film is stripped out and we just kind of follow Travolta’s Tony Manero character as he tries to make it as a dancer. Much of Showgirls’ run time is dedicated to whether or not Nomi will “make it” but I didn’t care much for Nomi and wasn’t compelled to root for her.

Star Elizabeth Berkley does put it all out there for Verhoeven and she’s surrounded by a delicious cast like Kyle McLachlan and Gina Gershon. She’s not actually terrible in the film but as much as she goes hard on the screen, Nomi isn’t much of a character so it feels somewhat vapid. It’s sounding like I’m coming down pretty negatively on the film, but I have to say I was never bored, I appreciated the chaotic energy that Verhoeven likely brought to the project, and its dedication to seediness is admirable if not highly personally appealing. 

(@Ed_Travis on X)

Justin Harlan

I could go on and on about this film, but I’ll keep it brief. I genuinely love it. In fact, it may be my favorite film by Verhoeven – which is saying a lot because I also genuinely love Starship Troopers and Total Recall. The overacting, melodrama, and excessive sleaze… it all is exactly what I want in a film like this.

While at its core, its essentially a reinterpretation of All About Eve, it’s utter insanity is what sucks me in. I do enjoy the story, don’t get me wrong. Yet, even where the plot points fall apart (and, trust me, they surely do), I never lose interest and find this film among the most entertaining things ever put to film. Some films are saying something and some are just about entertaining people… it seems like this one is far more in the latter category than the former. Sometimes, that’s all I want from a film, pure unfiltered entertainment.

(@thepaintedman on X)

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There are some excellent films whose greatness nevertheless escapes their creators. Both Marky Mark and Burt Reynolds don’t think much of Boogie Nights. Michael Cimino, failing to realise what he had on his hands with Heaven’s Gate, cut the film to ribbons and assured it was DOA when released. And everyone but Paul Verhoeven seemed to disown Showgirls the minute the bad reviews started rolling in.

Showgirls, as has been well-reported, has been re-evaluated in recent years, mostly as a kitschy, camp cult-classic, a so-bad-it’s-good treat. But I would argue that even this misses the mark – Showgirls is great because it’s great. That’s not to say, of course, that Showgirls should be taken at face value as the story of a young woman trying to make it as a dancer. From the moment Elizabeth Berkley responds to a question about where she is from with a bellowed “DIFFERENT PLACES!”, it’s clear to me at least that we’re in the realms of satire, where every performance and plot point is overheated, heightened, lacking in subtlety. Witness Nomi (Berkley) and her meteoric rise to the top of the Vegas showgirl tree, with everyone tripping over themselves to say how talented a dancer she is, see the parade of transparently sleazy men lining up to mess with our protagonist, behold the plethora of well-trodden story beats and one-dimensional characters.

Of course “it was supposed to be funny” is the refuge of the scoundrel and Tommy Wiseau. But by the
same token, it seemed to take most of the free world about a decade to realise that Starship Troopers
was a condemnation of fascism, not a glorification of it (or indeed just a sci-fi action fun time, although Verhoeven’s genius is that it works on that level too). So perhaps with distance, we can give Verhoeven and the entire Showgirls crew the benefit of the doubt? Perhaps Showgirls really is the satirical gem I think it is. Or maybe I completely wrong and it’s just a bit rubbish. I can tell you this, however – if you watch this film you will almost certainly be entertained and you will almost certainly laugh. After nearly 30 years, is why it’s funny so important any more?

Showgirls Related Writing on Cinapse

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