“I just hope that I can be as good as the show.”
—Nomi Malone, Showgirls (1995)
Long brushed off as a horrendous excuse for a film, Paul Verhoeven and Joe Eszterhas’s epic flop Showgirls may have more than meets the eye. Or, at least, its vulgar superficiality may be worth critical re-evaluation. That’s the task Adam Nayman tackles in his new book, It Doesn’t Suck, delving deeply into the trashy soft-core flick trying to bring merit to a movie with the line “It must be weird not having people cum on you.”
For those who may be unfamiliar, Showgirls was the 1990s version of All About Eve, telling the story of the nomadic dancer Nomi Malone who journeys to Las Vegas in search of her dreams, ascending the heights from stripper to the lead in the Stardust Hotel’s show Goddess, all the while seducing and sabotaging the people she encounters along the way. It was the first (and last) NC-17 film to have a wide release and effectively killed Elizabeth Berkley’s acting career, but it has enjoyed cult status since its release thanks to the furtive nature of home video rentals and campy midnight screenings hosted by drag queens.
But as Nayman shows us in his blow-by-blow (no pun intended) analysis of the film, its value isn’t simply as a guilty pleasure. Unlike Mommie Dearest or Valley of the Dolls, Showgirls isn’t just decadent camp entertainment. Not fully, anyway. There’s a lot more value in the film than meets the eye and, with the risk of sounding as cringe-worthy as Joe Eszterhas’s screenplay, it may just be a work of art.
One of the key interpretations one must consider when understanding the brilliance of a film like Showgirls is how quality informs the overall purpose and spirit of a work of art. Art, even by the best critics, is usually ultimately evaluated within a binary of good and bad, and film, being a popular medium, is all too often relegated to this strict system of judgment. It’s not necessarily incorrect, but it can cloud our judgment on realizing potential in things that are superficially bad. Showgirls’s horrible acting, overblown direction and painfully amateur screenplay are essential elements to its success as a work of art. Without these bad parts, it wouldn’t nearly be as good.
At its core, Showgirls is a brilliant lampoon of the American Dream. Sardonic, yes, but also a mirror held up to the audience showing us exactly the flaws we have in our notions of success and ambition, not to mention art and sexuality. This theme of reflection is one Nayman meditates heavily on throughout the book, regularly pointing out many of the female characters’ dualities, parallels and twinships, as well as the importance of actual mirrors in the set decoration. But the most important example of duality lays in the perception of the film itself:
Either Showgirls is a piece of shit — the received wisdom, and for a long time the majority view — or it’s some sort of trashy masterpiece, which is the revisionist claim. Behind Door #3, however, lies the tantalizing possibility that the movie might be both at the same time … that it is possible to derive pleasure from an inept work of art not in spite of its shortcomings, but because of them.
Showgirls is not some brilliant, you-don’t-get-it-because-it’s-so-smart gem of a satire, nor is it a failed epic film that crashed and burned because of its lead star, a lackadaisical director and/or an ungodly expensive (and horrible) screenplay. It’s a bad fucking film. One of the worst. But it says something about American culture in a way some critically-acclaimed films do not.
Many films that contain genuine heart-wrenching, tear-jerking performances make us feel real emotions for fictional narratives and characters that we then propel into our realities. But the brilliant thing about Showgirls is, the absolutely fake, artificiality that composes it makes it an uncanny portrayal of American culture. One that we may not want to carry with us outside of the theater, so we brush it off as “bad,” divorcing it it from our perception of an ideal world.
To note, “bad” acting is typically assessed as that which is noticeably artificial, a recitation of lines that sound unconvincing as natural speech. Theater always seems to have more leeway, because even if we take Brecht’s Epic Theatre as an example, the audience is aware that the lines are brilliant, thus suspending judgment on the artificial delivery. Esaterhas’s script is not brilliant, nor is Berkley’s acting.
Showgirls is in fact rife with horrible acting, Ms. Berkley being the chief offender, but it bares exploration that this artificial acting, whether intentionally “bad” or not, strengthens the film’s critiques of our artificial culture. We needn’t crack the sequined shell of Showgirls to understand its importance, merely look at the shiny, plasticized surface. As much as it is a sendup of the tired “rags to riches, a star is born” narrative, which parallel the larger fallacy of the American Dream, it is also a portrayal of the reality of those failings on a metatextual level. Berkley no doubt thought this would be a beneficial career move, launching her out of Saturday morning tween sitcoms into the nebula of the silver screen. Obviously, it did anything but. In a lot of ways we can view Berkley as Nomi, or at least a mirror image, making her unconvincing performance come off as cinema vérité.
Verhoeven’s violation of the 180-degree rule (a filmmaking standard that dictates in any scene of dialogue the characters remain on the same axis for unconscious consistency) in a “pivotal” scene crystallizes, in Nayman’s opinion, the notion of straddling between the readings of Showgirls as a Masterpiece and a Piece of Shit. Gershon’s Cristal and Berkley’s Nomi find out they aren’t so different from one another, bonding over a shared love of Doggy Chow in their youth. Nayman says the shifting of perspectives of the characters undercuts Nomi’s assertion that she’d never be like Cristal. As he states, it’s “Good filmmaking propping up bad screenwriting; a bad actress dragging down a good one. It’s all in plain view.”
We live in a culture that, in spite of institutionalized racism, sexism, homophobia and classism, still believes all you need is drive to become successful. And, naturally, what better setting to comment on the American Dream than Las Vegas? A prime example of hyperreality, it is essentially the most American city in this country because it has cultivated an identity solely by appropriating those of other cities in the world. It’s so utterly fake that it’s real. Showgirls is so utterly bad that it’s good.
The balance between viewing the film with a gaggle of gays and chiding every bad line (“Man, everybody’s got AIDS and shit”, “I used to love Doggy Chow”, “It’s Ver-sayce”) and feeling a piercing bit of respect when you actually identify with Nomi’s struggle is exactly what makes Showgirls a film that doesn’t suck. Too much, anyway.