The World is Still Coming to Terms With 'Showgirls', 20 Years Later
Hate it or love it, we're still re-evaluating Paul Verhoeven's most ambitious mess.
It’s the 20th birthday of Starship Troopers and Basic Instinct auteur Paul Verhoeven’s controversial flop Showgirls, but don’t try to rent it on-demand. You can only see it on Bluray (2010’s “15th Anniversary Sinsational Edition”) or on out-of-print DVDs, including a 2004 “VIP Edition.” Millennials may recall sneaking around with illicit VHSs in elementary school, or perusing heavily edited VH1 reruns. The film’s tale of dancer Nomi Malone’s rise and fall in the brutal, lascivious world of Las Vegas burlesque entertainment is engaging, full of as many unbelievable one-liners, lavish dance numbers and violent catharses as full-frontal shots. For many, it will evoke strong memories of the bizarre cinematic environment of the mid-‘90s (this came out in the same year as Waterworld, Congo and It’s Pat!). For Verhoeven completists, it’s a must-see — his most ambitious mess.
For a movie that those who rely on streaming services can’t watch, the racy film has inspired a lot of debate in the past couple of years, and retains a fan base. Last year, critic Adam Neyman went so far as to write a 120-page book about the merits of Showgirls, claiming it as a smartly constructed, tongue-in-cheek camp masterpiece. Neyman meditates a bit on the evolution of taste, and how arbitrary it is that we cannot accept Showgirls for being “good” in its own way: not for being “so bad it’s good,” but for being successful and coherent on its own bizarre terms. The book spawned a slew of reviews and thinkpieces: Many lauded Neyman’s analysis, while others protested its overlooking of the film’s problematic sexual politics and inherent “whore”-shaming.
However you read Verhoeven’s critique of American lust and greed working in the film (does it indite or sympathize with its degraded sex workers?), it is by no means a “stupid” film. It’s cinematographically ambitious, with a rhyme or reason to its stilted acting and stagey, high-melodramatic script that seems nostalgic for classic MGM movie musicals. It pushes and pulls the viewer back and forth between hysterical laughter, disbelief and horror (it boasts a brutal rape scene), and upon rewatches, Verhoeven’s control over what he is doing becomes apparent. It is “bad” in all the right ways — the ways which make a good, endlessly revisitable cult film.
This strange, intangible power has resulted in The Room/Rocky Horror-style screenings of the film being mounted in L.A. and New York. It gained a devout gay fanbase, with some showings being accompanied by drag shows: An annual “interactive presentation” in San Francisco ran for over 15 years. In 2013, a musical based on the film premiered in NYC. In November, Showgirls will be screened in a film series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music titled “Turkeys for Thanksgiving,” consisting entirely of films deemed “ripe for reappraisal.”
It takes everyone their own amount of time to come around to controversial art — in Showgirls’ case, perhaps most of all the cast members whose career trajectories were affected by their participation in the film. Star Elizabeth Berkley was so hurt by the reception to the film — her first starring role — that she hardly mentioned it for years, even refusing to call it by name in her 2011 book Ask Elizabeth. Earlier this summer, however, she conceded to introduce an outdoor screening in Los Angeles, seemingly having made peace with the film that stunted her prospects. “I wanted to thank you guys for giving me this gift of truly getting a full-circle moment of experiencing the joy with you,” she said, “because you guys and the love you have for this movie have made this the cult film that it is.”
It’s been 20 years, and this improbable and often wacky movie — a seven-time Razzie winner which didn’t recoup its budget in theaters — is still inciting strong reactions. It’s one that’s worth revisiting, which holds new pleasures every time you watch it, and seems to make more sense the longer it exists in a world that seems to just be getting crazier. So go grab a used DVD.