It’s 25 years since screenwriter Joe Eszterhas and director Paul Verhoeven released their jaw-dropping example of what can only be called hardcore soft porn: Showgirls, the story of a tough, sexy dancer called Nomi arriving in Las Vegas longing to make it in the bafflingly unprestigious world of hotel entertainment erotica floorshows. She was played by Elizabeth Berkley, who, with Verhoeven’s encouragement, delivered her character like a Stepford-Westworld sexbot: toggling with lightning speed between badass pouting, sultry smirking and explosive tantrums.
This documentary from Jeffrey McHale is an affectionate account of how this film has been rehabilitated. It was at first mocked by the critics, then showered with Razzies, which Verhoeven accepted in person like a good sport – the first step in its long, ironically humorous upward march. Showgirls then had an afterlife as a campy midnight-movie event, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and then a new generation of audiences, writers and superfans declared they loved this outrageous, all-stops-out melodrama and found they were discontented with the giggling verdict of the critical elite. Make Showgirls Great Again?
I’m not sure that this documentary completely nails the movie’s attraction, and it can’t quite bring itself fully to condemn the misogyny or the rape scene, in which a woman of colour is assaulted (so that the white heroine can get her revenge) and is then forgotten. But there are plenty of insights: one commentator says that it is not a so-bad-it’s-good kitschfest, rather the kind of magnificent comedy that is only achieved accidentally. Or is that a more generous way of saying the same thing? It certainly isn’t a satire – nothing so weedy and ineffectual. Actually, Verhoeven achieved that more with his 2016 awardwinner Elle (which was maybe his own way of reclaiming Showgirls).
Another critic noted that Showgirls is better, in all its glorious unselfconscious power, than 90s faves such as Forrest Gump or American Beauty. Maybe. But revisionist cases are being made for both those pictures, in precisely the same anti-snob spirit. Basically, there are plenty of critically hated movies that have become accepted – The Sound of Music being the most obvious example. Yet could it be that the story of Showgirls is an inversion of the emperor’s new clothes fable? The critics arrive first like the bratty little kid, shouting that the emperor is naked, but over time an army of postmodern courtiers show up with invisible garments to place on the emperor’s body. Even that isn’t quite right. I think the point is that Elizabeth Berkley’s performance, however bizarre, has a fierce, focused intensity like the rest of the film, which accumulates in your senses. I can never see Showgirls without thinking of the classic story from The Onion: Ironic Porn Purchase Leads to Unironic Ejaculation.
You can find yourself affected by porn you know is terrible: and Showgirls somehow achieves another unacknowledged effect for his admirers: a weird glow of happiness.
Source: The Guardian