HAPPY BIRTHDAY, NOMI MALONE! COMMEMORATING 20 SIN-EMATIC YEARS WITH THE GLORIOUS EXCESS OF SHOWGIRLS
“People have, of course, criticized her for being over-the-top in her performance. Most of that comes from me. I pushed it in that direction. Good or not good, I was the one who asked her to exaggerate everything — every move — because that was the element of style that I thought would work for the movie.”
But in the recent past I’ve begun to discover that, opposed to reapproaching beloved films, it’s often even more interesting and rewarding to go back and have a look, divorced as one can render oneself from the attendant hype generated by the distributing studio and filmmakers, as well as the ossified consensus (which only grows more rigid with time) arrived at by the entertainment press and even the general critical community, at a film which one felt pretty strongly about in the negative upon the first (perhaps only) viewing.
In fact, I suppose it’s not all that uncommon to revisit a reviled movie and have one’s initial reactions confirmed. And I’m never too surprised, whenever I take another look at a beloved film from my past, if it either holds up well against my memory, or even if it is revealed as less than what I once thought, as merely an ethereal byproduct of my nostalgic imagination or fond recollections of the time and place in which I first took it in, or colored by thought processes that have been perforated and exposed by the passage of time.
But that experience with Nashville could be chalked up to simple immaturity. How often does it happen that you revisit a film by which you were initially repulsed as an adult, your critical faculties presumably alive and engaged and ready for bear, only to find out that you were completely and utterly wrong, that you were either a victim of or a willing participant in a smothering groupthink that seeped into your mind, forming unshakable preconceptions and preventing you from seeing the movie that was right in front of your eyes?
Most people, I’d wager, who comprised the meager audiences that turned out in theaters for Showgirls when it was first released in the U.S. in September of 1995, were fully aware of all the brouhaha over the NC-17 rating, director Paul Verhoeven’s previously announced intentions regarding the project (something about fully erect penises on view—or was that Basic Instinct?—and a no-holds-barred look at Vegas show life), and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas’s reputation as an overpaid sleazemeister, and by the time the first print actually screened the film’s early critical reputation as a notorious bomb, a reeker on the order of Myra Breckenridge or Plan Nine From Outer Space-- a candidate, in other words, for Worst Movie Ever—became generally accepted as fact.
Nearly two years after Taylor’s piece, which pricked the skin of my interest in revisiting Showgirls, I got an invitation to write a piece which would stand as a commemoration of the 10-year anniversary of the movie’s Netherlands release date (January 11, 2006), a commemoration intended to extend over as many blog sites as wished to participate. There was no stipulation as to the attitude of the piece, negative or positive; it only had to be about Verhoeven and Estzerhas’s notorious spectacle. I printed out Taylor’s article, vowed not to read it again until after I’d seen the movie, settled in on my couch a couple of evenings ago, at the end of a very long day, and invited Showgirls into my home theater one more time.
What an embarrassment. And I’m not talking about the movie. I’m talking about having to face up to perhaps my most egregious misread of a movie since dismissing Nashville. Showgirls turns out not to be a work of found comedy, of two sleaze merchants pitching an earnest drama and missing the plate by a mile, but an uninhibited melodrama that dares to not condescend to its subject matter—the backstage milieu of Las Vegas, where sex (or at least nudity and the trappings of sex) are ritualized (or choreographed into routine) and funneled into gaudy stage productions. I really wonder how many of the people who have made a point of slamming Showgirls over the past 10 years would think nothing of plunking down big dollars for a Vegas weekend, perhaps one centered around a “classy” topless show like “Goddess” (the show that makes Berkley’s Nomi Malone a star), take the whole package at face value and enjoy the hell out of themselves. Well, by modeling their story on the backstage musicals of the ‘40s (Brian Darr over at Hell on Frisco Bay provides some excellent context for those jumping-off points in his Showgirls entry), as well as inverting All About Eve and telling their tale of show business back-stabbing and rivalry not from Margo Channing’s perspective, but from the conniving Eve’s, the filmmakers do just that—they provide a narrative context in which to observe the everyday goings-on in the world of these splashy nightclub productions, through which Nomi, the film’s protagonist, attempts to outrun her mysterious past and redefine herself.
But in the process, Verhoeven thankfully forgets to skimp on the vulgar amusements that are one of the defining elements of Las Vegas itself, the neon buzz that fuels Nomi’s frenetic dancing, her relentless ambition, and he doesn’t hold that ambition to anyone’s standard but Nomi’s. As Taylor observes, Verhoeven doesn’t hold her feet to the fire either and insist, per the familiar formula of such tales, that she pay for her ambition and misdeeds. Indeed, Showgirls recognizes that Las Vegas allows Nomi to become, through her ascendance to stardom within this strange show business microcosm, exactly who she seems destined to become, and Verhoeven assures, by acknowledging the charge, the dirty thrill she gets from performing and becoming a part of that world, that any value judgments placed on that ascension will come from the audience, not from him.
Unlike my initial reaction to Showgirls, I came away from my most recent brush with the film thinking that Verhoeven is not condemning Las Vegas or Americans for reveling in bad taste. On the contrary, he’s reveling in it himself, drawing parallels between himself, as a participant in American show business, and the characters on screen, and he’s not making any excuses for anyone’s behavior. But he’s doing so in a much less obvious way than, say, John Waters has in the past, and therefore he runs the risk of being dismissed as a simple vulgarian or a crude camp satirist. I don’t think he’s exclusively either, though to suggest that Verhoeven here is not vulgar or exhibiting a satiric sensibility would be to, again, miss the point. In Showgirls, Verhoeven the visual stylist, with only the slightest exaggeration, heightens the melodrama of Eszterhas’ script with gleeful sexuality (and vulgarity) and deranged life by presenting Vegas as the new model microcosm of the American dream, and Nomi as one of its prime dreamers, and encouraging us to experience the city and its milieu through those wide brown orbs hidden, as they almost always are, behind glitter-encrusted eyelids.
Seen through Nomi’s eyes it makes sense that nudity and sexuality would be seen as everyday, that it would be made routine, less than special, even numbing. Verhoeven and Esterzhas, despite what you may have heard, aren’t too interested in fueling male fantasies much beyond the lap dance Nomi gives to Kyle MacLachlan’s Zach Carey, and Nomi most certainly isn’t. Showgirls is far more concerned with tracking how this hostile girl with a hair-trigger temper sees the world in which she’s chosen to navigate—she attacks everything from dancing to eating fast food to having sex with the same violent, clipped, unfocused energy, and she has very little patience with anyone who doesn’t, can’t, or won’t play with the same energy. (Her impersonation of a boat propeller during the infamous swimming pool sex scene with MacLachlan is ridiculous, but intentionally so, a parody of porn excess.)
Too bad Elizabeth Berkley never had the opportunity to dispatch some of her harsher critics in the same way. She, of course, ended up taking the brunt of the abuse for the box office (and perceived artistic) failure of Showgirls, and her brash, unseasoned performance, which is exactly what the movie calls for, however you feel about the level of rage with which she imbues the character, was an all-too-easy target. Any reasonable viewer ought to be able to see that Verhoeven saw the raw ambition in her that was perfectly realized in Nomi, and that Taylor probably rightly suggests was a source of inspiration, and fear, for Berkeley herself. Why wouldn’t an actress, known mostly for a supporting role on a kids’ TV comedy (Saved by the Bell), who suddenly found herself the focal point of a big budget (but at $40 million, not that big) movie that was itself being held up as the litmus test for the success or failure of the NC-17 rating, feel a little pressure? Fair enough. But heaping blame squarely on her shoulders for what became the Showgirls debacle seems patently unfair, based on what’s on screen, especially when what’s on screen has itself been pretty shamefully misjudged from the word “go.” If Showgirls ever got as fair a shake upon its initial release as it is getting today, through the network of bloggers who are attempting to reshape opinion, frame honest reconsideration in some small way by singing its praises, or perhaps even continue the negative appraisals in the clear light of day, then we probably wouldn’t be gathering forces like this to celebrate the existence of one of modern cinema’s most (unjustly) reviled totems of excess.
I’m really glad Showgirls is out there. I’m glad for Charles Taylor standing up for it from the beginning, and for writing a terrific piece that led me to my own reappraisal of the movie. I’m exceedingly glad to have been invited to participate in this forum (even though my entry is a tad late in the day). And I hope that by reading this, or one of the many great pieces that are available on line through this celebration, that someone else might at least be able to take another look, with fresh eyes, without the pressure of insistent and official opinion ringing in their ears, at a genuinely terrific movie that has been cloaked in ignominy and derision for 10 years.