From the Vault: Showgirls (1995)
This Thursday marks the wide release of Burlesque, the directorial debut of Det. Nick Savino (Steve Antin) starring Cher and Christina Aguilera, and already the buzz is heavy with comparisons to the sexploitation flick, Showgirls. How could it stand up against the film that combines the delicate skills of director Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers, Hollow Man) with the subtle talents of screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (Sliver, Jagged Edge, and also Basic Instinct)? Showgirls is an unstoppable force in the race to win a spot in the dictionary under “hot mess”. The movie features a – dare I say? – lynchpin performance by Elizabeth “Jesse Spano” Berkeley, and yes, I know, it is impossible to find a write-up of Showgirls that does not reference Berkeley’s infamy as a star of Saved by the Bell, but that is because it is impossible to stop thinking about who you are watching throughout the film. It is an integral part of the Showgirls film experience.
The movie starts with her hitchhiking to Vegas and right away she establishes herself as a hothead who means business. Berkeley plays Nomi Malone, and she plays her as hard as she possibly can, which is to say, I still can’t tell to this day if her performance is in earnest or not. This is the allure of Showgirls — they have to know what kind of movie they were making, right? Right?!
Nomi goes to Vegas and immediately finds work dancing at Cheetah strip club and becomes friends and roommates with Molly, who makes costumes for the big local star on the strip, Cristal. Cristal takes a liking to Nomi. So does Cristal’s boyfriend. There are a lot of long looks and smoldering fake lesbian sensuality in that boring porn way.
She doesn’t sleep with Cristal, she sleeps with Cristal’s boyfriend. To get a job? To get even? Or just to get a chance to do it in a pool?
The plot is immaterial of course, because like any exploitation film, the purpose is to string together moments of naked women dancing around volcanos, running up and down stairs in dominatrix outfits, licking poles, etc. etc. The entire set-up seems to be about making fun of the “low-rent” Vegas entertainment industry, the small town girl who mispronounces Versace trying to break it into the “big time” while other characters call her a high price call girl or warn her of the dangers of their sleaze, but their interpretation of crass and sympathetic is not exactly set to a strong moral compass. The appeal of small time entertainers is that they are wholly earnest, even if naive at times. Showgirls is best when it sticks to more histrionic Dynasty moments: backstabbing sabotage that’s more than just stealing makeup — we’re talking compound fractures and concussions, for the sake of the understudy stealing the lead.
Also, beware of hairpieces in this movie, they are powerful!
Other favorite moments include: Gina Gerson’s terrible Texan accent, the lapdance choreography of Glenn Plummer, and Robert Davi as the sleazy strip club owner who, in a moment of congratulating Nomi on her success as a ‘legitimate’ dancer, says “must be weird not having anybody cum on ya.” Every dance audition and rehearsal scene is also amazing, especially the one where she is ordered to THRUST! THRUST THRUST!
Now, one real warning about this film, if you do decide to indulge in an evening of so-bad-it’s-good cinema: near the end, it gets truly terrible. When Andrew Carver shows up, leave the room, make yourself a snack, go take a bathroom break. It’s around the 1hr 50m minute mark, right at the end, and it gets super ugly, because in order for Nomi to redeem herself from the dark hubris path she’s gone down, her best friend Molly first must be brutalized and raped. Nomi is forced to choose between maintaing her career and exacting vengeance.
This is the part of the film where it stops being fun anymore, I hate the casual destruction of women’s bodies as a plot device, and it takes awhile to bounce back from the ugliness of what they show, so just spare yourself, and come back into the room around the time she’s sticking her stiletto boot in his face, so that you can see the final scene in the hospital, where Nomi is forgiven by Cristal, who delivers my favorite piece of advice, which I carry with me always.
“There’s always someone younger and hungrier coming down the stairs after you.”
And cut to salacious lesbian porno kiss.