“Like every Paul Verhoeven film, Showgirls is very unpleasant. It’s about surviving in a world populated by assholes, and that’s his philosophy… He loves clichés, and there’s a comic strip side to Verhoeven, very close to Roy Lichtenstein.” ~ Jacques Rivette, director of ‘La Belle Noiseuse’ and ‘Celine and Julie Go Boating’.
The reputation of Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls has slid up and down a greased pole over the past 20 years. Although Showgirls is the highest-grossing NC-17 film of all time—at just over $20 million—it was actually a box office bomb due to studio expense ($45 million budget) and much bigger expectations from the success of the previous sex-filled smash collaboration between screenwriter Joe Eszterhas and Verhoeven, Basic Instinct.
In addition to bombing, it also was massively ridiculed. It received the most Razzie nominations for various worst-of-the-year awards (a distinction it still holds), and also “won” the Worst Film of the Decade award. Extra studio-oversight on Verhoeven’s future Hollywood productions, who—as the director of two of the most subversive and adult sci-fi films of all time, RoboCop and Total Recall—had never had any of his excesses reined in before forced the Dutch master’s hand and he decided to never work in Hollywood again. Its star, Elizabeth Berkley never received more than another bit part here and there (although she did write a bestselling self-help book, Ask Elizabeth). Eszterhas, who used to be able to sell ideas for scripts for millions of dollars before even writing them, had almost every script he’d written go into turnaround (but he got to keep $26 million).
Earlier this summer, Berkley attended a screening at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, and thanked the massive crowd who’d memorized every line and adopted the Vegas opus as a favorite. “This [is a] magical full-circle moment,” she told the crowd, “[because] I actually [never got] to experience the sweetness of a screening with a crowd that embraced it,” she said. When Showgirls premiered, it was ridiculed immediately; legend even says that actor Kyle MacLachlan, allegedly, fled from the screening exclaiming, “I thought we were making an art film!” But by the 2000’s, it had become one of MGM’s biggest home video successes and—in addition to flesh connoisseurs—Showgirls found a new audience: the ironic viewer who could howl at all the thrusting, panting, and exploding trays of french fries.
Once Showgirls achieved second life as a cult-film best enjoyed with audiences, critical re-appraisals began. At the front of the line to label Showgirls as meaningful, calculated satire were some of America’s most respected film critics—Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader, J. Hoberman of Village Voice, and a panel of devotees appeared within Film Quarterly—and directors including Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino who both praised its grindhouse qualities, of which there are many: switchblades, scrappy and prideful strippers, business scoundrels, and rape perpetrated by an untouchable celebrity.
But is Showgirls actually worthy of praise? Or are critics over-extending themselves to give extra service to Verhoeven, whose extremely violent and satiric Hollywood films pushed the blockbuster envelope in ways that no one dares to try today? Do they miss his bravado within the big budget, R-rated sphere? As a genuine lover of Verhoeven’s entire career, I’m not here to argue that Showgirls is a good movie—because I don’t think it is. It is audacious, though, and a deeply interesting—and fitting—entry into the director’s credits.
If you’re only familiar with Verhoeven’s genre-redefining and bombastic American sci-fi films (including those previously mentioned, and also his final two, Starship Troopers and Hollow Man), Showgirls might feel like an orphan in his credits. His inventive, and America (Fuck Yeah!)-ribbing in his SUX 6000 gas-guzzling SUV commercial in RoboCop, and “Would You Like to Know More?” videos in Starship Troopers are the reason why many critics look for satire in Showgirls. But if you view Verhoeven’s earlier Dutch films—which are less satirical, more cyclical, more literal, and highlight the fear of potential sexual impotence—you’ll find many, many more similarities to his storytelling approach to Showgirls.
In a way, Showgirls is the most Dutch of his American films. It’s unafraid of casual nudity, and—as Rivette’s intro quote points out—it best represents Verhoeven’s world view: the world is full of assholes and not many people are willing to lend a helping hand. With Showgirls, Verhoeven looks at the American Dream (and particularly Hollywood’s self-fabrication through simple films like A Star Is Born).
The reason why I wouldn’t call Showgirls satire is because I don’t think Verhoeven believes that the American Dream is a fallacy. Nomi Malone (Berkley) may encounter a lot of assholes who use and abuse her in Vegas—but America is so damn big, she can always pick up and try again somewhere else. Verhoeven makes sure that we’re aware of this by showing Nomi hitch for her first ride, 342 miles away from Las Vegas, and ends with her hitching a ride (presumably) to Los Angeles, 280 miles away. When her employer, Zach Carey (MacLachlan) discovers her real identity and the soliciting charges she’s running away from, it’s revealed that she’s been moving around the West, from Oakland to San Jose to Denver, and to Cheyenne, Wyoming. Her Vegas time is thus rising from a prostitute (off-screen), to a Cheetah’s stripper, to a Stardust Casino & Hotel showgirl, to a billboard as she leaves town.
Sound like a rags to riches story? Verhoeven punches up each climb up the ladder in Eszterhas’ script with an immediate lost rung—usually by a separate conversation or threatening order entering from outside the initial frame.
When Nomi wins at her first pull on a Vegas slot machine, she immediately ups it to silver dollars, and loses everything—oblivious until it’s too late that she’s also lost her luggage because she trusted the man who drove her there. After the Stardust headliner (Gina Gershon) witnesses a Nomi acrobatic private dance at Cheetah’s, she’s given a time and place to show up to audition for an opening in the “Goddess” show. Before she can even enjoy that moment of being offered a new plane in life she is instantly approached by a man with a mullet and beer bottle who points at her and says, “I want to see your ass.”
When Nomi wins a part in the show, she goes to celebrate with James (Glenn Plummer) who wrote a dance performance for her, only to find him in bed with another woman that he’s also promised the part to. When she approaches the stage for her first live performance the glamour is immediately reduce because “there’s monkey shit stage left”—and a stagehand needs her to ice her nipples because they aren’t erect enough for the people in the first row. When she confronts Zack about an unseemly business requirement to sleep with a hotel high-roller at a boat show the man is scolded in front of her, but then waved of any responsibility immediately after Nomi leaves satisfied.
Every instance of Nomi’s personal success in career and personhood in Showgirls is either immediately lessened by an asshole—or she herself becomes an asshole—and others suffer. After she pushes Cristal down the stairs following a brief on-stage scuffle, she’s then gifted the lead role in the show. But Nomi’s newfound celebrity doesn’t last long; she quits after her best friend (Gina Ravera) is gang raped at an after party.
Verhoeven began his American career by exploring ultra-violence, but he’s always been more interested in sex because, “There is a fear about sex in motion pictures, as if sex would undermine morality,” he notes in a Showgirls featurette. And in America we’re more accepting of violence. Basic Instinct was the first American film that began his exploration of American’s forbidden sexual curiosity, but it still had extreme violence—dropping an ice-pick emphasis in a downward motion to the french euphemism that calls an orgasm “little death”—as a woman commits a series of murders mid-coitus. But Showgirls was the parade of genitals that he was allowed to do in America. He put it on a pastel-colored volcano stage. And it erupted.
Which brings us to the Rivette quote at the top. The painterly French director calls Showgirls Verhoeven’s “best American film and his most personal.” If Rivette’s statement is correct, and Verhoeven’s longer overall career output is about navigating a minefield of jerks, then Showgirls fits more snuggly in that arena than straight-up satire. And there are a lot of parallels in his Dutch films. The closer you look at the auteur’s filmography Showgirls feels like one of the first films he would’ve made in America—if he weren’t “perverting” the Hollywood system in revolutionary fashion.
Story-wise many of the elements that seemed bizarre or made people cringe in Showgirls were present in his 1980 film, Spetters, which was pitched as Holland’s Saturday Night Fever. It follows three young men, (Hans von Tongeren, Toon Agterberg, and Maarten Spanjer) and one business savvy kroket-frier, Fientje (Renee Soutendijk) who try to use the amateur dirt-bike racing world as a way to escape their hometown.
Want a few parallels? Here’s a laundry list: Both films feature a man checking to see if a woman is indeed on her period after she declares, “I’m on my period.” And after getting red fingertips, each man looks not mortified by the body’s natural, cyclical blood, but disappointed that they won’t get laid. At the tryout for the new showgirl spot in Showgirls, a producer (Alan Rachins) walks up and down the line of performers and admonishes them for what bodily parts lack perfection—although he does give advice of what they need fixed before they come back to the stage again; in Spetters an attractive young woman who comes to the guy’s fill station has the tennis balls she’d placed in her bra, pulled out and she is told to bring back her older sister. Condiments (specifically All-American ketchup) fly when Nomi doesn’t want to answer a question about her soliciting past; in Spetters, a young woman places a small canister of mustard between her legs to publicly shame one of the boys who thinks she’s “easy” and immediately places his fingers there after buying her a drink.
In direct parallels, there’s the famous exchange in Showgirls where Cristal, the star, and Nomi, the star-in-waiting, bond over which brands of dog food they preferred to eat when they were at their lowest points (they both used to love Doggy Chow). In Spetters, Fientje sleeps her way out of a zoning infraction ticket—and into a Honda contract for one of the boys—and is desperately attempting to get out of the traveling food fry business. To cut down on costs its revealed that she’s using dog food to fill the krokets. “My aunt’s been eating it for 10 years in America,” she says. “She’s very healthy.” Finally, there’s a surprising third act gang rape in both films.
Aside from some of these period talks, condiment props, and story parallels in Spetters, what stands out in most of Verhoeven’s early work that translates to Showgirls is that each of his main characters—though surrounded by assholes, who constantly threaten or impede their upward mobility—only get their bigger breaks by also becoming an asshole. Nomi pushes Cristal down the stairs and then becomes Stardust’s “Goddess”. All of the young men in Spetters lack loyalty, as they all attempt to sleep with Fientje, even after she takes up with Rein (Von Tongeren), who is a part of their pack. At the apex of desperation, one of them becomes the worst character in the film, and starts robbing male prostitutes after they’ve been paid for a deed in subway construction areas. This quick shift in character without remorse for awful acts is similar to Nomi’s sudden cutthroat push. Verhoeven doesn’t wallow on either choice, or try to give a lesson, he just understands that desperate people do desperate things and they only have to justify it to themselves—he doesn’t have to justify it to the audience.
But it isn’t just these two films, most of Verhoeven’s early work follow characters who suddenly and unapologetically do non-heroic things to get ahead. Soldier of Orange opens with humiliating initiations of soldiers immediately after introducing the dapper hero (Rutger Hauer); likewise, in Turkish Delight, the method of an artist (Hauer again) who appeals to the local art world for his sculptures of the female form, is shown to be an unfeeling serial-womanizer/serial-rapist who “fucks better than God” and has murderous fantasies. Verhoeven then repositions him, unapologetically, as the hero of a love story gone wrong. Similar to Nomi, there are no lessons learned from his bad behavior, just a story pivot to reveal a flawed character.
The perceived (or desired) godliness of one’s sexual maneuvers is another through-line from Verhoeven’s Dutch films to Showgirls. James tells Nomi that she has a potential to be a good dancer, but she’s too stiff and angry on the dance floor, flailing her limbs about. His advice? “Dance like when you fuck.” When we do witness Nomi having sex—in a ludicrous pool scene with Zach—we see that maybe she was doing that all along; she flops back and forth on her back into the water with whirlpool ferocity. The splashy sex scene is one of the most maligned scenes in a very maligned movie and one of the most cheered scenes in an ironically cheered cult movie.
Again, I don’t think the sex scene is a satire of over-the-top Hollywood sex scenes. Verhoeven’s characters always want to be defined as the best lay imaginable, and perhaps this is Nomi over-compensating for the expansive and lush—but still cheap and seedy—setting: a private pool surrounded by fake palm tree lights.
Sexuality is an Olympic sport in Verhoeven’s films. And Nomi is in the same shallow end that many of Verhoeven’s other characters also find themselves.
In Spetters, when two of the boys aren’t able to have sex with their dates—one due to their date’s menstruation, the other unable to get erect due to drinking too much—they want their friend to hear their sexual prowess anyway, and so each ask the girl they’re with to fake an orgasm with them to be heard on both sides of the wall. In Turkish Delight, I’ve already mentioned that Hauer’s artist describes himself as a gift to sex, but his sex appears frantic and dissatisfied. There is no joy in his sex, but a push to be “better than God”. In Verhoeven’s Dutch masterpiece, The 4th Man, a novelist (Jeroen Krabbe) has an encounter with alluring woman (Soutendijk, again) who makes him achieve an orgasm within seconds, and then, now lacking sexual pride in the virility of his performance, he starts to have castration nightmares.
“It’s still difficult if you are a European director and your first language is not English to be exactly aware what the nuances of the American language are. Even after 50, 60 years you are basically kind of a little bit retarded there.” ~ Verhoeven, in a Starship Troopers featurette.
So if all these similarities with Verhoeven’s great Dutch films are present in Showgirls, why did it land with a thud (and then bounce back)? Eszterhas’ script is—depending on your stance—either laughably bad or so bad it’s good. “Life sucks. Shit happens. Where do you get this stuff? Off of t-shirts?” James asks Nomi after bailing her out of jail, in one of the best examples of simple dialogue from the film. Verhoeven obviously trusted Esztherhas after Basic Instinct. But that film, and all his previous American films, had bigger plots and set pieces that allowed Verhoeven’s keen eye to invent interesting camera POVs—and, yes, satiric commercials and informational videos—and push aside any dialogue shortcomings. Showgirls was much more contained. It could only go as far as Esztherhas’ dialogue could take it. Which was neither far nor deep. However, if you’re a proud supporter of the film, Rivette offers a great take in comparing Verhoeven’s interests to pop-artist Roy Lichtenstein, who created large comic-book-styled pieces with sparse dialogue bubbles to quickly explain a melodramatic situation.
The reason why Showgirls is so strange is because you have Verhoeven directing with visual assuredness while Eszterhas’ script is flailing and grunting. The result is not dissimilar to Nomi’s own dance moves when James first spots her: she looks great, she’s self-aware and confident, but she also moves too ferociously, and is clunky and out of rhythm. You might enjoy the film ironically, you might hate it, or might even consider it undervalued and important satire. Showgirls can be all those things. But Showgirls is also the American blockbuster film that also best replicates a number of themes, oddities, and confrontational storytelling that Verhoeven favored in his Dutch films.
If you’re thinking of celebrating Showgirls 20th anniversary today, might a recommend a double feature with Spetters?
Yeah darlin’. I think I just did.