Dancing girls have long enjoyed a special, if not always critically lauded, place in Hollywood. Now, after years of being critical poison, two new films – Mathieu Amalric's On Tour and Steve Antin's Burlesque – are putting hoofers back in the limelight.
The two films take rather contrasting approaches. The French actor and Bond villain-turned-director Amalric has concentrated on the scene's gritty underbelly, using real burlesque girls as his cast members in On Tour. Antin, on the other hand, takes a more traditional Hollywood approach in which the glamour of dancing is given as much prominence as any backstage shenanigans.
Burlesque is also remarkable for bringing Cher back to the screen after a seven-year hiatus. And the singer and Moonstruck star certainly makes the most of her re-entrance, popping up from behind a gaggle of dancers in the glitzy opening number. The film also sees the film debut of Christina Aguilera, who in addition to starring as Ali, a small-town girl who comes to Los Angeles to make it big, wrote three new songs for the film.
The movie is a by-numbers rendition of the archetypal poor-girl-makes-it-big-on-stage movie that became a staple of Hollywood as soon as talkies took over at the cinema. Think Liza Minnelli in Cabaret or Marilyn Monroe singing "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Part of the popularity of the genre was down to it allowing women to be risqué within the boundaries of family entertainment. George Bernard Shaw called dancing "the vertical expression of a horizontal desire legalised by music", and film-makers exploited its safely raunchy potential as a way of getting around the Hays Code in the 1930s. Bollywood still does it to this day.
In the 1930s Ginger Rogers was the queen of the dancefloor. This was dance made squeaky clean, as Rogers formed an extraordinary partnership with Fred Astaire. Rogers was a dancing girl who epitomised the glamour of motion pictures in glorious Technicolor. At that time while dramas remained in black and white, musicals were beginning to be made in colour.
The 50s saw the rise of Monroe, who would have been the star of any burlesque cabaret show, oozing sex appeal with her voluptuous figure and heavy eyelids. The blonde bombshell brought all the risqué and sensual aspects that made burlesque so fashionable on stage, to the screen. But Monroe let the cat out of the bag when she took acting classes and made known her desire to take more dramatic roles in films. According to her, girls dancing on screen were never taken too seriously.
Monroe's stardom coincided with a time when the role of women on screen was changing. While burlesque was all about subtle suggestion, directors and the public were getting used to seeing more and more nudity on screen and more graphic sex scenes.
In the 1960s and 70s dancing girls became associated with kitsch, rare exceptions being films adapted from successful plays, such as Cabaret. Despite musicals losing popularity, dance continued to create some of the cinema's most memorable moments. Who could forget Anna Karina dancing with Claude Brasseur and Daniele Girard in a bar in Jean-Luc Godard's Bande à Part? The scene was so pivotal for Quentin Tarantino that he named his production company (A Band Apart) after the film and paid tribute when he had Uma Thurman and John Travolta shimmy across the dance floor in Pulp Fiction.
While male stars such as Travolta and Patrick Swayze built their reputations on iconic dance routines, their female co-stars often enjoyed a lacklustre reception after the dancing ended. Olivia Newton John in Grease and Karen Lynn Gorney in Saturday Night Fever were very much the also-rans. Likewise, Jennifer Grey never managed to break free of the shackles of Dirty Dancing, even as Swayze went on to bigger and more successful movies.
But the film that sounded the death knell for risqué dance movies was Showgirls. Elizabeth Berkley had a rising career until it was stopped dead in its tracks by her appearance in Paul Verhoeven's movie about a young drifter who arrives in Las Vegas wanting to become a top dancer. Ridiculed by critics, Showgirls won a record number of Razzies (8) and was named the worst film of 1995. A year later, Demi Moore's Striptease followed it up, also taking home the Worst Picture Razzie.
Now, Showgirls enjoys something of a cult status and is one of the most successful releases on the home entertainment market. Burlesque is notably trying to tap into the same market. It has pretty much the same storyline as Showgirls, but without the sex, and plenty of gay-friendly jokes (despite nearly all the characters being straight).
In On Tour, however, Amalric has eschewed the Hollywood convention of making dancing girls kitsch and has gone for a darker approach that goes to the heart of our enduring fascination with burlesque and dancing girls. It follows a former TV producer (played by Amalric) who sees the girls and a successful stage show as a way of reinventing himself and returning to prominence in France. He sets up a tour and promises the girls a big night in Paris, which, it soon becomes apparent, is never going to materialise.
Amalric's masterstroke is to have cast real-life burlesque girls in his film. These women with names such as Kitten on the Keys, Dirty Martini and Mimi Le Meaux have real bodies that are a million miles away from the skinny girls Hollywood likes to put on screen. When they appeared on the red carpet at the world premiere in Cannes this year, they stole the show.
Using his real dancing girls, Amalric was able to set up a real tour of France with real audiences, so much of the stage action seen on screen is taken from real live performances. Even the hotel scenes are shot in the places the troupe stayed in while touring. The final result is a mixture between drama and documentary.
While Amalric may direct and play the lead role, it's the girls, with their heady blend of power and vulnerability, who emerge as the real stars. Their faces and bodies tell their own story as their problems come to the fore. Still, they never lose their power to entertain and titillate. It's something that films like Burlesque would do well to heed, if girls dancing on screen are ever to become as fashionable as they were back when Monroe was serenading presidents.
'On Tour' is out today; 'Burlesque' is out on 17 December