The naked and the dead

It all but ended the careers of those who wrote, directed, and starred in it. Andrew Gumbel has another look at Showgirls
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The Independent Culture

Showgirls may or may not be the worst film in history – the competition is pretty heavy – but one thing is sure. The 1995 paean that director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas lovingly erected to the sleaze, ambition and multiple naked breasts of Las Vegas is the most spectacular professional suicide note a Hollywood production team has ever composed.

The aficionados who, over the years, have overcome their initial revulsion at the film’s appalling sexism, incoherent characterisation, god-awful dialogue, diabolical over-acting and general stench of crude voyeuristic exploitation have found themselves oddly drawn to Showgirls in much the same way that rubberneckers slow down in the hope of seeing real blood and guts on the asphalt.

We know, because we’ve been told over and over, that this film is an unmitigated disaster. (How could it be otherwise, when its premise is All About Eve done with unhinged naked lesbians?) We know that it spelled instant career death to all who came near it. And now we want to see it for ourselves, and howl with laughter until we cry.

That, at least, is the thinking behind MGM’s just-released VIP edition of the Showgirls DVD. The studio has long since given up on the notion that anyone might take this bilge seriously. Gone, too, is any glimmer in a marketing executive’s eye that the oddly sexless display of naked flesh could be successfully sold for titillation value.

Instead, we are offered Showgirls the camp classic, Showgirls the celluloid train wreck, Showgirls the film so bad it is actually good. Hence the decision to leave the audio track in the hands of David Schmader, a Seattle-based writer who has made a second career organising Showgirls screenings and reducing audiences to helpless laughter with his live commentary. "More than any other bad movie," Schmader says, "Showgirls triumphs in that every single person involved in making the film? is making the worst possible decision at every possible time. It is this incredible density of failure that makes Showgirls sublime."

There are those – this writer included – who think something similar might have been said of Verhoeven and Eszterhas’ previous outing, the lesbo ice-pick murder thriller Basic Instinct which made a star of Sharon Stone. Who could forget the moronic gasping of the cops who lamely tell Stone to put out her cigarette during an interrogation, even as they realise she is wearing no underpants? Why didn’t Michael Douglas get nominated for an Oscar – or a Nobel Prize for forebearance -- for the unbelievably naff green V-neck sweater he wears to look hot in a nightclub?

It was hard, back in 1992, to imagine how Verhoeven and Eszterhas could sink lower. But sink they did, gloriously so. Verhoeven passed up the chance to direct a big-budget adaptation of Moby Dick, and instead he and Eszterhas spent months at Las Vegas strip joints and topless revues doing "research" for their hooker-hits-the-big-time extravaganza. It was a brutal job – especially the lap dances – but somebody had to do it.

The insights they attained are fascinating. Women, it seems, like nothing better than to sit around in their underwear eating crisps, having tickle fights and talking about their nails. Failing that, they love to get naked and turn themselves on by discussing each other’s breasts. Hence the iconic confrontation between Nomi (the would-be rising star, Elizabeth Berkley) and her showgirl rival Cristal (a valiant but still catastrophic Gina Gershon) over lunch at Caesar’s Palace:

Cristal: You have great tits. They’re really beautiful.

Nomi: Thank you.

Cristal: I like nice tits, always have. How about you?

Nomi: I like having nice tits.

Joe Eszterhas was paid $2 million for this stuff, and boy did he earn his money. Who but Hollywood’s crème de la crème could come up with such plot points as garlic-eating monkeys who defecate on stage, or a Michael Bolton look-alike pop star who organises a brutal gang rape in his hotel suite for absolutely no reason at all?

Eszterhas’ work, though, is only the jumping-off point. Nomi is apparently so alluring she charms just about anyone who comes within her orbit. But Elizabeth Berkley gives us no clue why this should be so. (As Schmader says on the audio track, her two acting modes consist of staring and kicking things).

Everyone tells Nomi what a great dancer she is, but when she gets on the floor she looks like an electric eel suffering terminal seizures. In her opening stripper number, she wiggles her tongue and methodically licks a long section of the stage pole (sexy!). Later, in an indelible pair of intimate encounters with Kyle MacLachlan -- his haircut, flopping over his left eye, is a career-killer unto itself – she flips back and thrashes her upper body in a way so graceless, and so alarming, one wonders whether she or Verhoeven or anyone else connected to the production had ever actually had sex. ("Insulin!" Schmader pleads on the voice track. "Someone give that woman insulin!")

Verhoeven and Eszterhas later said their ambition was to take the structure of the classic MGM musical – in this case, the out-of-town ingenue who hits the big time – and overlay it with all the decadence, ambition and neon lighting that Vegas had to offer. They also set out to make a film that would incur the displeasure of the American film ratings board, thereby hoping to establish a market for the hitherto shunned NC-17 category (somewhere between standard movie sex and violence and hard-core porn).

There were serious film-makers who applauded at least the second half of this agenda, hoping a commercially successful Showgirls could lead to a new era in Hollywood where grown-up subjects could at last be treated in a grown-up manner.

Grown-up is hardly the adjective that comes to mind, however, as Verhoeven – with no discernible hint of humour -- offers us the unbridled kitsch of his imagined Vegas revue. (A spangled Gina Gershon emerges topless from a papier-mache volcano, prompting the rest of the cast to pull off their gold lame tops and make out like wildebeests.)

Grown-up doesn’t adequately describe the gratuitously insulting impresario who ogles an auditioning chorus girl’s breasts and tells her he runs a stage show, not a watermelon patch. Nor does it readily sum up the climactic scene in which Nomi acquires hitherto unsuspected killer karate skills, smears lipstick on her nipples and gives the pop star rapist a lesson he won’t forget in a hurry.

Is all of this funny, or just embarrassing? MGM doesn’t seem too sure, because it has laden its VIP package with drinking contests, a pin-the-pasties-on-Nomi game and a lap-dance tutorial courtesy of a well-known New York strip club – just to keep its bases covered with the frat-boy crowd.

Myself, I have to admit it took two sittings to appreciate the full Showgirls effect. The first time, I found it so bewilderingly incoherent I couldn’t bring myself to laugh, or take any other pleasure in it. Then I sampled Schmader’s audio track, and shared bits of dialogue with friends, and a whole new experience started to emerge. I don’t know if this film has earned its place in Hollywood history, but I can tell you I laughed so hard my ribs still ache.