A critical punching bag and box-office bomb upon its release in 1995, “Showgirls” has since been gradually rehabilitated to a state of semi-respectability. But the movie’s fans are by no means of one mind about its strengths and weaknesses, nor do they even agree whether it is to be regarded with admiration or horrified awe. All of this raises the question: Is there a correct way to appreciate “Showgirls”?
The afterlife of “Showgirls” — the story of an aspiring Vegas dancer, from director Paul Verhoeven and writer Joe Eszterhas — mirrors that of many so-called cult movies. The same defensive-ironic terminology tends to come up when it’s discussed: a camp classic, a guilty pleasure, a film that’s “so bad it’s good.” This is a strategy that MGM has long exploited for the home-video market. This week sees the release of a “15th-anniversary Sinsational Edition” on Blu-ray, and as with the “V.I.P. Edition” set from 2004 (which came with shot glasses and drinking game instructions), the audio commentary is not by a filmmaker but by a snarky aficionado named David Schmader. (Sample zinger: “The subtext is staggering until you notice there is no subtext.”)
The phenomenon of the singularly awful movie has been the subject of some serious scholarship over the years. As the critic J. Hoberman put it in his 1980 essay, “Bad Movies": “It is possible for a movie to succeed because it has failed.” Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp,” another landmark work of criticism, defined camp as (among other things) “a sensibility of failed seriousness.” But though this trait is certainly evident in, say, the work of Ed Wood, is it true of Verhoeven’s film? In other words: How serious is “Showgirls” and did it actually fail?
Not all of the movie’s admirers view it through a scrim of irony. The great French filmmaker Jacques Rivette has called “Showgirls” a work of “great sincerity.” In 2003, the journal Film Quarterly published a symposium devoted to “Showgirls” in which various academics grappled with the film in terms of gender and genre, the camp aesthetic and the sexploitation tradition; John Waters, a filmmaker who knows his trash cinema, contributed a brief introduction. “Showgirls is funny, stupid, dirty, and filled with cinematic clichés; in other words, perfect,” he wrote. “Even better, the writer and director, no matter what they say today, don’t seem to be in on the joke.”
Waters may be convinced but the matter of intent, so central to the discussion of bad movies, isn’t so clear-cut. There seems to be very little about “Showgirls” that could be called accidental. Verhoeven is hardly a subtle filmmaker but he’s a purposeful one: an instinctive provocateur (his most recent film, “Black Book,” was a World War II drama that he managed to turn into an erotic thriller) and a connoisseur of excess who remains in control of his material even — or perhaps especially — when it goes way over the top.
Complaints of tawdriness miss the point. The Vegas of “Showgirls” is, by design, unpleasant and ridiculous — qualities that Verhoeven has never shied from and, in fact, tends to heighten in his films. He also plainly relishes the brazen cynicism of the premise, which takes the timeless star-is-born narrative — the cornerstone of all showbiz fantasies and in particular the backstage melodramas that the film borrows from — and bluntly recasts it as a story of prostitution. “Sooner or later you’re going to have to sell it,” someone tells Elizabeth Berkley’s wide-eyed Nomi within minutes of her arrival in town, and even as she graduates from sleazy strip joint to legit Vegas spectacular, she — and we — are repeatedly reminded of the eternal condition of whoredom.
Those who consider “Showgirls” authentically terrible usually point to Berkley. It’s true that her overemphatic performance is jarring, especially opposite the more knowing turns of some of her more seasoned castmates ( Kyle MacLachlan, Gina Gershon). But it works perfectly for her grasping, desperate character and for the logic of the story. Her career flameout post-"Showgirls” was Berkley’s real-life punishment for such an unseemly display of ambition, but onscreen, Nomi’s conniving behavior, a source of great amusement in the film, invites no such comeuppance — which suggests a potentially useful way to think about “Showgirls": as a guiltless pleasure.