Showgirls: Piece Of Trash Or Ironic Masterpiece?

On its 20th anniversary, we revisit the 1995 erotic drama about a young woman (Elizabeth Berkley) who heads to Vegas to make it as a dancer, which despite its critical and commercial failure on release, has become something of a cult classic. But does the movie deserve it?

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‘Showgirls’ is rubbish – of that there’s no doubt. It has an abysmal script, full of one-note, chauvinist characterisations. The core plot is trite, but contains enough ridiculous scenarios and random moments to make you believe the myth Joe Eszterhas wrote the original idea on a napkin. Frankly, we’d be surprised if the entire screenplay wasn’t submitted on one.

The performances are terrible, with an am-dram level reading of dialogue and weird, explosive tantrums that come out of nowhere. And worst of all, it looks cheap, a rare misfire from director Paul Verhoeven whose brilliant work includes the original ‘Robocop’ and ‘Total Recall’.

And yet, to some it’s beloved. Most of its fans treat it as a campfest – as a gloriously bad movie worthy of participatory screenings like ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’, where audiences revel in the nonsense and make games out of the stupidest scenes. It’s no surprise that there are more than one parody musicals based on the film playing in theatres around the US.

But there is another kind of audience – firm in their belief that everyone who perceives ‘Showgirls’ to be a dull, arrogant skinfest that trivialises rape, objectifies women’s bodies beyond the point of misogyny and is just technically a badly-constructed piece of work, is wrong.

In fact, they say, it’s a feminist movie, one which worships women, is a rare drama which examines their complex relationships properly and above all approaches the subject matter with a post-modern, ironic sensibility more obviously prevalent in most of Verhoeven’s other films.


While it’s true there are some funny moments in ‘Showgirls’ – heroine Nomi Malone pronouncing Versace as Ver-SAYCE, her famous sex scene with Kyle MacLachlan in which she thrashes about like a seal in a pool, Kyle MacLachlan’s fringe-slash-quiff – you don’t get a sense that it’s calculated, more like poor judgement.

Nevertheless, that hasn’t stopped the filmmakers from telling critics they got it all wrong. “From the beginning, when Paul [Verhoeven] and I went through the script, Paul laughed his head off, and so did I,” Eszterhas told The A.V. Club. “I went to see it three or four months after the release date, and it was packed with audiences that really laughed. I laughed, as well, and I laughed when I wrote those lines.”

It may be true, but it feels like a desperate retcon from an egotist whose pride has taken a beaten and who has decided to lean into it. When the film flopped initially, the studio marketeers had come up with the same notion, positioning the movie as a flamboyant comedy. That idea failed then and only took off many years later.

Ultimately though, for a film to have any traction as an ironic masterpiece it needs, above all, to be a well-made slice of celluloid. ‘Robocop’ was that, as was ‘Starship Troopers’. Even ‘Basic Instinct’ took all the elements of classic B movie eroticism and repurposed it with an A-list cast and hefty budget. The results in all three cases were enjoyable movies on their own terms that also had something sly and knowing to say about the society we live in.

‘Showgirls’ didn’t manage those things. Sure you can laugh at the jazz hands, or Berkley’s OTT performance (puppeteered, she says, by her director) or the violent tonal shifts. You can even appreciate the choreography, Gina Gerson’s acting (the closest the movie gets to real irony) and the fact the heroine actually gets revenge on her friend’s rapist.

But it’s still rubbish. It’s possible Paul Verhoeven and Joe Eszterhas set out to make an ironic masterpiece, a big-budget exploitation movie exposing the despicable extent of patriarchal hegemony and the cruelty of mankind. If only they had done it a little better, because you know what, that’s a movie we’d love to see.

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Photos: Moviestore/Rex_Shutterstock/Giphy