One of the major bonuses of living in the DVD/home theater age is the relative ease of revisiting films from our past which we remember with fondness, or sometimes more accurately, those for which we have fondness that we don’t remember so well. It’s a chance to confirm and re-experience what it is about the film we loved so much in the beginning, and see what time has added to that experience. And, of course, sometimes it’s an exercise in demonstrating how time and the events of our own lives will serve to subtract from a film’s overall effect and its hold on our sensibilities.
But in the recent past I’ve begun to discover that, opposed to reapproaching beloved films, it’s often even more interesting and rewarding to go back and have a look, divorced as one can render oneself from the attendant hype generated by the distributing studio and filmmakers, as well as the ossified consensus (which only grows more rigid with time) arrived at by the entertainment press and even the general critical community, at a film which one felt pretty strongly about in the negative upon the first (perhaps only) viewing. I recently took up a challenge from a fellow writer whom I respect who has always loved Body Double, a film by a director (Brian De Palma) whom we both admire which I had always found repellent, ill-advised and deficient, both from a narrative and visual standpoint, given the filmmaker’s usually high standards. Revisiting the movie, I still found it largely ill-advised and lacking in both narrative and visual consistency, but also not nearly the misogynistic crime it seemed in 1985. My admiration for Body Double hadn’t increased significantly, but it was a valuable opportunity to test my own sense of how a movie “changes” in one’s mind over the years.
In fact, I suppose it’s not all that uncommon to revisit a reviled movie and have one’s initial reactions confirmed. And I’m never too surprised, whenever I take another look at a beloved film from my past, if it either holds up well against my memory, or even if it is revealed as less than what I once thought, as merely an ethereal byproduct of my nostalgic imagination or fond recollections of the time and place in which I first took it in, or colored by thought processes that have been perforated and exposed by the passage of time.
The rarest circumstance, however, at least in my experience, is one in which I choose to revisit a movie that I hated upon first viewing, and then see it again some years later, only to have my eyes opened, my blinders stripped away, in order to discover the terrific movie that was there all along. The most obvious occurrence of this phenomenon in my moviegoing life was my complete turnaround on Nashville, a film I hated (and one which I was not equipped to comprehend) when I saw it at the tender age of 16. A couple of viewings later, during my university days, and Nashville quickly became my favorite film, one which I saw three times in one day my senior year of college, one which held that “favorite film” status for 26 years (it was finally bumped down a couple of notches by Once Upon a Time in the West this past summer).
But that experience with Nashville could be chalked up to simple immaturity. How often does it happen that you revisit a film by which you were initially repulsed as an adult, your critical faculties presumably alive and engaged and ready for bear, only to find out that you were completely and utterly wrong, that you were either a victim of or a willing participant in a smothering groupthink that seeped into your mind, forming unshakable preconceptions and preventing you from seeing the movie that was right in front of your eyes?
Most people, I’d wager, who comprised the meager audiences that turned out in theaters for Showgirls when it was first released in the U.S. in September of 1995, were fully aware of all the brouhaha over the NC-17 rating, director Paul Verhoeven’s previously announced intentions regarding the project (something about fully erect penises on view—or was that Basic Instinct?—and a no-holds-barred look at Vegas show life), and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas’s reputation as an overpaid sleazemeister, and by the time the first print actually screened the film’s early critical reputation as a notorious bomb, a reeker on the order of Myra Breckenridge or Plan Nine From outer Space-- a candidate, in other words, for Worst Movie Ever—became generally accepted as fact. (After its U.S. debut, it trickled out all over the world over the next few months, into January 1996—in fact, on this very day, 10 years ago, it made its debut in Verhoeven’s homeland The Netherlands, by which time negative reaction to the film had become a toxic fogbank of conventional wisdom. (Peet, did you see the movie when it was first released in the Netherlands? What do you think of Showgirls?)
I didn’t see it myself until it arrived on laserdisc, sometime in 1996. By then that fog bank was mighty thick, and my initial reaction wasn’t so much repulsion as boredom. Verhoeven had made a movie that was as packed with nudity as I’d ever seen, but rather than getting me excited about all that flesh constantly on display, Showgirls had succeeded, through sheer visual repetition and matter-of-fact presentation, in numbing me to its presence. I was repulsed, however, by the berserk, feral presence of Elizabeth Berkley, or more accurately by the use to which she was put—completely unmodulated, in-your-face attitude and (surprising to me) an entrenched hostility shoved front and center within that big Panavision frame. (That rape scene, and the subsequent violent reprisal it inspires, was no pretty picture either.) Of course, I saw Verhoeven’s Vegas as a tawdry condemnation of the values of show business and, by extension, American taste, and I’ll admit I got my back up about someone from another country, to whom America had been quite generous, from a career and financial standpoint, making such a bold and corrosive “statement” about the tackiness and bad taste of the entire nation, especially when the statement was apparently being made by Verhoeven and Eszterhas, two men never known for subtlety and nuance. (At least Verhoeven made his movie in America-- right, Mr. Von Trier?)
I had been quite comfortable ignoring Showgirls after that screening, relatively assured that my reaction, although strong, was justified. Then, in March of 2004, Charles Taylor, then still in place as a senior film critic for Salon, published an appreciation of the film (unattached, as far as I’m aware, to any DVD release or other Showgirls-themed event that would have sparked a synergistic impulse in his editor’s mind) that, despite my initial insistence on eyeball-rolling, resisted my condescension though the sheer clarity of his response and argument for the film. His argument was reasoned, reasonably pitched, and convincing. But how convincing would it be after having actually watched the film a second time?
Nearly two years after Taylor’s piece, which pricked the skin of my interest in revisiting Showgirls, I got an invitation to write a piece which would stand as a commemoration of the 10-year anniversary of the movie’s Netherlands release date (January 11, 2006), a commemoration intended to extend over as many blog sites as wished to participate. There was no stipulation as to the attitude of the piece, negative or positive; it only had to be about Verhoeven and Estzerhas’s notorious spectacle. I printed out Taylor’s article, vowed not to read it again until after I’d seen the movie, settled in on my couch a couple of evenings ago, at the end of a very long day, and invited Showgirls into my home theater one more time.
What an embarrassment. And I’m not talking about the movie. I’m talking about having to face up to perhaps my most egregious misread of a movie since dismissing Nashville. Showgirls turns out not to be a work of found comedy, of two sleaze merchants pitching an earnest drama and missing the plate by a mile, but an uninhibited melodrama that dares to not condescend to its subject matter—the backstage milieu of Las Vegas, where sex (or at least nudity and the trappings of sex) are ritualized (or choreographed into routine) and funneled into gaudy stage productions. I really wonder how many of the people who have made a point of slamming Showgirls over the past 10 years would think nothing of plunking down big dollars for a Vegas weekend, perhaps one centered around a “classy” topless show like “Goddess” (the show that makes Berkley’s Nomi Malone a star), take the whole package at face value and enjoy the hell out of themselves. Well, by modeling their story on the backstage musicals of the ‘40s (Brian over at Hell On Frisco Bay provides some excellent context for those jumping-off points in his Showgirls entry), as well as inverting All About Eve and telling their tale of show business back-stabbing and rivalry not from Margo Channing’s perspective, but from the conniving Eve’s, the filmmakers do just that—they provide a narrative context in which to observe the everyday goings-on in the world of these splashy nightclub productions, through which Nomi, the film’s protagonist, attempts to outrun her mysterious past and redefine herself.
But in the process, Verhoeven thankfully forgets to skimp on the vulgar amusements that are one of the defining elements of Las Vegas itself, the neon buzz that fuels Nomi’s frenetic dancing, her relentless ambition, and he doesn’t hold that ambition to anyone’s standard but Nomi’s. As Taylor observes, Verhoeven doesn’t hold her feet to the fire either and insist, per the familiar formula of such tales, that she pay for her ambition and misdeeds. Indeed, Showgirls recognizes that Las Vegas allows Nomi to become, through her ascendance to stardom within this strange show business microcosm, exactly who she seems destined to become, and Verhoeven assures, by acknowledging the charge, the dirty thrill she gets from performing and becoming a part of that world, that any value judgments placed on that ascension will come from the audience, not from him.
Unlike my initial reaction to Showgirls, I came away from my most recent brush with the film thinking that Verhoeven is not condemning Las Vegas or Americans for reveling in bad taste. On the contrary, he’s reveling in it himself, drawing parallels between himself, as a participant in American show business, and the characters on screen, and he’s not making any excuses for anyone’s behavior. But he’s doing so in a much less obvious way than, say, John Waters has in the past, and therefore he runs the risk of being dismissed as a simple vulgarian or a crude camp satirist. I don’t think he’s exclusively either, though to suggest that Verhoeven here is not vulgar or exhibiting a satiric sensibility would be to, again, miss the point. In Showgirls, Verhoeven the visual stylist, with only the slightest exaggeration, heightens the melodrama of Eszterhas’ script with gleeful sexuality (and vulgarity) and deranged life by presenting Vegas as the new model microcosm of the American dream, and Nomi as one of its prime dreamers, and encouraging us to experience the city and its milieu through those wide brown orbs hidden, as they almost always are, behind glitter-encrusted eyelids. (Not one single close-up of Nomi or any of the other women in full production regalia allows us to back off of the extremity of the costumes and makeup—in this movie, you see just how exaggerated, how scary, and yet at the same time how sexy these women can look from five feet away in sparkling getups designed to dazzle the back row of the theater. At times Berkeley’s overreaching lipstick and pancake makeup applications make her resemble nothing less than a slimmed-down R. Crumb cartoon come to life, or a Nick Park creation with pumps and a G-string.)
Seen through Nomi’s eyes it makes sense that nudity and sexuality would be seen as everyday, that it would be made routine, less than special, even numbing. Verhoeven and Esterzhas, despite what you may have heard, aren’t too interested in fueling male fantasies much beyond the lap dance Nomi gives to Kyle MacLachlan’s Zach Carey, and Nomi most certainly isn’t. Showgirls is far more concerned with tracking how this hostile girl with a hair-trigger temper sees the world in which she’s chosen to navigate—she attacks everything from dancing to eating fast food to having sex with the same violent, clipped, unfocused energy, and she has very little patience with anyone who doesn’t, can’t, or won’t play with the same energy. (Her impersonation of a boat propeller during the infamous swimming pool sex scene with MacLachlan is ridiculous, but intentionally so, a parody of porn excess.) She even moves up the ladder into the top spot on the “Goddess” show by literally pushing its star, Cristal Collins (Gina Gershon), down a flight of stairs. Yet again, Charles Taylor correctly observes that she’s never punished for her transgressions because they are recognized as part and parcel of survival in the movie’s brutalizing show business world—Cristal herself is revealed to be every bit the schemer Nomi is by her hospital bed confession (and subsequent reconciliation with Nomi, her “friendly” archenemy) that she grabbed the spotlight for herself in exactly the same way Nomi has.
Nomi’s past, however, and her attempts to closet it, add an extra element of uncertainty about her which works in the movie’s favor and provides a little more context for her seemingly relentless hostility. At one point Carey dangles her criminal record in her face—prostitution, possession of narcotics, assault with a deadly weapon—and I thought to myself, “And that’s just what she got caught doing!” As played by Berkley, Nomi comes across as potentially homicidal at times, so much so that when she puts the stiletto heel to craven pop star Andrew Carver (William Shockley) after he facilitates and participates in the gang rape of her best friend, Molly (Gina Ravera) I had no trouble believing that, if she didn’t feel she couldn’t escape the charges, she’d have no problem putting one through this guy’s eyeball and being done with it.
Too bad Elizabeth Berkley never had the opportunity to dispatch some of her harsher critics in the same way. She, of course, ended up taking the brunt of the abuse for the box office (and perceived artistic) failure of Showgirls, and her brash, unseasoned performance, which is exactly what the movie calls for, however you feel about the level of rage with which she imbues the character, was an all-too-easy target. Any reasonable viewer ought to be able to see that Verhoeven saw the raw ambition in her that was perfectly realized in Nomi, and that Taylor probably rightly suggests was a source of inspiration, and fear, for Berkeley herself. Why wouldn’t an actress, known mostly for a supporting role on a kids’ TV comedy (Saved by the Bell), who suddenly found herself the focal point of a big budget (but at $40 million, not that big) movie that was itself being held up as the litmus test for the success or failure of the NC-17 rating, feel a little pressure? Fair enough. But heaping blame squarely on her shoulders for what became the Showgirls debacle seems patently unfair, based on what’s on screen, especially when what’s on screen has itself been pretty shamefully misjudged from the word “go.” If Showgirls ever got as fair a shake upon its initial release as it is getting today, through the network of bloggers who are attempting to reshape opinion, frame honest reconsideration in some small way by singing its praises, or perhaps even continue the negative appraisals in the clear light of day, then we probably wouldn’t be gathering forces like this to celebrate the existence of one of modern cinema’s most (unjustly) reviled totems of excess.
I’m really glad Showgirls is out there. I’m glad for Charles Taylor standing up for it from the beginning, and for writing a terrific piece that led me to my own reappraisal of the movie. I’m exceedingly glad to have been invited to participate in this forum (even though my entry is a tad late in the day). And I hope that by reading this, or one of the many great pieces that are available on line through this celebration, that someone else might at least be able to take another look, with fresh eyes, without the pressure of insistent and official opinion ringing in their ears, at a genuinely terrific movie that has been cloaked in ignominy and derision for 10 years. As Eric Henderson stated in his outstanding article about the film, “I'd probably be a lot more worried about the possibility that I'm overselling Showgirls if it wasn't already patently clear that most people have already closed themselves off to the pleasures the film has to offer.” In that spirit, I invite you to check out Showgirls again on DVD, and if you’re like me and you didn’t before, do it this time with eyes wide open. You might not like what you see, but then again you might.