Adam Nayman's book It Doesn't Suck debuts today, taking a critical look back at the much-maligned and even more beloved 1995 drama. The story of Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls is as great and legendary as that of The Wizard of Oz: a giant budget, a big-name director, and a critical and box-office flop that echoed from here to Neptune. Elizabeth Berkley became a joke — a dirty one. Gina Gershon leaned into camp, taking smart-mouthed sexpot roles in films like Face/Off. Kyle MacLachlan fell off the map for seven years before popping up as the World's Blandest Boyfriend on Sex and the City, hoping we'd all forget about that time he had floppy-fish sex in a chlorine waterfall.
But, with any such failure comes the opportunity for a second life in the camp-classic canon. If your film is just bad enough — and bad in the right way — audiences will reward it with a lifetime of tipsy, mocking, line-repeating group screenings. They will share it with college film-studies buddies and invent drinking games based on your terrible dialogue. They will buy two copies, just in case.
That's the story of Showgirls — and with very good reason. It's a ridiculous film in every possible sense. The plot follows Nomi Malone (Berkley) as she hitches into Las Vegas, determined to make it as a dancer. It's a rough climb up the ladder to stardom, and Nomi takes her hits, first stripping at a cheesy lounge, then colliding with Cristal Connors (Gershon), reigning queen of the scene. Nomi battles her way toward Cristal's throne, fighting and flirting and floppy-fish-sexing her way to the top. This film is more than a bomb — it's a righteous, drunk bombshell.
But, what does that make us?
Furthermore, we cheer for this woman who uses every inch of her body to get ahead, leaping into the arms of the men who would use her, even as they repeatedly fling the word whore in her face. Nomi is no feminist, no matter how many truckers she beats up. It's a fair point. But, I have a few buts.
Camp and satire are natural, necessary genres that make the art of cinema all the more rich and entertaining. Who would want to eat brown rice all day just because it's good for you? Showgirls is the contemporary star of the medium, led by Nomi Malone, a woman who stands for no value or virtue any woman would ever aspire to. She's a cartoon, saturated with so many stereotypes that she transcends them all. The world of Showgirls hates women, that much is sure. But, I don't — and I don't hate Nomi Malone.
Nor do I hate Anne Welles, the lead character in Valley of the Dolls. Search for Showgirls on Amazon, and it recommends this as another title you might like. Though this 1967 melodrama features far fewer nipples, the female leads have much in common. They're both starting over, both clawing for success, and both are in turn foiled or helplessly dependent on the men in their lives. Yet, when I sit down to watch it, again and again, it's not because I fantasize about a life like Anne's — clinging to pant legs and popping uppers. It's because this sh*t is crazy.
To suggest, as Berlatsky does, that audiences can't appreciate the difference between Showgirls and reality is, in a word, bonkers. (The only truly jarring part of the film is a raw, horrific rape scene toward the end. It's a wonder that scene made it through editing as bloody as it is. I'd argue that it's the one argument against the long-held belief that Verhoeven consciously set out to make a camp film. It's all that remains of a true drama.) True, it's valuable to peek behind the curtain, see the real-life issues being jammed through the lens of camp. But, this genre, and its women, provide a real and crucial service in the entertainment industry: a break from reality.
We don't laugh at Showgirls because we think it's hilarious to make fun of sex workers. We don't laugh at Nomi because she's a stripper and strippers are there to be mocked. We laugh at it because why is she talking like that?! We laugh at it because Elizabeth Berkley literally has sequins on her eyelashes. Five minutes into the film, another character asks her where she's from and, in reply, she throws a basket of French fries. And, throwing a basket of French fries is considered a strange and extreme response to someone asking what town you grew up in, and that is what makes it funny. We laugh at Showgirls because it is so, so absurd.
I don't feel bad about liking the anti-feminist heroines of camp — or, frankly, any film. I'm pretty sure I can stay loyal to the cause and still watch Bridget Jones's Diary every now and then. But, I don't think you'll see me counting calories in a bunny suit any time soon. Movies are often made to impart lessons and incite reflection on our own lives. And, sometimes they're just for fun — campy, high-shine, bedazzled fun.
P.S.: I own two copies of Amadeus, too.