Showgirls’ Controversies Hid Its One True Virtue: Pure, Uncut Camp

Photo: Mgm/Ua/Kobal/Shutterstock.
When Showgirls hit cinemas in 1995, it was known for two major things: its scandalous nudity that led to an 18 rating, and the fact that it was, according to most critics, unspeakably terrible.
On its 25th anniversary, however, more people are looking at the film with new eyes. Yes, it's terrible — over-acting, awful dialogue, nonsensical plot, and the dictionary definition of the male gaze — but it is also pure, unadulterated camp.
Showgirls stars Elizabeth Berkley as drifter/aspiring dancer Nomi Malone in a role that derailed her career for decades, practically erasing all the goodwill she'd earned as overachieving high-schooler Jessie Spano in '90s teen sitcom Saved By the Bell (Charlize Theron, who was not cast as Nomi because she wasn't a big enough name at the time, dodged that bullet),. Through Nomi's eyes, the film follows the brutal behind-the-scenes dynamics at a premier Las Vegas topless revue in the last few years before Vegas rebranded itself as a family-friendly vacation destination. The movie also finds Gina Gershon as HBIC star dancer Cristal Connors and Kyle MacLachlan as club boss Zack Carey, but its biggest claims to fame were continuous nudity and graphic sex scenes — the most notorious one sees Nomi flopping like a fish as she and Zack have sex in a pool.
Should we have expected anything else from the duo behind seminal erotic thriller Basic Instinct, though? The second collaboration between director Paul Verhoeven and writer Joe Eszterhas was never going to be SFW. Nevertheless, the difference here was the intention. While Basic Instinct was meant to be a sexy neo-noir thriller, Showgirls, Verhoeven has said, intentionally courted its 18 rating. He directed Berkley to exaggerate her performance, instructed Eszterhas to write a wildly unnecessary rape scene in the final act (the film's most deserved controversy), and purposefully made the musical numbers in the "Goddess" revue as tacky as possible.
"I asked Elizabeth to do all that — to be abrupt and to act in that way, but people have been attacking her about for that ever since," Verhoeven told the New York Daily News in 2015. "We were making a film that was hyperbolic and an exaggeration and so my intention was always to use a style that was exaggerated in everything. Still to this day it is widely considered a bad movie, but I think that's because people still don't understand it. I used exaggerated nudity, colours, and movement. I was trying to make it as exaggerated as Las Vegas is in real life. That is why the musical numbers are as bad as they are — I purposely tried not to make good music in those scenes, but obviously that turned out to be a big mistake."
Susan Sontag famously wrote in her 1964 essay "Notes on Camp" that something can be defined as camp because of "its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration." Let's be clear: There is absolutely nothing understated in this movie. It's entirely comprised of exaggeration, from Berkley's performance as Nomi — a character so pathologically incapable of modulating her emotions that a toddler could exhibit more nuance — to the seemingly infinite shots of bare breasts to the sheer number of sequins on each showgirl costume.
Every movement Nomi makes in the opening five minutes has the same energy of Paul Rudd scoffing at the idea of cleaning his plate in the satirical Wet Hot American Summer. Nomi and her rival Cristal can't decide whether they want roll into bed or push each other off a cliff (or down a flight of stairs), and they bond over their mutual childhood love of dog food. (Though, I guess the dog food conversation does technically pass the Bechdel Test.) MacLachlan's Zack spends the movie sporting side-swept bangs that would make SNL's Stefon jealous. At one point, the backstage of "Goddess" is taken over by literal monkeys. And there are nipples everywhere.
Nomi's roommate Molly (Gina Ravera) invites a strange, erratic woman she literally just met to be her roommate. A bartender loses his job multiple times because he wants to have sex with Nomi, and then writes her a role in his musical. Nomi famously pronounces Versace as "Versayse." And the following line, uttered by a strip club boss, is played as an actual emotional beat reflecting on Nomi's career: "Must be weird, not having anyone cum on you."
Somehow, though, nearly every terrible creative decision comes together in a magical way that makes you literally shake your head and smile every time a character does or says something ridiculous, which is frequently. The main criteria of a good camp classic is complete and utter commitment, no matter how misguided the action — and Showgirls has that in spades.
In fact, the perception of the film has shifted so dramatically from critical disaster (it has a 20% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) to cult classic that there's an entire documentary called You Don't Nomi about its new life as a "perfectly bad" film.
It's an absolute shame that Berkley's career never recovered, particularly since Verhoeven has taken full responsibility for directing that performance out of her. But Showgirls is an extremely bad movie, and it'll cloud Berkley's career forever. At least now, 25 years after Showgirls' release, we can finally admit that for all its inescapable flaws, it's one a hell of a good time.

More from Movies

R29 Original Series