So much has been said about how bad Showgirls is that it is almost a cliché to wax poetic about its poor writing, laughable overacting, and garish production values. If viewed as a straight and serious drama as the filmmakers intended for it to be seen, the film is indeed quite terrible for the aforementioned reasons.
If, however, you are a fan of exploitation films and the camp aesthetic in the vein of so-bad-it’s-good, then as a piece of entertainment Showgirls might have just what you need for an amusing late night film party. Depending on how you choose to view it, you might see one of the worst big-budget studio films of all time, or quite possibly the most unintentionally funny.
The first and only NC-17 rated film to be given a wide release in mainstream theaters, Showgirls was released in 1995 to much hype and even greater disappointment. Costing around $45 million and grossing only $20 million, the shock value marketing technique was a clear failure. After winning several Razzie awards and becoming a symbol for Hollywood’s indulgent worst, the film’s fortunes changed after reaching home video. People began seeing the film ironically for its cheese, gloss, and outlandish scenes, generating $100 million from rentals and turning the film into an unexpected cult classic.
Elizabeth Berkley of Saved by the Bell fame stars as Nomi Malone, a fierce young woman with a mysterious past who hitchhikes her way to Las Vegas to chase her dreams of being a dancer. After having her luggage stolen and subsequently attempting suicide (because losing one’s luggage is traumatic), a seamstress named Molly (Gina Ravera) offers to take Nomi in.
Although Nomi considers herself to be a dancer, she makes money as a stripper at a sleazy topless club. She dreams of being a Vegas showgirl at Stardust, where dancer Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon) reigns as the supreme diva. When both Cristal and her entertainment director boyfriend Zack Carey (Kyle MacLachlan) take an interest in Nomi, things get even more complicated between the three. The majority of the film follows Nomi as she experiences the highs and lows of becoming a showgirl, as well as the pain and decadence that goes with it.
Having previously struck box-office gold with the 1992 erotic thriller Basic Instinct, things didn’t quite work the same for director Paul Verhoeven and writer Joe Eszterhas this time around. For a screenplay that sold for $2 million, Eszterhas’s eternal embarrassment was also a big paycheck grab for him. For how poor Berkley’s exaggerated and erratic acting is, it’s pretty hard to deliver a lot of these lines with any form of sincerity. Even veteran actor MacLachlan and his goofy hairdo can’t escape this bad production, and it doesn’t help that Verhoeven’s bombastic directing makes everything feel so forced to the point of hilarity.
A distinctive characteristic of Showgirls is that you really can’t believe what you’re seeing as the film progresses. From unexpected places—such as the forced and awkward sexual tension between Cristal and Nomi, to the infamous pool sex scene and the misplaced and offensive rape—there’s a humor to be found in the film when one considers the context of production. To think that a group of creative minds actually believed this film could be taken seriously is in itself an achievement. Not to mention the fact that they got a studio to back it with a fairly sizeable budget. They should praise the heavens that an audience out there gave this piece of trash a chance and found some kind of worth in it, even if it wasn’t the reaction they intended.
Making its way to Blu-ray for the first time, MGM marks the 15th anniversary of the film with the fittingly titled “Sinsational Edition”. Although the slipcase looks great and the package comes with both Blu-ray and DVD, this release is much less appealing than the 2004 V.I.P. edition which included shot glasses, a poster, and a deck of playing cards. Nonetheless, the film looks pristine and positively sleazy in this high definition transfer. Much of the features were found on previous discs, including a fun commentary track, a couple production featurettes, and interestingly, two segments focusing on pole dancing and lap dancing. All in all, it’s a fairly decent package, but unfortunately it’s lacking participation from anyone involved in the production.
Ultimately, Showgirls tried to be a smart, edgy, erotic, and emotional film, but failed to accomplish any of those tasks. Sure, it was a giant mess and a public embarrassment, but just like a political sex scandal, there’s plenty of humor to be found. As the years have gone by, so have the intensely cynical criticisms of Showgirls, which have now been replaced with a sense of irony and sarcasm that has given the film a second life on home video. Failure can be a crippling thing, but somehow Showgirls managed to turn it into a lasting success.