I’ll never forget when I was 17 or 18, and I was up until 3 am perusing Youtube for every Watch Mojo video I could watch. I stumbled upon one of their “worst movies ever made” videos. Adam Sandler, George Clooney’s Batman; all the usual suspects in the line-up of the worst of the worst. But then, something shimmery caught my eye. Is that Jessie from Saved by the Bell? Why is she talking about eating dog food? What is Orson from Desperate Housewives doing?? Since then, Showgirls has always been this urban myth to me. A film that just sounded so bad, it couldn't possibly be true. Yes, Showgirls has since been reconsidered a cult classic, but more so as an enjoyable watch to poke fun at rather than quality storytelling. Just for Collider, I finally faced this hot mess of glitter, boobs, and Kyle Machlan correcting pronunciations. And my god, was it a flaming hot mess that I will think about until my final day. I can now appreciate that we need to protect Showgirls at all costs. Even if it is genuinely one of the worst acted and written films of all time.
Showgirls, for its sins, follows Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley), a feisty lady who takes no attitude from no man! Tell her to come closer and she’ll pull a knife on you! Save her from being run over, and she’ll try to beat you up! The film does everything it can to make Nomi seem tough. It’s quite literally her entire personality to the point where she’s weirdly mean to the people she’s meant to care about. Molly (Gina Ravera) is the guardian angel in question who doesn’t think twice about allowing Nomi to move into her trailer and buys her food whenever Nomi is happy.. or sad. She also seems to always be able to give Nomi a ride somewhere. Molly works as a seamstress for the Goddess show at the Stardust Hotel. Nomi dreams of being in the show, but she has to work as a dancer at a dingy strip club. The star of the Goddess show is Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon), and Nomi is infatuated with Cristal and the show immediately. Nomi makes it her mission to join the show and become the best showgirl Las Vegas has ever seen. Easy, right?
Going into this, I knew I was going to see a whole lot of boobs, ass, and sex. It’s an “erotic film” after all. What surprised me most about Showgirls was that there wasn't that much sex. There were heaps and bound of erotica, lust, sensuality, and nudity. But there is a total of one "handy" scene, one sex scene (that made my eyes burn), and one.. yeah. I’ll get to that. This is where the film’s and director Paul Verhoeven’s merits lie. Showgirls crucially understands that sex and erotica are different. The erotic tone of the film comes from looking, entertaining, and showing. We watch Nomi as she dances naked, decked out in elaborate outfits, some with sheer, white material glossing over her breasts, while others are a little more explicit. And sometimes, she’s completely naked. The nudity, even though extensive, doesn’t feel exploitative because the characters look so comfortable and empowered by what they do. Sure, a female director would probably have done it a little more tastefully. But every time someone takes their clothes off, particularly Nomi, and particularly when she’s dancing, you can feel her confidence and energy sizzle out of the screen.
If the film spent all its time on the female and male characters having sex, it wouldn't be nearly as erotic. We are teased by beautiful, naked women, just like the audiences at the shows in which Nomi performs. It’s voyeuristic, yes, but it’s a way more nuanced understanding of what it is that turns people on. And to further compliment the film, Showgirls fundamentally understands that women, even straight women, can take pleasure in beautiful, naked, dancing girls. I identify as straight, and I can tell you, I probably enjoyed these dance sequences more than your average straight man. They’re fun, they’re exciting, and they’re erotic in a way that caters to all genders and all sexualities. Showgirls, although emphasizes the allure of women, makes eroticism something that can be universally enjoyed, rather than something that is so specific to straightness or heteronormativity.
There are times when Nomi performs and the person who is so clearly enjoying it the most is Cristal Connors. The erotica and lust of the men towards the women are just as palpable as that between the women. Cristal yearns for Nomi, Nomi years for Cristal’s position. They’re all just looking at each other, wanting different things. And it’s so much sexier than watching a man and woman absolutely hammering each other in a pool - as the film demonstrates.
The main problem in the film, I hate to say it, absolutely comes back to Berkley’s Nomi. There is no other way to word this: Berkley’s acting is so bad, it’s genuinely funnier than anything Dave Chapelle has ever said. She is just so angry all the time. Now, before you think that sounds misogynistic - I love feminine rage. But Nomi is someone you could save from a fire, and she’ll give you a death stare and walk furiously away. I’d say there are about 12 scenes when Nomi purses her lips and storms out of a room - some for no apparent reason. Berkley is just utterly out of control in her performance. She has no idea when to make Nomi happy, funny, angry, or caring, and it results in this convoluted, messy but ultimately hilarious non-character. The latter half of the movie tries to conjure up some tenderness between Nomi and the other characters, but the first half was so set on making Nomi this defiant lone wolf, this forced empathy feels out of place. When Henrietta (Lin Tucci), Nomi’s work mom of sorts, tries to have a tender minute when Nomi is leaving the club for good, Nomi just dismisses it and walks away. Nomi is in no way tethered to the people around her, so how can the audience feel tethered to her?
And what makes this even worse is that the film and the narrative are completely built around her. Every other character is there to serve Nomi’s arc. Molly is the only genuine, kind-hearted character in the entire film. She’s compelling in the time we see her, but the film has no interest in fleshing out her character outside of Nomi. But the only villain that can match the wrath of Berkley’s acting is the dialogue. One of the more sane and quiet moments of the film is when Nomi and Cristal seem to genuinely bond. And then, they find common ground. They both used to eat dog food. Doggy Chow to be more specific. When Nomi’s old boss is trying to have his “you done good, kid” moment, he says to her with the utmost sincerity, “It must be weird not having anybody cum on you.” There is no way you can’t laugh at the absolute tripe that is the dialogue of Showgirls. It almost makes you think that veteran SNL writers came up with it.
While on the topic of humor, one of the big questions that surround Showgirls is, “Does it mean to be camp?” The film has become a cult classic for its campness. This is certified by a topless Nomi going full 2000s’ Charlie Angels as she kicks her best friend’s rapist around with her knee-high-boot-wearing legs. Kyle MacLachlan's Zack correcting the pronunciation of “Versace” will go down in history books - and this is before he went on Sex and the City or Desperate Housewives. The aforementioned Henrietta's star-making skill is the ability to make her boobs pop in and out of her dress. Whether Showgirls was intentional in its camp tone or not - I can't answer. Paul Verhoeven is the only one who can. But, it doesn’t matter. Because whatever Verhoeven says, there is no way anyone can argue that a film that features a Sex and the City husband correcting the pronunciation of a global fashion brand isn’t camp.
When I was around three-quarters into the film, I thought to myself, “Wow, a 90s film about the trials and tribulations of women, and no rape scene! Well done Showgirls.” When all seems to be going perfectly for Nomi, the film takes its darkest turn. Nomi has pushed Cristal down the stairs and into the hospital for months. She’s the new star, she has Zack on her arm, and she has just introduced Molly to her favorite singer at a glamorous party. Andrew Carver is Molly’s celebrity dreamboat throughout the movie. So, when he invites her up to her room, and she happily goes with him, you think, “Yes, finally Molly gets her moment.” Ah, but that would be too easy - happy women must be destroyed. Molly is viciously, and I mean, viciously, gang-raped by Carver (William Shockley) and two other men. After, Nomi finds her stumbling through the lobby of the hotel with blood gushing down her legs. And this all happens just 20 minutes before the film ends. Sure, the story needed a harsh reality check to start Nomi’s journey back down to earth, but there was no need for such an explicit rape scene. It really is the ugly stain that slaps that 90s timestamp on the film.
So, is Showgirls still as bad as you remember? Yes. Berkley and the script are its hamartia, giving The Room a run for its money. There is little to no character development, you don’t feel any closer or more compelled by the characters by the end of the film. In fact, Nomi completely undoes any redemption the film tries to give her as she abandons a traumatized Molly in the hospital to move to Los Angeles at the end. What’s that about?
But, does it earn its subsequent cult classic status? Absolutely. I still very much enjoyed basking in the glitter and boobs of 90s Las Vegas for two hours. The costume and makeup are sensational to look at - particularly a glittery hairstyle that Nomi sports when she’s made the new star of the show. The dance sequences are fun and camp - reiterating Paul Verhoeven’s understanding that Showgirls is a film to be looked at rather than understood or even listened to with a script like that. But the film deserves to be remembered and revisited for its nuanced exploration of what it is that compels us to sit and look at someone. Just like Nomi, just like every dancer in that show, Showgirls begs, more than anything, to be watched. And despite how bad we think it is, it's hard not to.