On today, this most revered day, the great Dutch director Paul Verhoeven celebrates his 80th birthday and I, in turn, am celebrating his incredible, often misunderstood career. For a brief, golden period, Verhoeven left the Netherlands and came to work in Hollywood, where he made bold, uncompromising films like RoboCop (1987) and Basic Instinct (1992) that would go on to shape American genre cinema. But the greatest of these is the weird and wild Showgirls (1995), Verhoeven’s brutal satire of American wealth and excess. Panned upon its released and charged with everything from ineptness to misogyny, Showgirls is a misunderstood masterpiece that blends and manipulates numerous genres—musical, thriller, rape revenge film—resulting in a totally unique end product that defies all logical convention.
Effectively an erotic musical about a stripper-turned-showgirl, the film follows Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) as she hitchhikes to Las Vegas to become a dancer. After a series of setbacks, she finds a roommate, Molly (Gina Ravera), who works as costume mistress at the Starlight Casino, renowned for its “Goddess” dance show. While visiting Molly, Nomi happens to meet the star, Cristal (Gina Gershon), who is intrigued by her and learns that Nomi dances at a strip club. Partly to antagonize Nomi, Cristal conspires to get Nomi an audition at the Starlight, where she is ultimately hired to join the team. But soon Nomi begins to covet Cristal’s position as star.
While I typically despise this “anyone who disagrees with me is Hitler” line of thinking from critics or film fans, I’m going to come right out and say that I think anyone who hates Showgirls or find it offensive simply doesn’t get the film. Like Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (1997), it is a brilliant satire and frankly it’s amazing that he was able to get away with making both films inside the Hollywood system. Ostensibly, Showgirls is harshly critical of Las Vegas, the sex industry, and American excess in general, but it is certainly also critical of Hollywood. Young women with fake names, fake histories, and often fake bodies compete with one another using the only tools they are allowed: youth, beauty, and sex. And this is where Showgirls continues to remain so brilliant, particularly in the era of #MeToo. However cartoonish, overwrought, or simply unbelievable some sequences may seem, it is ultimately a film about the weaponization of sexuality. It’s not a film that celebrates that weaponization, but a film that shows how dangerous it is, and how difficult it is for women to live and to thrive in such a world.
As anyone who has not been living under a rock knows, Showgirls was a critical bomb that nearly ruined the careers of its director and its star. It’s been argued that Elizabeth Berkley is the unwary butt of a very cruel joke perpetrated by Verhoeven, but that’s the sort of narrow, conservative appraisal that explains why bold and imaginative cinema has gradually faded from Hollywood. Instead, I would argue that Nomi Malone is a force of nature and Berkley’s performance ranges widely; whether comical, frightening, endearing, and or erotic, she is simply unforgettable. (If there’s another movie where someone thrashes about like a fish during an orgasm, please send it my way.) John Waters once said that beauty is something you should never be able to forget—which is why he rightly dubbed Divine the Most Beautiful Woman in the World—and I think the same applies to Nomi, even at her most absurd. My fellow Diabolique writer and dear friend Heather Drain once described her as “Yosemite Sam with tits” and I fail to understand why we can’t have a female protagonist who is both ludicrous and triumphant.
In a sense, Nomi is a continuation of characters found in earlier musicals like All That Jazz (1979), Fame (1980), and A Chorus Line (1985), films populated by women (and sometimes men) attempting to exceed the limitations of society through celebrations of the flesh. Generally, these films are populated by struggling, downtrodden figures determined to rise above their limitations, though these films are also often quite cynical. All That Jazz follows its protagonist’s deterioration into cocaine, sexual excess, narcissism, and death, while other films like Times Square (1980)—admittedly only a musical in the loosest, most post-modern sense—grapple with mental illness, poverty, and urban crime. Though sharing in this general nihilism, Showgirls defies some of these themes while not shying away from them: such as Chorus Line’s heartbreaking “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three,” about a talented dancer who isn’t deemed beautiful enough to be hired and is forced to go out and get plastic surgery. She sings, “I’m still on unemployment, dancing for my own enjoyment […] Left the theater and called the doctor for my appointment to buy tits and ass […] Tits and ass have changed my life.”
In this way, Nomi is ahead of her time. She refuses to change, to calm her hysterical and sometimes violent outbursts (the film begins with one of these, where she nearly kills herself in oncoming traffic), or to tame her dancing. She is told, “You burn when you dance,” as if she might burn herself out, and “dancin’ ain’t fuckin’.” But in this particular world, it is exactly that. If Nomi can be said to have an ultimate goal throughout the film, it’s not really to become a star, but to prove that she isn’t a whore. She reacts violently during a scene where she’s asked to work a convention, with the unspoken assumption that she’ll go home with a wealthy client at the end of the night as an escort, in not so many words. He jokes, “In America, everyone’s a gynecologist.” This is essentially a counterpart to earlier joke, told by a comic burlesque performer in the strip club where Nomi initially works: “You know what they call the useless skin around the twat? A woman.”
Verhoeven argued that this environment of brutal misogyny and pervasive cruelty—so blunt in the strip club but far more insidious and pervasive in the casino—is one of his most realistic. He said in an interview, “Showgirls was so negative and so cynical about American society, reducing everything to opportunism. […] Showgirls is the most realistic movie I’ve ever made in the United States. It’s all based on months and months of interviews with chorus girls, choreographers, producers, and theater owners–and that’s the way they are. Even the singer who rapes the girl at the end—that was also based on things that had really happened and were covered up by the police because it’s Vegas.” In my personal experience, anyone who thinks the characterization of the dancers—and their relationships with each other and with the men in the film—isn’t realistic or is ridiculously over-dramatized hasn’t spent much time in strip clubs.
Alternately, I’ve heard complaints that Showgirls is a flashy satire that ruins its own fun tone by effectively turning the final act of the film into a grim rape revenge movie. But to me—and perhaps because I’ve seen in a million times—this moment seems inevitable. Nomi’s friend Molly is the film’s undeniable moral center, soft and innocent, possessing a sort of pent up sexuality that becomes a recurring joke throughout the film. While Verhoeven could not have realistically turned Nomi into a victim—she is, after all, reacting to a life of victimization—he could turn her into the physical embodiment of female rage. Perhaps Molly’s sudden gang rape at the hands of a handsome rock star (William Shockley) and his bodyguards and its subsequent cover up seemed far fetched in 1995, but we now know that this is around the same time that actress Asia Argento was raped by producer Harvey Weinstein—along with dozens of other women who were similarly harassed or assaulted. When I first saw the film years ago, the rape subplot reminded me of the story captured in the documentary Girl 27 (2007), about the 1937 rape of a dancer and actress and Hollywood’s cover up of the crime.
Rape is a theme that recurs throughout Verhoeven’s films, as recently as his late masterpiece Elle (2016), about a businesswoman (Isabelle Huppert) who is raped in her own home by a masked assailant. Instead of reporting the crime to the police, she attempts to figure out her attacker’s identity on her own and refuses to be labeled—or to think of herself—as a victim. In Showgirls, Molly is brutalized and nearly killed; she must be hospitalized for the ending of the film and barely regains consciousness during her few final moments on screen. After Nomi is blackmailed by the casino and informed that the police will not be involved in the crime, she takes justice in her own hands. She changes her appearance and dons a costume—somewhat similarly to other rape revenge films such as Abel Ferrara’s great Ms. 45 (1981)—where she dresses in animal prints, paints her nails like claws, and rouges her nipples red, manipulates her way into the rapist’s bedroom, and proceeds kick the living shit out of him. Once on the ground, he is entirely out of frame, with the camera only showing her incandescent rage and her thigh-high black boots as she stomps him into unconsciousness.
Accusations that Showgirls in particular or Verhoeven’s films in general are misogynistic makes my blood boil—and betrays an ignorance of his career at large. Certainly later efforts like RoboCop and Starship Troopers put female characters at the forefront of action films, a genre that is still dominated by men on screen and behind the scenes. But regardless of genre, women are at the forefront of many of Verhoeven’s films, from the very beginning of his career. For example, Wat zien ik (Diary of a Hooker, 1971) is about the friendship between two whores and frankly represents the difficulties both women have balancing their careers and personal lives; women subjected to poverty and hardship is a theme that has run throughout almost all his work. This is similarly the case with Keetje Tippel (Katie Tippel, 1975), a moving melodrama about a young woman essentially forced into prostitution by her family. Keetje Tippel is something of a dry run for Showgirls, as the titular figure breaks free from her family to find a measure of independence, is subjected to a rape, and is nearly seduced away from true happiness by promises of wealth.
Even Turks fruit (Turkish Delight, 1973), his early classic, features a tempestuous central female character, Olga (the charismatic Monique van de Ven, also of Keetje Tippel), and follows her difficult romance with a painter (a young Rutger Hauer in one of his best roles). Her obsessive drive for independence—coupled with a brain tumor—result in wild, compulsive behavior that has echoes in Nomi’s character more than two decades later. Similarly brash, independent (and dangerous) women populate Spetters (1980), De vierde man (The 4th Man, 1983), and Flesh + Blood (1985). I’ve certainly seen criticism that his films like The 4th Man and especially his thriller Basic Instinct (1992) are fixated on violent caricatures of women that are inherently misogynistic. Verhoeven has spoken about how Basic Instinct was inspired by Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), essentially a film about the tragedy and violence that unfolds when a man subjects a woman to his all-consuming fantasies. Vertigo is another film that has—particularly in recent years—been subject to flaccid, lazy criticism that has labeled it misogynistic, but I think both Vertigo and Basic Instinct (and by extension, Showgirls), portray the world as a nihilistic place that is particularly cruel to women—but in the case of Verhoeven’s films, a place where women refuse to be subjugated or broken and survive despite often insurmountable odds.
In a recent essay for The Guardian, Anne Bilson has described Vertigo as a feminist deconstruction of misogyny. She writes, “As for Vertigo, it mercilessly scrutinises romantic love while swooning over it. […] The film doesn’t just reflect Hitchcock’s own attempts to control his leading ladies, but suggests how contemporary notions of romance have themselves been shaped by Hollywood movies. It is not an example of misogyny, but an overblown, beautiful and tragic deconstruction of it.” Similarly, Verhoeven’s female leads—particularly in Basic Instinct and Showgirls, in terms of his ‘90s films—highlight the misogyny inherent in Hollywood, and in the world. Far from condoning this misogyny, Verhoeven often allows his female leads to take control, violently defend themselves when necessary, and subvert rigid social structures—while himself deconstructing the theme of sex as entertainment.
It’s must also be considered that both Basic Instinct and Showgirls these films were released during the ‘90s boom of erotic thrillers and dramas—which more or less began in the ‘80s with Adrian Lyne films like 9 ½ Weeks (1986) and Fatal Attraction (1987)—where female sexuality was often refracted through the prism of male fantasy: films like Sliver (1993), Single White Female (1992), Indecent Proposal (1993), Color of Night (1994), Leaving Las Vegas (1995), Bound (1996), Gia (1998), and Wild Things (1998), among others. These films typically depicted female sexuality, and transgressive sexuality in particular, as a moral flaw, a social offense that must be punished. As in much earlier film noir, order must be restored and domesticity must triumph. This is certainly not the case with Showgirls. In a traditional Hollywood film, a male romantic lead would come along and save Nomi from her life of debauchery and make her into a neutered domestic figure, as in the deplorable Pretty Woman (1990), possibly the single most disgusting depiction of prostitution on screen. In Showgirls, Nomi rescues herself—or doesn’t need rescuing—and the only potential romantic leads are shown to be either ineffectual or corrupt.
Glenn Plummer’s James—a rare romantic leading role for a black character in a ‘90s Hollywood film—is a dancer with a dream who wants to rescue Nomi from the strip club and make her into a “real” dancer. But he strays at the first sting of romantic rejection. His tryst with another stripper (Rena Riffel) results in an unexpected pregnancy and a future of mundane jobs to support his new family. He is unambiguously punished for this moment of weakness and his dreams evaporate as Nomi is awarded an audition. On the other hand, Zack (Kyle MacLachlan at his seediest) is a seemingly glamorous stepping stone for Nomi, but soon reveals his true nature. He is only supportive because he wants to fuck her and then feed off of her success; she will be another feather in his cap. In a sense, Zack is fame personified and thus becomes the film’s true antagonist: he doesn’t want to defeat or destroy Nomi, but he wants to corrupt her and pervert her dream.
On the surface, the film’s antagonist appears to be Cristal Connors,the casino’s star who frequently tries to humiliate Nomi. But Cristal is also the most knowing and aware character in the film, and perhaps also the most honest. Unlike Nomi, who is determined to prove that she isn’t a whore, Cristal has no illusions about the life she has chosen and effectively profits off of her own exploitation. She tells Nomi, “You are a whore, darlin’. We all are. We take the cash, we cash the check, we show them what they wanna see.” Cristal alone seems unchanged by this environment and doesn’t experience sexual jealousy when Zack—who is presumably Cristal’s partner—orgasms from a lap dance with Nomi and later begins a sexual relationship with her. Cristal’s blatant bisexuality also seems to somehow safeguard her from male victimization. By working within a rigid system, she is master of her own kingdom, but she is, at all times, aware of the system itself.
Showgirls is essentially a loose remake of Joseph Mankiewicz’s scathing classic, All About Eve (1950), starring Bette Davis as Margo, a 40-year-old Broadway superstar concerned her career is on the decline. An obsessed young fan, Eve (Anne Baxter), comes into her life with a moving story of poverty and hardship and Margo is inspired to hire the girl as her personal assistant. Eve proves herself enormously capable, but also cunning, and soon manipulates her way into being cast as Margo’s understudy for her latest play. She conspires to have Margo miss a performance—one that happens to be packed with theater critics—and gradually becomes a star in her own right, though her duplicitous nature is gradually revealed, along with her sordid backstory, which includes a sexual scandal.
Notably, Verhoeven flips the script: it is not the aging star who is the protagonist of Showgirls, but the eager young upstart. And unlike Eve, Nomi is not a manipulative liar willing to risk everything for fame; she avoids telling any backstory at all, frequently clashes with Cristal, despite the star’s manipulative attempts to make friends, and—perhaps most importantly—is only given the opportunity to audition at the Starlight Casino because Cristal pushes for it. It is revealed that Nomi’s sordid backstory is not a disastrous affair, but much worse: her father murdered her mother and committed suicide and she was forced into a life of prostitution and drug addiction. And unlike All About Eve, Showgirls presents a world in which the ultimate goal for its female protagonists is not fame or money, but personal agency and independence. Both Cristal and Nomi are aware they are being exploited for their bodies and for their sexuality and chose to profit off of it; unlike in more traditional Hollywood narratives, neither one really pursues a romantic relationship. It can certainly be read that Cristal fully orchestrates her own retirement by goading and manipulating Nomi to a predictable end, while Nomi abruptly ends her career just as she has found success—by simply walking away.
Like a much later film that is essentially also a dance musical about strippers—Gregory Jacobs’ Magic Mike XXL (2015)—the moral of Showgirls seems to be strangely anti-capitalist. For example, it seems intentional that Verhoeven set the film in Las Vegas, rather than in Hollywood or on Broadway. And while money is at stake in both plots, the characters are ultimately unconcerned with it; it is a means, but not an end. At the end of the film, as Nomi is hitchhiking out of Vegas, the driver asks if she gambled and what she won. She responds, “me.” A sequel to Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike (2012), about a young man (Channing Tatum) who begrudgingly becomes a successful male stripper, Magic Mike XXL is instead about Mike’s (temporary?) abandonment of his dream to marry his girlfriend and own a furniture shop for a final road trip to a stripper convention in Myrtle Beach with a caravan full of his former fellow dancers. While Magic Mike XXL is not a satire in the same way as Showgirls, the two films have much in common and what Mike ultimately wins is himself, his regained sense of joy.
In Helena Fitzgerald’s wonderful recent essay on the mythic structure of Magic Mike XXL, she explains that typical heroic narratives follows a hero’s pursuit of a specific goal, rely on black and white moral laws, and always affirm established social structures. But like Nomi, Mike and company have no real interest in achievement. Fitzgerald writes, “Magic Mike, although it seems like a quest, is a story totally uninterested in victory or in achievement. Do Mike and his crew win the stripper contest? It’s never discussed.” Similarly, Showgirls ends abruptly; Nomi has achieved fame, but the ease with which she walks away from it indicates that it was never her ultimate goal. She has found herself, proven to herself that she is a real dancer—more than a prostitute or a stripper, more than just a two-dimensional sexual fantasy. She has also proven—unlike the titular character in All About Eve—that she is unwilling to sacrifice or compromise her principles. After Cristal humiliates her repeatedly, she pushes Cristal down the stairs, but this transgression is seemingly forgiven when it is revealed that Cristal did the same thing years ago and is not angry with Nomi.
Similarly to Magic Mike XXL, Showgirls begins (and ends) as a road movie where a character goes to a place to dance; Nomi hitchhikes her way into Las Vegas from an unknown origin, but this is a journey without a logical conclusion, without consequences. As Fitzgerald writes, “This cyclical nature of the journey is meant to teach us that life goes on, that doing great and noble things does not undo or overthrow the established pattern of our days. We might be called to greatness, but we will still have to go home. We may rise to great heights, but we cannot fundamentally change who we are, and part of the hero’s responsibility is to be loyal to his place in the world. Magic Mike doesn’t subscribe to any of this. The magic doesn’t have to give way to regularity and the status quo; nobody has to go home. There’s no return, no reconciliation, no journey back, no anxious reassurance that despite this one-time foray into the realms of legend, Mike is but a humble furniture-maker who knows his place in the world.”
In a similar sense, Nomi isn’t bound by social convention or even by realism. She can be seen as a supernatural creature, an avenging angel, a goddess—literally and probably quite intentionally the name of the show at the Starlight—who sweeps into a world of excess and artifice and disrupts the status quo. She can be seen as sort of a darker incarnation of Olivia Newton John’s radiant muse in Xanadu (1980). Like that other misunderstood cult musical (which has roller skating and circus performers instead of strippers) about following impractical, impossible dreams, Showgirls’ thesis seems, at least to me, to reside in the joy found in the film’s final moments, which echoes Xanadu’s triumphant refrain, “I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive.”