Showgirls: You See Nomi as a Hero? Nice Try!
|Elizabeth Berkley as Nomi in "Showgirls" (all photos courtesy of Carolco).|
|This one brief snippet of "Showgirls" illustrates how one actress pulls off a stunning performance that leaves the other in the dust. Guess which is which.|
Flush with profits, the studio (United Artists/Carolco) told Verhoeven to get an idea for another film and start the cameras rolling. This isn't the way Hollywood usually works: usually, there is an idea that is pitched to executives, who either greenlight it or take a pass. Such was Verhoeven's power at that moment in time that he had carte blanche to do whatever he wanted. However, there was a problem: Verhoeven didn't have an idea in his head on what to do next. Verhoeven, though, had a tight relationship with Eszterhas, so he relied on the noted screenwriter to come up with an idea out of the blue. Eszterhas went on vacation to Hawaii and, out of nowhere, came up with the idea for "Showgirls." In essence, "Showgirls" was to be a crazed-stripper remake of the classic "42nd Street." Eszterhas later said that he wrote the screenplay in a mad rush in about two weeks while under the influence of any drug he could get his hands on (he admitted to coffee and nicotine...), and it shows in the "Showgirls" script. There is a mad brilliance to the "Showgirls" screenplay, but the key word is "mad."
Everything was set for a pure exploitation flick to appeal to every voyeur. Verhoeven lined up 23-year-old "Saved By the Bell" girl Elizabeth Berkley to play lead Nomi Malone. This alone guaranteed an audience, as everyone would be curious what Berkley looked like naked (damn good by the way, but judge for yourself). "Showgirls" was certain to make young Berkley a star - it was the break of a lifetime. However, then something derailed the Berkley express: Gina Gershon showed up. Gershon should have been arrested and sent to San Quentin for the way she steals "Showgirls." I am not joking when I say that Gershon deserved a nomination for this performance, though the entire film was considered such a train wreck that nobody reviewing it was going to take it seriously - especially an actress' performance that put the 'ham' in hammy. Gershon chews the scenery with gusto and is careful to lick her lips salaciously at every opportunity as she confronts her hopelessly naive and out-of-control (both the character and the actress) rival.
Carolco Pictures (which owed him big time for Verhoeven's recent success for them with "Total Recall" and "Basic Instinct"): he would make the movie if he had complete creative control and could make it an NC-17 film. Incredibly, the studio agreed despite the fact that NC-17 films were considered box office poison and, well - who knew how far he would go. And he went pretty far. Verhoeven's arrangement wasn't far short of the famous deal that Orson Welles made with RKO that gave him complete control over "Citizen Kane," but this deal worked out somewhat differently.
|There are boxloads of tantalizing "Showgirls" publicity shots that together would make a better film than what was released. But then, if you get the unedited version, you see pretty much what you might expect.|
The general plot of "Showgirls" is simple and straightforward. Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) is a drifter who hitchhikes to Las Vegas. Trusting the fellow who gives a lift, Nomi is upset when he drives off with her suitcase (he thinks she has valuables in it). With little money and no belongings, Nomi throws a fit in the parking lot that is witnessed by Molly Abrams (Gina Ravera), a local seamstress. Abrams feels sorry for Nomi and invites Nomi to stay with her. Nomi quickly lands a job at a nearby strip club. Later, Molly brings Nomi backstage at Goddess, a casino theater where she works.
There, Nomi meets Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon), the headline dancer in Goddess' nightly topless revue. Nomi tells Cristal that she dances at Cheetah's, a well-known (and real) strip club just off the strip. Cristal, obviously attracted to Nomi, makes a joke out of it. Nomi storms off, angry at being made to look the fool, but Cristal remembers the incident.
|The stripper pole should have gotten feature billing in "Showgirls."|
Cristal is fascinated by Nomi and arranges for her to get an audition at Goddess. Tony Moss (Alan Rachins), who directs the show, likes Nomi's athletic dancing but, like Cristal, humiliates her in front of everyone. Nomi runs off in tears and bumps into James Smith again, who talks her into performing a dance he says he created "just for her" but really is just a sleazy come-on. Later, Nomi is surprised to be offered a job at Goddess despite her audition problem. Sensing a big opportunity, she quits Cheetah for good (leading to some surreal dialog from her boss there that must be heard to be believed).
|"Showgirls" offers a truly inexplicable lesson in how to take a beautiful young woman and just ruin her.|
Cristal clearly is still attracted to Nomi but also wants to humiliate her some more (why is never explained, it seems to have sexual overtones). So, Cristal arranges for Nomi to make an appearance at a trade show that ultimately requires her to have sex with the patrons. Nomi refuses to prostitute herself that way and deeply resents being treated like that. She then sets out to destroy Cristal any way that she can. First, she seduces Cristal's boyfriend Zack, who then makes Nomi Cristal's understudy. When Cristal finds out about this, she makes Zack withdraw the offer, and then further humiliates Nomi in a private meeting (the nails sequence).
Cristal also comes on to Nomi during a private dance rehearsal that obviously is just a set-up to seduce her - something of which both seem to be aware. However, "Showgirls" is not that kind of film - Cristal has ulterior motives, but they don't inevitably lead to sex. The two now-buds then have lunch, but apparently, never consummate the relationship. It never is clear whether Cristal wants to seduce Nomi, or destroy her - it seems as if she tries to do both, and neither, at the same time. In essence, Cristal is a sadist simply using sex as a weapon, but sex is not her goal - humiliating her younger rival is.
|Kyle MacLachlan has a truly thankless role as Nomi's sleazy boss. The romance - or romantic innuendo - scatters all over the place in "Showgirls." Nomi, however, is not in it for sex. What she is in it for never really becomes clear.|
Cristal's indecision ultimately proves her undoing - but also Nomi's. The lunch scene is one of the best lesbian cat-and-mouse sequences ever filmed, with the two characters being portrayed (via a very studied directing job which reverses the characters within the frame and has them repeating each other's actions) as mirror images reflecting their own passions and insecurities. Unfortunately, though, this technique highlights the different acting skills of the two females. Gershon emotes like crazy, while Berkley struggles to manage a grimace or two. If it were a fight, Berkley would be screaming 'No mas! No mas!' by this point. Just looking at the stills tells a tale of two actresses - every shot of Gershon looks like it should be printed and framed, while every shot of Berkley leaves you wondering when she will manage to show some kind of emotion other than lust or hate.
|Maybe I'll have you do my nails... or maybe not. This is one of the funniest scenes you'll ever see, and it's in "Showgirls."|
Nomi also seems to have an attraction for Cristal, but her over-riding motivation remains to destroy Cristal. Again, she is a mirror image of her rival, a sadist out for destruction, not sex. Nomi bides her time and eventually gets her chance. After a performance, while they are running down the stairs backstage, Nomi pushes Cristal so that Cristal breaks her hip.
|Teasing foreplay that only leads to more foreplay - Verhoeven's gift to men in "Showgirls."|
|Kyle MacLachlan is left in the Gina Gershon's epic wake in every scene of "Showgirls," too, so it isn't just Elizabeth Berkley who is destroyed.|
Unfortunately for Nomi, Molly - remember her? - saw Nomi push Cristal down the stairs. Molly forgives Nomi and they start hanging out together again, but when Molly attends Nomi's opening night show, she is seduced by her idol, a headliner musician named Andrew Carver. Carver brings a willing Molly to a back room to seduce her, where suddenly he and two of his guards rape and sodomize her. Why he does this is unclear - apparently, he is another sadist who gets his kicks from abusing others (like most of the other characters). Molly winds up in the hospital, but Zack refuses to prosecute Carver because of his fame (a preposterous script point). Nomi is ready to report the incident, but, in order to keep Nomi quiet, Zack reveals that he has looked into Nomi's past and found out that she is a known prostitute with numerous arrests, including at least one weapons charge. Surprise, surprise.
Gershon dances rings around Berkley in "Showgirls" - this shot looks like a model pose. Berkley, meanwhile, merely reacts and occasionally grimaces.|
|Fingernails are a continuing motif in "Showgirls."|
Nomi's appearance as she prepares to do battle during this weird scene reminds me of the hero at the end of "Midnight Express" who becomes so crazed from abuse that he bites out another prisoner's tongue. It is a frightening characterization and a perfect antidote to whatever sexiness "Showgirls" possessed up until that point, turning "Showgirls" from a mediocre dancer-on-the-make story into a horrible stripper-revenge film akin to "I Spit On Your Grave." Any claim that this is some kind of liberating film for women is undercut for its sheer exploitative nature, such as when the camera voyeuristically lingers on a closing kiss between Gershon and Berkley. Yeah, that's feminist and empowering, all right.
Nomi makes an appointment to see Carver alone, purportedly to seduce him. Carver is a willing victim, and Nomi gains entrance and does her thing (real savagery). She savagely beats Carver, kicking him with her boots and pulling a knife on him. You expect to see Carver's blood literally dripping out of Nomi's mouth, it is that level of ferocity. With Carver unconscious and bleeding on the floor, Nomi leaves and visits Molly in the hospital. Nomi tells Molly what she did, and Molly is appreciative. Nomi then visits Cristal to apologize for hurting her.
|This shot practically defines the word "hammy," or maybe "campy."|
Cristal, it turns out, is not too upset about the whole situation, having gotten a large financial settlement because of the unsafe conditions backstage and also because she admits to having done something similar when she was starting out and could use a rest now anyway. Cristal and Nomi have a final kiss, and Nomi then leaves. Out on the main road West, she catches a ride from the same man who gave her a ride into town and stole her suitcase, completing the circle of life... or something ... in "Showgirls."
|Can you tell which of these two is the crazed psychopath in "Showgirls"?|
Overall, the Nomi character just doesn't feel right, but that just may be because she's a psycho. She gets upset at crude things said to her as if she is an innocent fair maiden being confronted by a heathen, when, as is made clear by the end, it actually is the other way around. To say she walks around with a chip on her shoulder is inaccurate - it is more like a boulder. Lines that may have looked good on paper just sound awkward and disjointed. Part of the problem is the script, and part the muddled characterization of Nomi Malone.
|"And, for my next trick..."|
Imagine a hardened streetwalker being highly offended on a personal level by someone swearing - that basically is how the character is drawn, and it is utter nonsense. To commit heinous physical acts to harm others and feel nothing, no remorse, no guilt, just satisfaction at getting what you want from their downfall without being caught - yes, she's a psychopath. And this is supposed to be a strong woman who is the hero? I think not.
Nomi, though, takes it "to the next level," not just doing anything to succeed professionally, but also personally. Eszterhas' script indicts all of show business, including, by implication, his own milieu of Hollywood, as essentially being one of Dante's Circles of Hell. To succeed there, all you need is talent, ambition... and the willingness to gut your perceived enemies.
A more graphic example of "the claws being out" is difficult to imagine. After Nomi swallows the hook, line and entire fishing boat and reveals her covert (but obvious) attraction for Cristal, Cristal, having gotten what she really wanted all along - Nomi's absolute submission - summarily withdraws her hand and dismisses her. It is the real power move of the entire film, a sexual tour de force, much more so than the film's subsequent violent, er, climax. The capper is Cristal's punchline to her departing, defeated, seething rival that she doesn't want Nomi to paint her nails because she doesn't want them to look low class. Meow!
|Gina Gershon is simply marvelous in "Showgirls"... darlin'.|
|The look of love - in a bland, muddled way. Is she in love - or wondering what to have for lunch? See "Showgirls" and try to figure out Nomi's motivations.|
|Gina Gershon returning the look of love - in a delicious way - in "Showgirls."|
The most enjoyable character actually isn't Gerson's Cristal, it is the stereotypical "angry black woman" dancer (Ungela Brockman) that they had the courage to insert, perhaps to balance out the sugary sweetness of Nomi's black roommate. As with just about everybody, though, she eventually gets hers. Simply being angry doesn't work in this film as a way to get ahead, you have to be a complete psycho to succeed. The script is full of inane dialogue that sounds like it was poorly translated from another language. "I really liked Dog Chow," Nomi says with a sincere expression at one point, looking like a complete fool. However, this also serves to show how disoriented Nomi is by Cristal's charms. There is always a sexual subtext in "Showgirls."
|It is not too difficult to figure out what Nomi is thinking in "Showgirls."|
The term "darling" is used as a synonym for "bitch," and there are stupefying exchanges about "how do you like having" certain body parts and the like, basically adult-film dialogue without the explicitness. "It must be weird not having anybody come on you," Nomi's former boss says at one point in an endearing fashion. From his expression, you almost expect to hear violins start to play. The film plays with the conventions in a very seedy way - but, in a way, it works, almost as a way of imploding those conventions.
|'Showgirls' is a fascinating look at what is below the tinsel - vicious cruelty. We are supposed to feel sympathy for the lead... right? Again, credit where credit is due, that is a stunning picture of hatefulness and contempt. Nobody does it better.|
|The only question on the minds of everyone who has stuck it out to the end of "Showgirls": will they kiss, will they kiss, will they kiss....|
While Elizabeth Berkley received top billing, the real star of "Showgirls," and the only one who wound up getting a career boost out of it, is Gina Gershon. It should have been obvious from the script that the juicy role was that of the woman who remains in control of herself and her surroundings, while the 'lead' is a slave to her wayward passions. Who is the bigger cultural icon: Bobby Ewing, or JR?
|"Well, Liz, I'll be going now. Thanks for letting me steal your film "Showgirls"! I'll see if I can get you some bit parts in my future tv series or films - darlin'."|
Gershon's portrayal of a manipulative operator using her enemy's own unmanaged passions against her becomes campy without skating completely across the edge into caricature. It is one of the most brilliant acting jobs you will ever see, with Gershon taking a caricature and turning every second into an acting class. The character of Cristal may be drawn unevenly, but it is deliciously entertaining as you watch her inner struggle over how far to manipulate Nomi with her beauty, her wealth and her career inducements. Gershon somehow manages to give a nuanced performance in a role that practically any other actress would have sloughed off as a throwaway paycheck role, and she acts rings around Elizabeth Berkley.
|Gershon shows how to act in "Showgirls" with props. Her champagne class should have had a supporting role credit. Berkley? She folds her arms, adopts a blank stare, and waits for someone to tell her what to do.|
Berkley, unskilled at nuance, has two emotional switches: on, and off. The default setting is that she is complacent and emotionless, standing back with a slight grin, but when called on to actually act she becomes either wildly angry or deliriously happy or extremely besotted. She operates with a hacksaw.
|Katy Perry appears to have graduated from the Elizabeth Berkley School of Acting.|
Gershon, on the other hand, brilliantly plays off the blunt objects of emotion being thrown at her by Berkley, operating with precise, perfectly nuanced and planned emotional representations that resemble a scalpel. If it were a title fight between the two, they would have stopped this one in the first reel.
|Scenes of wild debauchery!|
As of this writing, Gershon continues to have a top-flight career, while almost everyone else in the production has struggled and Berkley is all but forgotten and reduced to occasional television guest starring roles. The story goes that she requested $2500 to do the audio commentary on the DVD, but the studio thought so little of her that it turned her down. Ouch! But let me say: Berkley is gorgeous and eager. She just was not skilled enough as an actress to pull off this part as a leading lady should. One can say with sympathy that it was cruel to cast Berkley in a role she obviously was not trained to handle, there simply for exploitative purposes.
|Hitching a ride out of Vegas... and a career.|
"Showgirls" does have one thing going for it, which really is the only reason to watch it: the relationship between Nomi and Cristal. It is a teasing, flirtatious dance by two women who clearly find each other attractive, yet never quite have the nerve. In this sense, Berkley's naivete and clumsiness works well against the manipulative Cristal. The best way to explain Cristal's character is that she either is a repressed lesbian, or perhaps a knowing lesbian tightly controlling her impulses for larger purposes. She is drawn to the youthful, vicious Nomi, yet at the same time repulsed or frightened by that side of herself and thus also determined to destroy or subdue or at least rigidly control her own emotions while betraying none of that struggle to her prey. The subtlety of Gershon's performance allows us to fill in the blanks with our own conclusions, which is the true mark of acting/directing genius.
Nomi, for her part, doesn't appear truly attracted to anyone except when she lets down her guard, instead using their attraction as a means to use or destroy people to get ahead herself - which actually is quite in character for a malicious prostitute. Her attraction to Cristal clearly is an attraction to the older woman's power, influence and celebrity, not the person herself. On the flip side, Cristal appears interested in Nomi only to demean and abuse her most ambitious rival. It is like watching two rams locking horns for dominance, raw youth and beauty versus experience and manipulation.
|Elizabeth Berkley, sad little waif in "Showgirls."|
This is not exactly the type of romance-as-purely-powerplay message most Hollywood screenwriters strive for these days. If Eszterhas hadn't had so much success with "Basic Instinct," perhaps the studio would have gotten some much-needed rewrites. It's obvious why couples would prefer to see this at home, in bed, rather than in a theater. Oh, and this is an awesome couples film.
My guess is that, unless you know what to expect from "Showgirls" and are watching it to laugh along, or for purely voyeuristic reasons, you probably have better things to do with your time. It is for those who just like good, hammy camp that apparently (hard to tell) wasn't intended to go in that direction at all, but was pulled there by the sheer brute power of Gina Gershon's dominant performance. I fall into all of those categories, and I have become a big Gina Gershon fan because of "Showgirls." That's enough reason for me to enjoy the film and recommend it.
|Gina Gershon's tongue gets a workout in "Showgirls."|
Everyone involved in "Showgirls" was affected by it, some quite dramatically. It almost was akin to post-traumatic stress disorder. Director Paul Verhoeven is still being asked about "Showgirls," unlike some of his other films which left some puzzled glances (such as "Starship Troopers"). In a 2015 interview, Verhoeven stands by the film and actually wants to make a sequel. He admits:
Showgirls certainly ruined the career of Elizabeth Berkley in a major way," Verhoeven said. "It made my life more difficult, but not to the degree it did Elizabeth's. Hollywood turned their backs on her.He continues:
Elizabeth could only have recovered from the movie by being offered a very different role, but that just didn't happen for her otherwise she would have taken the job. New roles were never offered, so it was impossible for her to make a comeback.The role, he says in an aside, almost went to Charlize Theron, who auditioned and was fine with the nudity. Unfortunately for Theron, she was "not well known enough at the time and just did not fit the part." Charlize was "very lucky that she did not get the part." He sums up, "I've always really liked the movie and still do."
|A happy ending to "Showgirls" after all... sort of.|
Now, having said all that... "Showgirls" finally has succeeded. Yes, it tanked at the box office and is reviled by critics (though not by this one, I love "Showgirls" for its campy openness). With a budget of $45 million before marketing and distribution costs, "Showgirls" earned $20.3 million domestically and an overall total of $37.7 million. That made it a flop. However... "Showgirls" reportedly has become the biggest-selling MGM DVD... of all time. Exact figures are tough to find, but reputedly "Showgirls" has grossed over $100 million in VHS/DVD sales and the like. "Showgirls" has become one of the top cult films ... ever. Even Elizabeth Berkley has come to terms with "Showgirls," writing on her Instagram page:
all you amazing #showgirls fans have turned this film into the beloved cult film that it is. Years ago they said it was a bomb...who knew it would become the highest grossing dvd for MGM of all time?! Thank you for loving it the way you do....it was made with a spirit of fun -from the top of my bleached blonde hair to the tip of my glittery toes".Let's be real: "Showgirls" is not "Citizen Kane." You will not be morally uplifted by "Showgirls." It does not advance the cause of world peace or the social struggles of the underclass. However... "Showgirls" can be delicious fun if the campy teasing and catfights that it delivers is what you seek. I love it.