Burlesque v. Showgirls: The Face-Off
The comparison between the 1995 Paul Verhoeven film Showgirls and Burlesque, the Steven Antin film that opens today, is fairly inevitable. Both movies are about young naifs who arrive in the big city (Las Vegas and Los Angeles, respectively), wide-eyed and determined to do whatever it takes to win a part as a nightclub dancer. Both movies feature an abundance of feather boas, glitter makeup, and dressing-room catfights. Both of the films’ stars (Christina Aguilera in Burlesque; Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls) are blond and sexy and have the kind of bodies that contort in physics-defying positions while wearing very little clothing and very tall shoes.
But to say that Burlesque is an updated version of Showgirls would be wholly unfair. And for this, Antin can be grateful, considering that Showgirls is considered, pretty unanimously, one of the most awful movies of all time, from its Are-You-Kidding-Me? script, to its beyond-camp performances, to its relentlessly degrading tone. When, before a dance audition, a casino fat cat bellows to a line of young women in thongs and dance heels, “OK, show me your tits!” it’s not in the least bit funny—everything in Showgirls leads to a dark, deranged place.
Burlesque is not without issues, the script being a big one, but it embraces campiness in a more jovial way, striving to be an updated Chicago or Cabaret, sans the heavy undertone issues, like abortion and anti-Semitism. The film’s tough cookie—Tess (Cher), the madam of a burlesque nightclub on the Sunset Strip—comes across more like a nagging Yenta, as though Antin (a former teen actor who co-starred in Goonies) was too in awe of her pop Highness to ask her to be mean. As for ascending starlet Ali (Aguilera), she is all batting eyelashes and sugary sweet can-do-ness. Needless to say, she does not push her nemesis, Nikki (Kristen Bell), down the stairs in order to edge her out of the picture, the way Nomi does in Showgirls. As for sex and T&A, there is a whole lot less of it in Burlesque.
Still, the two films’ plots touch on all the same milestones in the Creation of a Star narrative: early bonding with a non-threatening friend/guide; identification of and showdown with reigning star/object of envy; awkward first attempt to rise in the social order, followed by eventual show-stopping performance that seals the deal; seduction by a powerful man who offers career boost in exchange for booty. And so on.
Herewith are six scenes that illuminate just how much the movies have in common.
1. FRIENDS FOREVER
Every diva-to-be needs a pal who doubles as a guide to the strange, new world she is entering. In Showgirls, this role falls to Molly (Gina Ravera), the perky corset-tightener and G-string mender, who lets Nomi crash at her trailer home and gives her her first glimpse of her future: being a showgirl at the Stardust casino. In Burlesque, the BFF-guide is Jack (Cam Gigandet), who eventually (spoiler alert!) becomes a boyfriend-guide. Either way, all the elements are there—Molly and Jack are trusting confidants who provide the one island of security in their new friends’ lives. Though how they get to this point is quite different. Molly and Nomi start things off with a catfight on the Strip, where pushing and shoving devolves into what comes close to being a kiss. Over at the Burlesque Club, Jack charms Ali with some cheesy lines, which Ali assumes are harmless because Jack is wearing guyliner. All that will be sorted out later. A partnership is born.
2. THE CASTING COUCH
Every dancer worth her fishnets will inevitably be tempted to trade in lap-dances, BJs, and plain old-fashioned sex for a shot at stardom. In Showgirls, this offer comes from casino hotshot Zack (Kyle MacLachlan), who whisks Nomi off in his red convertible and then gets right to business in his backyard pool, where an erotic, chlorinated thrashing takes place under the glow of fake, lit-up palm trees. The next morning, he post-coitally mentions that there’s an audition at noon to be the understudy to star-in-residence Cristal Connors. In the more buttoned-up Burlesque, it’s real-estate tycoon Marcus (Eric Dane) who dangles the golden carrot, offering to put Ali on a much bigger stage. But the whole song and dance, as it were, is far less titillating. Foreplay comes in the form of a soliloquy about “air rights,” which gets Marcus to first base, but not much further.
3. THE TRYOUT
The most pivotal scene in any dance movie is always the audition. Not just any audition, but the audition; the one that lets girls like Nomi storm out of the skanky Cheetah Club, and march over to the slightly less-skanky Stardust, with its sea of Gold Card-carrying Japanese businessmen. Our lady, of course, kills it, but first there’s the requisite hazing from the judges. In Showgirls, the casino honcho who accurately identifies himself as a “prick,” starts things off with the aforementioned: “OK, show me your tits.” Nomi passes the test with flying colors at first, but upon closer scrutiny, she stumbles. Prick says: “You got something wrong with your nipples? They’re not stickin’ up. Stick ‘em up. Play with them a little bit.” Before the audience has a chance to vomit, Nomi storms off. In Burlesque, the degradation is much milder. This is Mama Cher, after all. She rolls her eyes, challenges Ali ever so slightly (“Really? You know every dance number?”), but eventually rolls over and, after seeing a few high kicks and derrière slaps, gives her the job.
4. OUTTA MY WAY
If the first challenge of a rising star is getting in the door, the second is pushing someone else out. In Burlesque, this is a fairly simple and morally straight-forward affair. Nikki, the star of the burlesque club, is unquestionably a bitch, of the high-school-locker-room variety. (She insults Ali by calling her a “tacky farm girl.”) Shortly after, the angelic Ali inherits her spot, without even having to do anything, seeing as Nikki has a drinking problem and gets fired after showing up to work late. In Showgirls, the All About Eve thread is much more complicated, not to mention tawdry and sadistic. Reigning dance queen Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon) degrades Nomi almost as much as the men in her life, and is just as eager to get down her pants (the closest she comes is a kinky kiss toward the end of the film). Nomi, meanwhile, is equally infatuated with Cristal from the moment she sees her perform and, afterward, meets her in her dressing room, where Cristal interrupts her gold-eyelash removal session to inform Nomi that dancing at the Cheetah is not really dancing. Nomi does not take this well, and storms off. This whole exchange takes place while Cristal is topless.
5. DIVA ASPIRATIONS
Unformed, inexperienced—just what does our heroine want, and who does she want to be? This moment is crystallized for Nomi when she first sees Cristal perform the “Goddess” number at the Stardust. To lay people, all of the gold lame and exploding volcanoes set to a weird, disco beat might look like a Liberace fest gone awry, but to Nomi this is it. She, too, dreams of rising from the fake ash and body-slamming men in tights in what seems to be some kind of fire dance. We see the first stirrings of desire as, while staring at the spectacle in a hypnotized trance, she begins mimicking Cristal’s hand gestures (a detail that Antin snatches for his own film). In Burlesque, the woman who encapsulates the dream is, of course, Cher. Part matron, part goddess, she is, as she croons, burlesque, and all of its sexy, cheeky implications. Watching, Ali is transfixed. The game is on.
She has to nearly cripple Cristal, but finally Nomi gets her dream—she is the golden goddess, emerging from the smoking, fake volcano. She jerks her hands across her face, Paula Abdul-like, and kicks her legs into the stratosphere, all the while looking just a tad bit smug. Molly, standing in the wings, is appalled, and marches off. The dream has come at a price, and it’s clear it’s not going to last. Ali, on the other hand, having won her crown by more ethical means, has the stage to herself as she fittingly sings “I’m a Good Girl” in a Marilyn Monroe tribute act. She’s in a corset, and she slaps and shimmies her rear-end, but there is nothing scandalous about her performance. She really is a good girl, and in this case, good girls actually do win.
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.