Ladies and gentlemen, fire up the VHS—or the laserdisc if you’re fancy: Showgirls just turned 20. She can’t quite drink yet, and lord knows she didn’t go to college, but you better believe this baby is legal, and it’s long past time to celebrate Showgirls for the star she is.
Twenty years ago today, theaters opened their doors and offered up the greatest film Hollywood ever made. Naturally, Showgirls was condemned by critics, denounced by every advocate of family values in the land, and with a production budget of $45 million, Showgirls failed to return its investment, bringing in only $20 million. Showgirls’ catastrophic reception effectively ruined the career of star Elizabeth Berkley and relegated its director, Paul Verhoeven, back to the halls of B-movie sci-fi from whence he came.
But I think I speak for all of us when I say: It wasn’t you, Showgirls, it was us. Showgirls needed time to teach us how to watch it—a lesson studios learned the nice way when the film became a massive hit on home video. Showgirls was a masterpiece before it was a masterpiece, entertaining teen boys around the world as an unofficial video nasty. But if teen boys were strip mining Showgirls for its vast resources of female nudity, it was the queens and the gays who were the first to appreciate Showgirls for the majestic trash that it is.
For the uninitiated—you’re so lucky, go watch it now!—Showgirls is the story of Nomi Malone (Berkley, aka Saved by the Bell’s goody two-shoes Jessie Spano), a drifter with a dream of the stage who will do whatever it takes to get there. After stripping part-time, she falls under the wing of Crystal Connors (Gina Gershon), the diva superstar of the Stardust hotel and casino's topless dance revue Goddess, and her boyfriend Zack Carey (Kyle MacLachlan), the Stardust's entertainment director. What transpires is All About Eve on cocaine, as Nomi and Crystal engage in a fantastic backstabbing back and forth involving boat show prostitution trickery and bodies being thrown down flights of stairs.
Yes, “whatever it takes” was approved by the studios to mean NC-17, and given free rein Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas threw everything but the kitchen sink at the censors. There’s nudity of all kinds, foul language, graphic violence, and yet somehow it’s still the souls of the characters that manage to be the most vulgar. Even more amazingly, all of the filth onscreen is presented with the resplendent beauty of Hollywood studio filmmaking at its best—vibrant colors, elaborately planned camerawork, expensive costumes and set pieces.
The result was the Sistine Chapel of vulgarity, a two-hour tour of all the things you never got to see at the movies before—and once Showgirls debuted, all the things you certainly haven’t seen since.
Elizabeth Berkley’s deranged performance as Nomi, from that outrageous pool sex/convulsion sequence to her character’s pronunciation of Versace (“Versayce”), was viciously ridiculed at the time, and pigeonholed as “Jessie Spano Gone Bad.” But in recent years she’s had a comeback—most notably, most ironically, and most excellently as a celebrity cast member of Dancing with the Stars. Gina Gershon’s delicious turn as the Southern diva bitch from hell, Crystal “You’re a whore, darlin’” Connors, is now the stuff of camp legend. And it helped that Gershon seemed to be the only one in on the joke.“I thought Showgirls was going to be a very dark, intense movie, and when I got to the set, I felt, wow, this is not what I was expecting,” Gershon told The Daily Beast. “It’s like you’re going to see a Wagner orchestra and it’s a Britney Spears concert. I thought I was maybe in a different movie than everyone else. I thought, OK, this is going to be really funny! So I just had fun with it.”
Of course, Gershon has since become something of a legend of cult cinema—a one-woman Russ Meyer revival. If Gershon never had a crack again at mainstream success, who needs those Hollywood hacks when you could play butch lesbians for the Wachowskis, anime porn moguls for Olivier Assayas, and fried chicken enthusiasts for William Friedkin? Even Verhoeven has reopened the doors that shut to him after Showgirls, as the success of his World War II film Black Book led to work with Hollywood once more.
Yes, it’s a happy ending for Showgirls, and a lesson to us all that opinions might change, but cinema is forever. And the existence of cinema like Showgirls is a happy ending for everyone.
So leave your inhibitions at the door and embrace the triumph of trash that is Showgirls. You’re never too old for that whore-y look!