Showgirls: Hollywood’s Biggest Bomb

With Paul Verhoeven’s infamous trash classic heading to the Output Gallery, Shaun Ponsonby asks whether Showgirls is a truly bad film, or simply misunderstood. 

By Shaun Ponsonby
Wed 15 August, 2018

Bad films – the pure enjoyment of the professional snark.

What is it about them that are enjoyable? I can’t lie, I have a profound fascination with them.

This dates back to seeing Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, based on the life of the titular B-movie director. Edward D. Wood Jr was named the worst director in the history of Hollywood in film critics Harry and Michael Medved’s book The Golden Turkey Awards. He was also a cross-dresser with a fetish for angora, a subject he delved into when he made his first picture, Glen or Glenda.

But, his most well-known film is Plan 9 From Outer Space, famously pieced together after the death of star Bela Lugosi.

I wrote my dissertation in University on Wood, and if there is one thing I took from it, it is that he may well have been fairly talented in his own way. The aforementioned Glen or Glenda tackles Queer issues in quite a revolutionary way for the time, and it is hard not to respect him for making the movies he wanted to make.

I would say the same goes for Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 anti-masterpiece The Room. Say what you want about that film (and believe me, I have, often whilst holding my sides in pain from laughter), but Wiseau wasn’t an experienced filmmaker, and yet he still made his film. Sure, it is an incompetent film that just finds new, astonishing ways to suck as it goes on. But it is completed. I ain’t made no film, and you can’t say it wasn’t the movie Wiseau wanted to make.

But is there a difference when big budget Hollywood gets involved?

For that, we must take a look at one of the most astonishing films ever made. A crass mountain of “WTF” that, to this day, stands as a warning to budding writers, directors, actors, choreographers and people engaging with sex in swimming pools the world over.

I, of course, refer you to Showgirls.

When talking to people now about the movie, I often see women react with a simple “I’ve never seen it”, and men react with a stop-before-this-becomes-too-much-information “I used to watch this on Channel 5 when I was 13”.

But we’re out there; the true fans. The ones for whom it is pronounced “Ver-sayce”. The ones for whom dancing ain’t fucking. The ones who feel it is weird not having anyone cum on us.

The true depth of Showgirls’ clusterfuck doesn’t begin and end with the nudity. Yes, there is famously a lot of it – so much that you kinda become numb to it – and no doubt the less mature boys in your class probably appreciated it for that reason. But to truly understand Showgirls, one must engage fully not just with the film itself, but its genesis.

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It was written by bona fide owner of a Y chromosome Joe Eszterhas, who came up with the idea after director Paul Verhoeven admitted to him that he wanted to make a big budget Hollywood musical – even though Showgirls is definitely not a musical. The two had recently collaborated on the infamous erotic thriller Basic Instinct, starring Sharon Stone’s vulva (OK, that was unnecessarily boorish, but it’s the only scene that anyone remembers), so it is perhaps no surprise that Showgirls ended up attempting to combine that eroticism with good old fashioned Hollywood “Let’s put on a show”-ness.

The first thing you must know about Showgirls is that at the time, it was the most expensive screenplay ever produced, and accumulatively made Eszterhas the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the brilliant lines that this hot property script included with such eloquence;

Henrietta Bazoom: “She misses us like that lump on my twat I had taken off last week.”

Tony Moss: “I’m erect. Why aren’t you erect?

Henrietta Bazoom: “You’re the only one who can get my tits poppin’ right.

James Smith: “I have a problem with pussy. I always have, and I’m always gonna.”

Dancer: “You fucked the meter reader.”

Nomi Malone: “I like having nice tits.”

Apparently absolutely nobody involved with this film – not the stars, not the producers, not the studio – saw these lines and thought that this expensive script may not be all it has been hyped up to be.

But even these lines pale in comparison with the pièce de résistance, potentially the single most ill-advised line in the history of cinema. Six words with the ability to slow down time itself, and instigate an unparalleled descent into madness.

James Smith, a character whose purpose remains a mystery, discussing lead character Nomi Malone’s actions at the strip club she works at from the previous night; “Man, everybody got AIDS and shit.”

Everybody got AIDS and shit. Everybody. AIDS. Shit. The President has AIDS and shit. The Dalai Lama has AIDS and shit. Carol Channing. Everybody.

Obviously, AIDS is no laughing matter, but everything from the line itself, to its delivery and it’s placement in the scene kind of summarises everything wrong with this film. Seemingly nothing works.

The plot is pretty simple – think All About Eve with strippers.

That 1950 Oscar winner starred Bette Davis as an aging Broadway star, opposite Anne Baxter as the young upstart ready to take her place. It had the kind of elegance that you would expect from Davis. Showgirls goes completely in the opposite direction, it’s coarse, nasty. Sometimes you kinda feel like you need a shower while you’re watching.

But is this actually a clever metaphor for the superficialities of show business and fame?

Although universally panned at the time of release, and reaching cult status for its “so bad its good” merits, some now look at Showgirls as a satire so shrewd that it went over people’s heads. There’s even a book; Andy Nayman’s It Doesn’t Suck. Quentin Tarantino is also a fan, referring to it as the one instance in 20 years that “a major studio made a full-on, gigantic, big-budget exploitation movie”.

But perhaps the most succinct argument came as early as 1999 from the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum was saying “Showgirls has to be one of the most vitriolic allegories about Hollywood and selling out ever made“.

Nomi Malone is a stripper at the Cheetah Club, but she calls herself a dancer. That’s her dream. Through absolutely no hard work and a bit of manipulation, she gets out of that sleazy dive and ends up as a cast member in Goddess, a topless stage show starring Cristal Connors, not to be confused with the similarly named Crystal Conner in Roseanne. According to the dialogue she beat out Paula Abdul, and both Janet and LaToya Jackson for the role (because apparently Paula and Janet’s careers had both hit the skids so much that they would agree to appear in a borderline pornographic live show in Vegas in the mid-90s).

Obviously, appearing naked at the world famous Stardust Casino is completely different from appearing naked at the Cheetah because…reasons. Sadly, Nomi finds herself surrounded by the likes of Kyle MacLachlan’s character of Zack Carey – just as sleazy as the Cheetah’s owner Al Torres, but less open about it and more manipulative.

Elizabeth Berkley took on the role of Nomi, fresh from her starring role as Jessie Spano in the kids show Saved By The Bell. Her most infamous scene has become something of an internet sensation; a drug fuelled freak out caused by her deathly addiction to caffeine pills. She was given the role after Pamela Anderson, Drew Barrymore and Angelina Jolie each turned it down.

She has shouldered much of the blame for the blame for Showgirls. It undoubtedly destroyed her career. She was described the backlash as “humiliating and it hurt. It was cruel.”

Verhoeven has since taken the blame and apologised publicly to Berkley, telling New York Daily News; “It made my life more difficult, but not to the degree it did Elizabeth’s. Hollywood turned their backs on her. If somebody has to be blamed, it should be me because I thought that it was interesting to portray somebody like that. I had hoped the end of the movie would explain why she acted that way, when it’s revealed she has convictions linked with drugs, but that too turned out to be a big mistake.”

The backlash didn’t even come just from critics and audiences. There were rumours that MacLachlan was so disgusted by the movie that he stormed out of the premiere. He staunchly denied this, but he did go on record saying;

I was absolutely gobsmacked. I said, ‘This is horrible. Horrible!’ And it’s a very slow, sinking feeling when you’re watching the movie, and the first scene comes out, and you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s a really bad scene.’ But you say, ‘Well, that’s okay, the next one’ll be better.’ And you somehow try to convince yourself that it’s going to get better… and it just gets worse. And I was like, ‘Wow. That was crazy.’ I mean, I really didn’t see that coming.

“So at that point, I distanced myself from the movie. Now, of course, it has a whole other life as a sort of inadvertent… satire. No, satire isn’t the right word. But it’s inadvertently funny. So it’s found its place. It provides entertainment, though not in the way I think it was originally intended. It was just… maybe the wrong material with the wrong director and the wrong cast.”

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In retrospect, though, it’s hard to believe that Eszterhas wrote lines like “It must be weird not having anyone cum on you” expecting it to be treated seriously. How could Verhoeven direct the infamous sex scene in the pool and not expect people to fall about laughing? “THRUST IT! THRUST IT!” has to be one of the greatest comedy scenes in 90s cinema.

There is one scene in particular that has always bothered me.

Nomi’s friend Molly has a crush on a singer named Andrew Carver, who looks so much like 90s Michael Bolton that it is occasionally distracting. At a party, Nomi introduces the two and Molly happily goes to Carver’s bedroom to have sex. What follows is a pretty violent gang rape scene.

Aside from trivialising such a violent act, it kinda comes out of nowhere; Molly was ready and willing to have consensual sex with Carver. It was almost as if they realised they needed a big event at this point in the film and shoved in a clumsy rape scene – which is about as insulting as you can get.

Nomi is blackmailed into keeping quiet, so takes matters into her own hands. She covers her nipples in pink lipstick (I don’t know why, it’s not important), tracks Carver down and seduces him, even though he knows full well that she is the best friend of the woman he just raped, and proceeds to beat the ever loving shit out of him.

Then she leaves her best friend banged up in the hospital and skips town.

To this day, it is hard to tell how seriously to take Showgirls. If it is, indeed, a satire, then it is an unorthodox one; devoid of the kind of caustic wit usually prevalent in satire. If it is a truly bad (and misogynist) movie, it is hard to believe that such an experienced writer and director could have made so many truly bad mistakes.

Maybe the truth is somewhere in between; as Nayman put it “a masterpiece that is also somehow a piece of shit.” And I would recommend heading to the Output Gallery on Thursday for the screening to find out for yourself.

Who knows? You may even learn something about yourself, as I did. Through much soul searching during its 131 minute runtime, it helped me realise that, yes, it is weird not having anyone cum on me, and yes I do like having nice tits. And Doggy Chow.

And the most important lesson it teaches us; everybody got AIDS and shit.

Showgirls is showing at Output Gallery on Thursday 16th August 2018. Tickets are available now.