You’ve Got Low Self Esteem, Baby. You’re a Fantastic Fuck: SHOWGIRLS, the Definitive A Star Is Born
That’s a heavy gauntlet to throw down, so I’ll preface it by saying that’s just my humble opinion. So why? Because I don’t wanna see A Star Pees His Pants And Gratuitously Hangs Himself (dir. Bradley Cooper, 2018). Showgirls has the decency to spare us the pathetic male character whose fall counterbalances the Star’s meteoric rise in every film calling itself A Star Is Born. Here, everything rightfully revolves around Nomi Malone, Goddess.
Which is not to say people don’t fall by the wayside; practically everybody Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley) encounters gets destroyed on her way up. James (Glenn Plummer), a would-be suitor and creative partner, is repeatedly fired and left stranded because of his “problem with the pussy.” One dancer is taken out by a saboteur, which Nomi witnesses, tacitly facilitates, and promptly one-ups by shoving her own mentor figure, Cristal (Gina Gershon), down the stairs. Worst of all is what happens to her friend and savior Molly (Gina Ravera), who witnesses Nomi’s transgression but is seduced and brutally assaulted in what is easily the most unwatchable scene in the film. Of course, Nomi violently stomps the assailant’s head in with a pair of heels (which I personally think should have been a lot more graphic). Then there’s the truck driver at the end, whom we can be reasonably sure will not be completing the trip to Los Angeles.
None of these other characters even remotely threatens to steal the spotlight, though. Nothing can slow Nomi’s rise. The only “guilt” in this “guilty pleasure” for me lies in taking vicarious pleasure in her sociopathic antics (not unlike how I feel about Alex in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange). Rags to riches tales, at their best, give the viewer an exuberant lift by making them feel like they are making the journey themselves. Showgirls uniquely gives the viewer that, plus the thrill of feeling like you’re getting away with all of Nomi’s bad behavior. All of this, framed as a satire, just so “thinking people” can enjoy it even if it means pretending to be better than it. (Spoiler: you’re not.)
About that: enough. This isn’t So Bad It’s Good, it’s not A Masterpiece of Shit, and I’d like to hope that people who say such things would feel properly too ashamed to say them to Paul Verhoeven’s face. There are classier versions of this story - most of them, probably. If you replace the trash with pretentiousness, Aronofsky’s Black Swan is Showgirls almost beat for beat - and no fun. Yet even the most esteemed amongst these, All About Eve, still revels in the backstabbing and betrayal of show business. Why not just go whole hog and enjoy it? Showbiz has always been about excess. There is no over the top here. “It’s a topless show, for Christ’s sake.”
Which brings me to the “love scenes.” When I first saw this movie, it was edited for television. I loved it immediately, and was quite indignant as to why anyone could hate so much on a movie clearly trying so hard to entertain. Then I saw the actual movie. It starts off mostly the same, with some goofy changes to dialogue. Then comes the lap dance. Nomi, topless, bottomless, grinding on the fully clothed Zack “I got an MBA for this” Carey (Kyle MacLachlan) with her hair flailing in a performance akin to Isabelle Adjani’s freakout in Zulawski’s Possession. I thought it was too funny to be real.
Realism obviously is not the point of Showgirls, but why the choice to make the unsexiest sex scenes ever? It’s a subversive decision, one that might lead some viewers to feel rightly betrayed that they were sold sex and given something else. But isn’t that how the business actually works? Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas did “research” enough to know that neither the lap dance nor Elizabeth Berkley’s frantic, pole licking stage number are anything a real stripper would actually do, for the sake of aesthetics or plain cleanliness.
The answer to all this is that Nomi is a force of nature and human rules are beneath her. She’s all hair, nails, animal prints, and “pelvic thrust.” When she and Zack get it on in the swimming pool, she does the same Linda Blair stuff, but in water with a giant phallus symbol spurting all over her. Because she’s being reborn, see? I know this all ties into Verhoeven’s weird Jesus fixation somehow, but he can explain that for himself.
Nevertheless, most of my friends in the BDSM and sex worker communities find all of this not just deeply entertaining, but surprisingly insightful. In places. Showgirls is constantly underlining the commodification of the body. Tony Moss (Alan Rachins) yelling “Sell! Sell your bodies!” isn’t exactly subtle, but there are other things: the fixations on nails, food, and clothing are all components that go into the creation of the self as a product. Even Zack casually mentioning his car being the one he always wanted. Or Nomi buying that Ver-say-se dress because she can. Or Cristal’s story at lunch when she talks about the body she used to have, and what she did to it to be who she is. And, of course, there’s the lineup.
The lineup might be my favorite scene, because it is the most cartoonishly offensive. One by one, Tony goes down the line of ladies, brutally insulting their hair, noses, ears, breasts, experiences and minds, before Nomi fires back and calls him a “prick.” He identifies as one, yet another body part. Versions of this scene appear in many movies, from Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu (sad) to Pasolini’s Salò (scary) to Busby Berkley’s cycle of films from the 30’s, but none are this delicious. Again, my humble opinion, but the humorous sadism of the scene is strangely empowering, as if laughing at it takes away some of the fear that happens when you, in the real world, find yourself in standing in the line. We all do someday.
This type of behavior is atrocious in life, and particularly unacceptable now, which adds greatly to the novelty of watching it. But the less funny it gets, oddly, is where it starts getting more accurate. The predatory male behavior depicted in the film is almost toned down, and the more hashtag movements emerge, the more this picture seems less like a satire than a survival guide. The assault scene is stomach churning. Some would say it should be. I get that the whole point of cutting between the surface reality seducing Nomi and the harsh reality happening to Molly is supposed to shock, but I could’ve used fewer details.
When Nomi gets revenge, we don’t see nearly enough, but one choice is interesting: we see it from the POV of Andrew Carver (William Shockley), the monster. While it unfortunately prevents us from seeing his brains stomped all over the ground (and also denies us knowledge of how badly he is even beaten), it does implicate the viewer as a culprit. (An interesting note: the actor’s looks and clothing were closely modeled on screenwriter Joe Eszterhas’s own.)
I certainly understand the feelings of anyone who has better things to do than be triggered by some sex-obsessed Dutch guy’s idea of female empowerment. I view it and respect it as a genre piece, and frankly I think it looks and plays better today than it ever has. It’s the Alpha to Sunset Boulevard’s Omega. Many people still complain that Elizabeth Berkley can’t act. They are missing the point: she is a Barbie doll come to life to rise above the even more plastic world that created her. Most “good” actresses would have given Nomi a faux humanity (or a sliver of conventional morality), which would’ve been a mistake. Berkley was chosen, and I for one think she’s perfect. Some people might not agree, but she slays every frame of her screen time and her performance alone is enough to mint this as a classic in certain circles. There’s a reason why drag queens love Showgirls so much, and it’s because it’s fun. For myself, I can honestly say that I got the nerve to start taking acting classes because I was quoting this movie a hundred times a day with my coworkers (who were gay and male, if you’re wondering).
With all this, why bother dragging A Star is Born into the mix at all? Nomi doesn’t even get that famous, no matter how strongly the ending implies her ascent has only just begun. So WHY? Because more than any movie I can think of, Showgirls allows me to feel the thrill of every tiny step towards stardom, with every circle Nomi breaks through: her first trailer, her first job, kicking her potential mentor in the groin and dumping him, watching the show and meeting the star, the audition, her first show, getting the designer dress, meeting the higher ups and telling those higher ups that her sexual favors are not for sale. This is all still well in the first half of the movie, but that last detail is key.
Why do we want to be famous? Between fame, money, and power, fame is easily the least appealing. Yet our collective desire for it seems to only grow as a society. Unless you are a somebody, you no longer count in America. For Showgirls in particular, fame has another, much higher purpose: to broadcast to the entire world that the people who hurt you did not stop you from becoming the strongest version of yourself. At the end of the film, Nomi tells us what she has won on her journey, and the answer is herself.
Now, I’d feel remiss if I didn’t at least say that the Cooper/Gaga A Star is Born got one thing very good, and that’s the love scenes. The physical chemistry is real; they act exactly like two people who are totally doing it, and that’s rare and genuinely affecting. So if you feel a little dirty after watching Showgirls, maybe a little of that might help.
But I must end on Showgirls. The other reasons for this movie feeling more relevant in 2019 than when it came out are so obvious that if you don’t know, I won’t tell you. But I will say that if I was asked to give a state of the union address tomorrow (not happening) I would say:
First they get you used to the money.
Then they make you swallow.
And on that note:
Caleb Quinn’s Showgirls Drinking Game
1) Every time a character with a speaking role dies or drinks, drink (this is standard for all films).
2) Every time characters talk about nails or paint their nails, drink.
3) Every time characters eat or talk about eating junk food, drink.
4) Every time characters talk about tits, drink.
5) Every time Nomi kicks or throws something, drink.
6) When Marty says “last chance, ice?,” the last person in the room to say “no ice!” must chug a bottle of Smirnoff Ice.
…and for the folks who have to work the next day,
7) Every time characters talk about brown rice and vegetables or Evian water, you can have water.
Caleb Quinn is a writer, editor, producer, and director of nihilistic tragicomedies woven together with elements of the surreal. He is also the principle cinematographer for Film & Fishnets. Sometimes he does drag. He lives in Los Angeles with his own goddess, Danica, and their furbaby Elvira.