There is much about Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 film Showgirls that, at first glance, is hard to explain. Why did MGM give $45 million (adjusted to nearly $75 million today) to a sleazy showbiz satire without any big stars or an easily classifiable genre? How did a film slapped with an NC-17 rating in the United States finish in second at the box office on opening weekend? But, most interestingly, why did a film widely derided as one of the worst movies of all time – the “winner” of seven Razzies, a record at that time – get a 16-page “roundtable” for scholarly debate in the journal Film Quarterly?
Well, as Toronto-based film critic and instructor Adam Nayman opines, Showgirls is a much richer and fascinating film than initial audiences and critics indicated. In his 2014 book, “It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls“, Nayman argues that we should give Verhoeven’s film a second chance. The slim volume, the first in a series of Pop Classics books from ECW Press, blends film analysis with cultural history in an entertaining package.
The result is a persuasive document that should be a main exhibit in the case for Showgirls’ release from cinematic prison. Nayman is far from the first writer to argue for the film’s reappraisal. Nevertheless, his book may be the most comprehensive and coherent criticism the film has ever received. “I thought that there was something sort of perverse of taking the [BFI Classics] monograph format… and picking a kind of ‘anti-classic,’” Nayman tells Toronto Film Scene.
Nayman doesn’t proclaim Showgirls to be a great film, but rather one that is simply much more rewarding and interesting than what critics initially claimed. It is, in the author’s words, a “Masterpiece of Shit.”
Showgirls tells the story of Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley), a young, aspiring dancer who sets off for Las Vegas to pursue her dreams. She gets caught up in a friendship and rivalry with showgirl superstar Cristal (Gina Gershon), who invites her to audition for the Strip’s studded showgirl smash Goddess. Drugs, scandal, money, violence and outrageous pool sex awaits Nomi on her path to stardom.
Nayman says he always liked Showgirls, which he first saw in the cinema as a teen, mostly out of curiosity due to the critical drubbing. (Rick Groen of The Globe and Mail gave the film a rare zero-star rating.) He snuck in, since the film was Restricted. Where the excess turned off other filmgoers, Nayman was charmed. The exaggerations and over-the-top performance were supposed to be funny, he argues.
“It Doesn’t Suck“, which gets its title from one of Nomi’s repeated phrases, adds critical textual analysis to a film often considered a salacious conversation piece. Nayman praises several of Verhoeven’s artistic touches, such as motifs of mirrors and doubles throughout to compare Cristal and Nomi. Other praiseworthy elements the book covers: the film’s spot-on depiction of Las Vegas sleaze and the notable presence of female camaraderie.
Researching the book at the TIFF Film Reference Library, Nayman found gold in a promotional book, “Showgirls: Portrait of a Film“. The book was a guide to the film that featured an essay from Verhoeven, where he outlined his hopes and expectations for Showgirls. The director aimed for the film to be a throwback to Hollywood musicals such as 42nd Street.
“It’s kind of like reading the promotional materials for the Titanic,” Nayman says of “Portrait of a Film“. “There is no hesitation… no sense that [Showgirls] is going to be anything but a success. Still, a lot of the things he says about the film, like the references he’s making to old musicals and Fellini, and what he says about the camerawork… I think it’s all true.”
Verhoeven, who Nayman interviewed months after the book’s first printing, was impressed with the analysis. “He read the book just as a reader. He wasn’t fact-checking it,” Nayman says of the director’s reaction. “What he said was that he liked that it was critical. I think he was just happy that I talked so much about the camera and the editing.”
A merge of comedy, melodrama, thriller and backstage musical, Showgirls bombed at the box office, finishing with just over $20 million in North America. However, the film did eventually earn its budget back several times over.
Initially, its home-release success spawned ironic viewing parties of the film, as audiences began treating Showgirls as a cult object in the vein of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Meanwhile, its success on the midnight movie circuit and afterlife as a sort of camp classic may have helped to influence the shift in the film’s critical reception.
As the book explores, Showgirls used to hold a space in the realm of low culture, recognized as a movie that everyone perceived as terrible. Nayman doesn’t proclaim Showgirls to be a great film, but rather one that is simply much more rewarding and interesting than what critics initially claimed. It is, in the author’s words, a “Masterpiece of Shit.”
While Showgirls is now seen less frequently as a toxic cinematic object, Nayman says he acknowledges his work and the criticism of other film scholars is likely not enough to turn the film’s storied negative reputation around. Still, he advises that many of the critics who abhorred Verhoeven’s film in the fall of 1995 may be surprised when they watch it again.
Nayman says he doesn’t think Showgirls would have been received the same way if released in 2016. “This is a moment of instant canonization, instant dismissal, instant reappraisal,” he says of current Twitter culture. “There’s something at stake when it takes a movie 20 years [to get reappraisal].
“If they could look at what they wrote about camera movement, editing, lighting, music… they would be mortified and embarrassed,” Nayman tells TFS.
The central fascination of Showgirls’ reputation as a notorious bomb is, in all likelihood, Berkley’s over-the-top performance. However, would the MGM film have spawned the same attention without the Saved by the Bell star at the film’s centre?
Just as Berkley was trying to break into features and leave her television days behind, Nomi is hoping for validation in an adult-oriented venture. In one of the many mirrors explored in Nayman’s book, Berkley reportedly spoke of how Showgirls would make her a star, suggesting a connection between the actor and her onscreen counterpart. Film professor Chon Noriega, quoted in “It Doesn’t Suck“, writes that Berkley’s performance ensures the movie works as an allegory for Hollywood.
Nayman, whose book on director Ben Wheatley will be released this fall, says he would be thrilled to speak with Berkley on the film, although he recognizes that her career was deeply damaged by the film’s initial critical and commercial failure.
Even Verhoeven, who has not made a film in North America since Hollow Man in 2000, wasn’t left unscathed. “He doesn’t think [Showgirls] is funny,” Nayman says. “He knows that a significant portion of his working life was affected by the reaction of this movie.”
Nevertheless, in an age where film criticism and think piece columns saturate the Internet, Nayman says he doesn’t think Showgirls would have been received the same way if released in 2016. “This is a moment of instant canonization, instant dismissal, instant reappraisal,” he says of current Twitter culture. “There’s something at stake when it takes a movie 20 years [to get reappraisal].