Showgirls (1995, dir. Paul Verhoeven)
The things I do for you, Twin Peaks…*sigh*.
We first meet Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley) hitching a ride to Las Vegas from somewhere in Colorado. With breakneck speed, the script takes us from there to her being scammed, finding a roommate, getting a job at a strip club, and having a dream to dance in a show at a casino/hotel in just about ten minutes. The rest of this *over TWO HOUR movie* feels like your standard All About Eve/A Star Is Born plot but terribly written, acted, directed, lit, scored, etc.a strong, etc.
Ninety percent of the scenes in Showgirls end one way: Nomi yells at someone and storms out. Yet, for a character who is supposed to possess high passion, the film never really explains what she is passionate about. Is it dancing? Is it being famous? Is it being desired? Her relationships with the supporting characters make no sense and seem to be whatever is needed to push the plot along. There are strong overtones of sapphic love between Nomi and her roommate Molly, and she also shares suggestive scenes with the stage show’s star, Crystal (Gina Gershon). On the straight side of romance, she has a comically terrible sex scene with Zack (Kyle MacLachlan) and mainly dry humps James (Glenn Plummer). Are these relationships based around Nomi using each individual to further her career in some way? Does she genuinely care about any of these four people? I dunno. And neither does the script apparently.
Showgirls is a Hollywood train wreck in the most classical sense. And is a damn entertaining one as well. It is so campy, and every performance is ratcheted up to 11, that it is no surprise the film has become a cult classic. What’s different about a cult classic like The Rocky Horror Picture Show and this movie is that I genuinely don’t believe all parties involved in Showgirls got how campy and insane the project was. I have no doubts that director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Starship Troopers) was completely in on the joke and likely encouraged the actors to go bigger and louder while laughing his ass off behind the camera. And I feel like we can see Gina Gershon subconsciously wink at the camera. However, Elizabeth Berkley is so committed and working so hard in every scene you have to feel simultaneously sympathetic for and cringe at her at the same time.
I am a big fan of actors who choose to find quiet spaces in scenes to develop their characters. Mad Men is always my go to for a show that put a lot of weight on the things that went unsaid, on reactions to what other characters said and did. Even an actor as young as Kiernan Shipka was on that show developed into a performer who could convey emotion with gestures and looks. And that is a very powerful thing, and it makes those moments where an emotional outburst occurs even more powerful. I can’t help but think about the scene where Don breaks down to Peggy about the death of Sarah, some thing he hasn’t spoken to anyone about. That scene is so much more powerful for the years of stoicism Don has put on.
Elizabeth Berkley, only a couple years removed from her role as Jessie on Saved By The Bell, just does not have the acting ability to make Nomi a multi-dimensional character. From the opening scene, where she pulls a switchblade on a deceptively benevolent driver, her choices are way too big. I suspect Berkley thought she was giving a performance that conveyed Nomi was a strong survivor who wouldn’t be held back. Instead, she comes across as a loud, crazy person, like a grown up middle schooler. Her sex scene with Kyle MacLachlan…I actually question if the two of them had ever actually had sex up to that point in their lives.
Even decent character actors like Robert Davi, Alan Rachins, and Lin Tucci are so bad I wanted to yell at the screen, “Why are you doing this?” Don’t even get me started on how rough it was to watch Kyle MacLachlan in this. It is evident he wanted to showcase his acting range outside of what most audiences knew him for, but whew! Well, I guess he can claim he was in one of the most insane and over the top sex scenes in a mainstream film. Criminally underused in this movie is Patrick Bristow who does get one of the most iconic scenes: the infamous rehearsal for Goddess.
But the world IS a better place with Showgirls in it. For all its enormous flaws it is actually a film that will pull you in to see just how bad it gets. Most Hollywood movies are so controlled now that it is hard to slip an actual bomb through anymore. Everything is focused tested so straight down the mediocre middle that camp and outlandish performances are fading away. If a major studio is looking for their next cinematic universe, might I suggest Showgirls? I know there are more stories to tell!