Monday, April 7, 2014

Showgirls (1995): A Movie of Two Extremes: Pure Ambition and Pure Crap

Showgirls (1995)
dir: Paul Verhoeven

[taken and slightly expanded from my comments originally posted at The Dissolve]

[Trigger Warning]

Showgirls is a special failure. Very special. Verhoeven has the highest aspirations and, with Joe Esterhasz, created a plot that drives home his points about the sordid underbelly of Las Vegas. Yes, it uses the framework of All About Eve, but Showgirls isn't All About Eve, and Elizabeth Berkeley is no Anne Baxter.

There are two major faults with Showgirls that no movie can overcome: a terrible actress, and a terrible screenplay. In other words, Elizabeth Berkeley and Joe Esterhasz. Berkeley cannot act. That's a statement of fact. She never could. Growing up with Saved By the Bell, none of those kids could really act. None of them realized it. And, sadly, none of them ever would learn. Which was sad for those of us who hoped for more speedo clad movies with Mario Lopez going further down the gay movie pole. But, I digress. Berkeley's shining moment of Saved by the Bell was Jessie's Song, which had the era-defining "I'm So Excited...I'm So Scared" moment after a whole episode dedicated to caffeine pills. That one scene would define her whole acting presence in Showgirls.

Most reclamations gloss over most of the offensively bad parts that feature Berkeley and Esterhasz. Where she pulls out a switchblade on the driver, then stabs the radio playing Garth Brooks. The driver then swerves the truck to the shoulder, almost hitting a semi, then swerves back to the road once she puts it away, almost hitting the semi again. These people are histrionic.

Even when the terrible parts are mentioned by these revisionists, they gloss over Nomi's inexplicable attitude problems. How, in the initial meeting with Molly, Nomi goes from attacking a car, the pavement, soda, ketchup, and then the fries suddenly moving into seductress mode without even a pause. And, Molly who sees a girl who is as violent as she is scared and refuses to answer her questions about identity and even mindless chit-chat, after knowing this girl for 10 minutes, offers her a place to live in her trailer. WHAT THE HELL?! This offer wasn't just unexpected to Nomi Malone, it was unbelievable to the audience.

The screenplay continues on with passages of dialogue that is frequently bad, but sometimes transcends to truly awful. The primary example of this would be:
"You fucked him AND her."
"Were you following me?! I didn't fuck anybody!!"
"I saw you! Man everybody got AIDS and shit. You know, what is it that you think you do? You fuck 'em without fucking them, that's what you do!" 
There's all kinds of wrong in this dialogue, not even talking about the logistics of getting AIDS without having sex. This dialogue isn't about a threesome, or even oral sex. This is about the infamous lap dance sequence where Nomi Malone gives Kyle MacLachlan a lapdance. This terrible dialogue would frequently transcend the realm of awful into the realm of ridiculous.

Somewhere in Showgirls is a morality movie that is essential and needed to be made. A story of power struggles, exploitation, and the perception of dancing vs stripping. Plus, who holds the money, money as power, and what money, power, and success can buy you. Unfortunately, that got piled full of shit like Edna Bazoom and her honking dress as a mother figure, or Nomi's washing machine antics of sex.

Verhoeven doesn't realize how terrible it is. Because, he tries. And he succeeds in polishing the turd. There is some amazing cinematography, set ups, themes, and everything technical. It's an astounding movie in terms of its visuals and its pacing. Even as an unintentional comedy. Verhoeven isn't really to fault...except he chose the actress and helped write the script.

[More after Jump, including discussion and image of the rape scene and its presence in the film]

To wit, there is one scene that gets Verhoeven's Showgirls exactly right: the rape scene. This is the one scene in the movie that doesn't have any dialogue AND that doesn't have Elizabeth Berkeley. In this one rape scene, the tone suddenly switches from failed campy attempt to vicious end of the party. It is the one scene which is truly vicious, and it's heartbreaking as it should be. The campy reclamation of Showgirls almost can't recover from it, though it eventually does by having the juxtaposed images of Molly's broken face and Nomi's new Revenge Nails...which brings us back to camp, almost as much as "Fucker! Fuck Off!" These images are only separated by a zoom in to Nomi's face as she realizes that she has to get revenge.

The rape scene victimizes the only decent character in the whole movie: Molly. Molly is the symbol of all things that are good, but she lusts after Andrew Carver, a superstar who is coming to town for a star at a casino down the road. At Nomi's coming out party as the new star of Goddess, Andrew Carver comes along and Molly makes a coy pass at Carver where he takes her up to the bedroom and then he and his two bodyguards brutally beat and rape Molly to the point where she comes stumbling out of the bedroom beaten to a pulp. The scene isn't played for laughs. It's mainly shown from Molly's victimized point of view. Her face is frequently at the bottom of the screen, and almost off of it for much of the scene, with the frame taken up completely by the three rapists. It could be said that it is over the top but, really, it can only be seen as campy by the most jaded souls. And, the movie itself deems this to be a point of no return,

Nomi Malone immediately decries this, but the people above her (that of Kyle McLachlan) refuse to prosecute Andrew Carver, pointing out that he's a star and that he could work at Stardust the next year. And, they have to make nice because Carver is more important than Molly. And, to punctuate the power trumping that they have with Nomi, Kyle then reveals that he found her rap sheet and now he knows that she was a crack-using prostitute to survive as a teenager and younger girl. She had always been a whore, and it's unstated that now would be one for the Stardust. From the rape scene through this moment, we're in the Verhoeven movie that he wants us to be in. It's all of five minutes that are taken from a completely different movie (the movie Verhoeven thought he was making), that was inserted into a camp failure (the movie that Verhoeven actually made).

But, there's one image that can rescue us from the terror of a rape scene, and that's the revenge portion of the rape revenge movie. With this singular shot of Nomi Malone's revenge nails, we're suddenly transported back to the movie that is a complete and utter camptacular failure. Sure the revenge is predicated by the rape, but we're only transported from the rape story to the revenge story via two shots. One is Molly, beaten to a pulp, lying on a hospital bed writhing and moaning in pain, Nomi looking over her as a motherly friend would do. Especially since the victim had put you up after knowing you for 10 minutes. The camera zooms in to Nomi's face, then a smashcut to this image of Nomi doing her nails. And, with that, you know that these are revenge nails, and it recalls the theme of nails, junk food and body image that Verhoeven had established throughout the movie. Thus, we are back in Showgirls territory, but it's never the same.

At this point, Nomi kicks Andrew Carver's ass with her revenge nails, says goodbye to both Molly and to Crystal and leaves Las Vegas on her way to Los Angeles...which is the most tragically hilarious moment of Showgirls, proving that she never learns.

The rape isn't treated as just something that happens, but is actually seen as a brutal vicious action that happens to women. And, as such, it is also an element of power that men with power use to control women. It's exactly as brutal and telling as it needs to a movie that should have been a seething burning expose on how Las Vegas is an immoral place where power mongers exploit anybody and everybody, and the only ones that fail are the ones that get tied to people. But, in the movie that exists - a campy failed exploitation film - the presence of any rape scene would be problematic enough, but the sheer brutality of this one stops the movie cold.

If this were a successful movie, that rape scene would not feel out of place. If this movie actually was a morality tale that was moral, that scene would have been preceded by a guiding downfall so it could be the bottomless pit that it represents. But, this movie is a failure and that scene is out of the successful movie that Showgirls could have been, and should have been...had there been a better actress in the lead, replacing out Gina Gershon for a less campy actress (she's perfect in the ironic camp movie, but terrible in a serious examination of Vegas), and rewriting the whole entire screenplay for less Esterhasz. As it stands, Showgirls cannot be reclaimed.

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