Tonight is a big night for me because Ladies of Burlesque is presenting Showgirls on 35mm at The Royal. And since it’s one of my favourite movies, I’m busting-at-the-seams excited to watch it in all its tacky, sparkly glory on the big screen.
A lot of people have embraced the campiness that is Showgirls. The once-derided film has found a cult following and a whole army of appreciative fans. And while film critic Adam Nayman has already written a book about the film, arguing the merits of it eloquently, I still feel like I have to defend the film and its inclusion on my list of my favourite movies of all time. Somehow I can sense there are still non-believers out there.
Or maybe I’m super defensive, I don’t know.
Because my memories of my life are almost solely comprised of pop culture moments, Showgirls already held a minor place in my heart before I actually sat down and watched the film. I have vivid memories of the film being released and panned even though I was nowhere close to the age of being able to watch it when it came out (I was nine). The hits against it were everywhere.
The fact that it had so much nudity and sexual content also made it impossible to ignore. I thought the film was a full-on porno, that’s how hysterical the criticism felt. I even remember seeing a big box set for it behind the counter at my local HMV – the one with the iconic film poster – and being obsessed with it. So elusive! So sexual! What was it about this movie that made it such a big deal?
I didn’t see it until I was well into my twenties because, based on everything I had heard, I thought it was going to be a total shit show. I’ve seen The Room, so I was expecting something along those lines. Imagine my surprise when I realized the movie wasn’t just hysterical, it was actually amazing.
To me, a bad film is one that’s poorly shot, that features earnestly bad acting, plot holes and ridiculous dialogue. And while some detractors will say that Showgirls has all of these qualities, they’re wrong and missing the point. Showgirls is a film that’s trying to be bad on purpose. The acting, the direction, the production design, the plot – everything is played at a fever pitch to heighten the camp. I mean, the movie is set in Las Vegas of all places – a town that’s known for it’s shady, sexual, violent underbelly. The town was built by gangsters, c’mon.
The plot itself is simple enough – a drifter comes to Vegas in search of fame and fortune. But it really highlights the cutthroat world of fleeting stardom – there’s always someone that’s going to be younger and better than you. That environment breeds toxicity between women when really, if they work together instead of against each other they can dismantle the sexist system.
The dialogue may be ridiculous and over the top, but taking the film as camp, the lines are played to be stupid. Elizabeth Berkley was ripped apart for the way she played the part, but both she and the director have maintained that she acted exactly the way she was directed to. Why would Paul Verhoeven allow Berkley to play at such a high pitch in every scene unless he wanted her to? The tone of the film is also consistent with his other films, especially Basic Instinct, which I found to be way more ridiculous and over the top than Showgirls.
After watching the film, I’m convinced that the backlash against it was prompted mostly by sexism. In some ways, I think it’s ahead of its time in the way it presents show business, sex work and women. Nomi and Cristal are both questionable, unlikable characters that do whatever it takes to get ahead. I think the fact that the film is played for camp, focuses so much on women and has a lot of sexual content and nudity in it made film critics not take it seriously. And because film criticism is such a boys’ club, I think it led to a general consensus that the film was garbage without a closer look at what the movie is actually trying to say.
Showgirls focuses a lot on the violence and misogyny in the entertainment industry. For the majority of the film, Nomi is constantly told, with disdain, that she’s nothing more than a prostitute because she strips at a tacky bar. The fact that Berkley wasn’t able to work again after this film is ironic considering the shit her character has to deal with in the film. And it’s really a shame that her career was derailed because the film was misunderstood or maybe hit the market at the wrong time. She’s really good in it. Plus, she looks amazing and her dancing is fantastic.
It’s not a perfect film and it’s not for everyone. The camp aspect is jarring and the violence is unnerving. But ultimately, the film is about how people, especially women with dreams, are used and abused in a system that simultaneously prizes them for their body and then shames them for being sexual. If anything, I think it’ll at least leave you with something to think about.
Come out to The Royal tonight and check it out! The Ladies of Burlesque screenings are among my favourites because they also have beautiful burlesque performances before the show by local artists who create a number based on the film that’s screening. It’s a great showcase! Learn more about the program here.
And as a final word to anyone who denigrates this movie: