For its 25th anniversary, Maddy and Lachlan have an overly long conversation about what is often seen as the last great cult classic bad movie, Showgirls. Famous for being shit, we ask a simple question: is it really? And we talk about #women and fetishes, draw no line between the actors and their characters, and whatever else we feel like. Good times!
Lachlan: I think the first thing to get out of the way is like… why do people still care about Showgirls? What’s the appeal of Nomi Malone? I think that’s a fair question for most, even for those who are aware of its cult classic status. It’s a 25 year old movie about sex and exploitation in Las Vegas, where the protagonist gets her titties out and Some Men Are Not Good – been there, done that. Why should we care? Why was there a documentary made about what is, even charitably calling it such, a piece of shit? Of course, I’m being dismissive just to forward the conversation, I would obviously take a bullet to the brain for this movie. It kinda feels like you do take a bullet every time you watch it – it telegraphs narrative twists with the subtlety of the Tsar Bomba, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Maddy: Like any cult movie, I guess, at a certain point it almost becomes pedestrian for people who know the ins and outs. I mean, The Room is a perfect example. It’s always fun to sit and laugh at, but once you’ve done it enough times it becomes background noise to a room of beer chugging alt kids. Sometimes with such over exposure to a ‘bad’ movie comes a tendency to forget why it reached cult status in the first place and people become tired of hearing about it. I think the anniversary of a cult movie reminds people just how bizarre it really is and to celebrate what started the phenomenon – maybe even to celebrate the phenomenon itself! It’s never just the film that creates the cult, it’s the people who screen it, share it and shit on it (in good fun). Revisiting Showgirls after 25 years means you need to untangle both its history and all of the weird and wonderful filmic intricacies.
Lachlan: Paul Verhoeven directing! Elizabeth “I’m so Excited!” Berkley! Kyle “Photo with Ghislaine” MacLachlan as just one of the seedy males! Gina Gershon is the Unhinged Bisexual! I’ll let you talk about ol’ Liz, but Paul is just so fascinating. He had only just recently directed fuckin’ Basic Instinct, one of the most infamous noir movies of all time, funny for clinging to the idea that Michael Douglas was still fuckable, but notorious for the combination of Kill Your Gays & Depraved Bisexuals being its main plot points. However, with that movie, Paul had set the ‘90s standard for depictions of female sexuality. Honestly? I think the idea of being dominated really got him off. Not joking. I think his idea of agency really makes his toes curl back. It’s very Paglian in nature. In the Verhoeven-verse, women can, in fact, prey on men. Make them really suffer, and it’s hot. Women will use their sexuality to manipulate and get what they want. Women like to dominate as much as they like to be dominated. Exaggerated hypersexuality that revels in mutual exploitation was the name of the game, and that was before Showgirls arrived on the scene.
Maddy: You can definitely feel Paul’s heavy, hot breath on the back of your neck while you watch certain scenes. It’s an intriguing mix; there are points that women are shown to weaponize, enjoy or revel in their sexuality, and then there are moments where they are subjected to such violence that I have to skip to the next scene (I mean, the unbelievably violent and unnecessary rape scene is awful and something consistently cut from public screenings today). The hypersexuality and constant nudity is shocking and somewhat taxing, especially in the way it’s pressed against those gorgeous intricate sets and centered in the glossy, colourful Cinemascope widescreen. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen nudity utilised in the same way since? Naked women feel like they’re utilised as set dressing, there’re so many tongues and teeth. At some points, I can almost hear Paul begging Nomi to step on his balls. I do wonder if that was an aspect driving Elizabeth’s famously bizarre performance. It almost feels like Paul was encouraging Elizabeth to be more dominant and more aggressive in her movements and dialogue. She moves in truly puzzling ways, exaggerating those bites from her burgers, throwing herself against doors and into chairs. Don’t even get me started on her lap dances. There’s so many scenes where I was worried she had thrown her back out of whack. Despite that, there is something insanely watchable, almost endearing, about Nomi. Elizabeth imbued her with something that feels genuine. Even in moments where her performance is shallow and confusing, you still really want to see her win. I truly think a lot of the film’s status as a cult movie is owed to her.
Lachlan: Showgirls came at a time where the ‘90s was releasing some of the best noir films since its heyday decades earlier, finally realising that audiences really wanted to see the femme fatale succeed. The renaissance began with Kathleen Turner in Body Heat ten years earlier. But, it also coincided with the rise of the surprisingly tame ‘strippercore’ genre – usually Demi Moore would be hinting something about her tits while never really doing all that much. It was a genre for housewives who wanted to feel risky, but without feeling like they compromised their Protestant morality just by viewing something a little seedy. These films feel like the old Cecil B. DeMille ‘social conscience’ pictures – you can display this Very Not Good Thing, revel in its debasing and sinful nature, as long as you make it clear that this Very Not Good Thing is not to be emulated! The original MVP of having his cake and eating it too, and Hollywood adopted it with great gusto. Honestly, I think it’s why Showgirls’ unbelievably frank, almost revoltingly crude depictions of ‘true’ strippers and ‘true’ whores, met with such a crushing response: though it is the fantasy of Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhaz, it’s still too real compared to the tame offerings of ‘not too rebellious!’ strip flicks of the time. The audience isn’t allowed to feel like they can just wipe away the movie like a simple morality parable. Showgirls lacks the implied title card that absolved the audience of their apparent sin for watching this movie. They didn’t like being reminded that Nomi could be a victim and enjoy other elements of being exploited. As such, Hollywood has backed away from getting this ‘complicated’ ever since. It’s an incredibly challenging movie – even if you totally disagree with the movie’s depictions of sexuality, I don’t think you can disagree with the idea that Hollywood has not allowed a worthy inheritor to the movie’s themes in the last 25 years. That being said, the less said about the rape scene, the better: there is shock value, and then there is just baseless cruelty. Which I suppose was Verhoeven’s point, but it just doesn’t land. Fully agree with you there.
Maddy: I’m racking my brain, trying to find another film that gets this complex in its discussion and representation of sexuality. So many films situate themselves in a similar context to Showgirls. Hustlers is probably the most recent attempt to deal with these cycles of exploitation, but you’re right, they still work to absolve the audience of any guilt they might have for enjoying and ogling the grimy setting. But, honestly, it’s a really difficult film to look away from. The cinematography, the sets, the costumes, they feel so big and so bright (and really bloody expensive). Each of the stage sets at Goddess are meticulously put together, and there’s so much for your eyes to grab at in each shot. The makeup and costumes are probably my favourite visual aspect of the film. The way the women are wrapped in leather or dripping in chunky jewels is really gorgeous, and Nomi’s glitter dusted eye and ponytail feels so contemporary. Showgirls walked so Euphoria could run. I think that so much of the tonal dissonance comes from a detachment between the visuals and dialogue; the visuals are nearly overdeveloped, while subtext is largely absent. That separation does lend itself to comedy at some points (brown rice and salad?), but I kind of love the insistent shallowness that allows you to sit back and let your eyes feast on the picture. I also want to highlight the soundtrack because it’s better than expected, and usually omitted from discussions about the film! It’s a pretty interesting compilation, with most of the songs recorded especially for the film; that early version of David Bowie’s I’m Afraid of Americans is going into my rotation after this rewatch.
Lachlan: Something about Showgirls that I never really appreciated until my most recent rewatch was like… while it goes out of its way to feel ‘gritty’ and ‘real’, it feels so dreamlike at the same time, because it is just plain weird to the senses. The lighting and the colours are beautiful – everything is doused in bright pink and bright yellow, the clothing is neon pastel, you can feel the heat from the omnipresent stage lighting. It’s all supposed to look so garish and revolting and cause some sensory overload, but the end result is that Verhoeven’s Vegas is just intoxicatingly beautiful. One of my low-key fave Robin Williams films, What Dreams May Come, is similarly exhausting, but the famed heavenly colour scheme of that film has more than a little similarity to the sheer exaggeration going on in the world of Showgirls. It’s a dream world, even if the content depicts anything but. It’s also a weird movie in a far more direct sense. Like, true to the 1990s, there’s a whole scene where chimps are just walking around the dressing room, hugging main characters and putting on lipstick. One just dead-eyes the camera! It all just comes out of nowhere, means nothing, and we’re back to seeing Gina Gershon taunt Elizabeth Berkley in their sapphic dramatics again. Then it’s like… you see Kyle MacLachlan, in his Jane Lane haircut, being revealed as a Not Very Nice Guy; he betrays Elizabeth Berkley, and the stage literally glows bright red and shoots fire to show how evil he is. Finally, the doggie chow scene – while drinking wine and eating nachos, Nomi and Cristal briefly put aside their lesbian missile crisis by bonding over… eating dog food, the two of them deriving sexual pleasure from watching the other person’s reaction to the admission. It feels like entering a coma after blunt force trauma. Which is great.
Maddy: I really do struggle to convey how I feel after I watch Showgirls, but you’ve captured it pretty well. It won seven Razzie Awards, which broke the record at the time, but in the time since the discussion about it has become much more varied and interesting. It’s nowhere near The Room or Sharknado in the way people enjoy the shoddy and unbelievably incoherent filmmaking, so it’s harder to quantify where the pleasure comes from in it’s status as a cult movie. Personally, I don’t think it’s a ‘bad’ movie. It’s a deeply confusing and complex movie, but it has the marks of a driven director, talented crew and moments that are genuinely fun and impressive to watch. Everyone I show it to has a million questions to ask afterwards and become invested in the story of it’s creation, which is something I think a good movie does?
Lachlan: I don’t want to retread what the documentary has already said, where it breaks the idea down into Showgirls being ‘shit, a ‘masterpiece’ or a ‘masterpiece of shit’. Rather, I think it’s more important to try see Showgirls for what it is, and not just from the viewpoint of a decade of successful artistic and/or ironic reclamation of the movie, because even with the sincere reconsideration of the movie, it was robbed of the chance to stand on its own two feet. If that sounds like a copout, I’ll be clear: it’s a great movie, flaws and all. Aims higher than most ever do. But my overall viewpoint is like… it’s so easy to get wrapped up in the mythos that you almost forget that there’s a movie there, something released with the expectation of financial and critical success. The reclamation movement has almost missed the point that it was meant to be a serious movie, despite the shitty face-saving lies that the cast tell us (and themselves) these days. View it on its own terms first, and then figure out what you feel about it. Only then will you know Nomi :).