50 Movies for 50 States: Week 29 – Nevada, Film – Showgirls

Week 29 – Nevada

Showgirls (1995), directed by Paul Verhoeven, written by Joe Eszterhas, with Elizabeth Berkley, Gina Gershon and Kyle Maclachlan

It’s 1995. Bill Clinton is in the White House getting a BJ from a doughy-faced intern in the Oval Office while America is glued to their television sets waiting to see O.J. get acquitted. They’re tuning in to see what boundaries a little prime-time cop show called NYPD Blue would cross next. Would Dennis Franz finally whip his dick out in this one? It could happen! Why? Because it’s the 1990s!

It’s a great time to be alive. We have a Democrat president. They’re actually playing good music on the radio like Nirvana and Radiohead. I mean … this must be how our parents felt when The Beatles visited India – they left with “Please Please Me” and came back with Sgt. Pepper. It is just like the ’60s! Now we’ve got Lollapalooza just like they had Woodstock!

It’s 1995, motherfuckers! This is our time. A time of artistic freedom and — with those kill-joy conservatives finally in their place — a time of sexual freedom. No more hang-ups over expressing ourselves sexually through art and film and television. Just look at NYPD Blue! They actually showed a butt! On regular TV!

It’s great the way television has really brought the issue of AIDS into the public discourse. First there was the whole “Pedro” thing on the The Real World, next thing you know Tom Hanks is playing a man with AIDS and now even General Hospital‘s doing a storyline based around one of its characters contracting AIDS.

But it’s not just the “dark side” of sex that’s getting more attention. I think we’re just more open about sex in general. It’s a good time to be a teenage boy. No more scrambled Playboy Channel when you’ve got … the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Or the equally-enticing, but free Victoria’s Secret Catalog.

So have you heard about this new movie rating – NC-17? It’s like, supposed to be worse than R.


Graphic "borrowed" from CNN.com

Actually, the NC-17 rating – which replaced the long-abandoned “X” rating — had been around for a couple of years prior to 1995. Mostly it was given to foreign and art house films, movies whose producers lacked the political clout to convince the MPAA to be a little more lenient with their ratings by cutting a few seconds of thrusting here or a bit of pubic hair there. Big studios aimed for the “hard R.” The reasons, as expected, were financial. Many theaters and video store chains refused –- and still refuse — to carry or show NC-17 movies (or movies without an MPAA rating) allegedly because of pressure from family values groups. Remember that the next time you find yourself thinking of the 1990s as “the new 1960s.” No matter what political party is in control and no matter how liberated we like to think we are, there’s always someone telling us what we can or cannot see or listen to.

Yet, there are always those who dare to test the waters of what the public (or special interests) consider “acceptable” entertainment. In 1995, for the first and last time, a major motion picture studio greenlit a big-budget NC-17 film.

Showgirls would go down in history as one of the biggest movie flops of all time. In the minds of those who finance movies, it would forever associate the NC-17 rating with box office poison. The rating, however, is the least of this movie’s problems. I’ve seen some bad movies in my time, but Showgirls is one of the worst. In terms of sheer size and scope, it might be the worst. At the same time, with all its gaudiness and absurdity, I think there is no better movie than Showgirls that better represents the city of Las Vegas – and although I know there is more to Nevada than Las Vegas, let’s be honest … Las Vegas is what Nevada is best known for. There is really no other city quite like it in the United States.

The premise of Showgirls is that a naïve but street-smart midwestern girl –- Nomi — comes to Las Vegas to be a “dancer,” but finds herself seduced by the city’s unique … uhm … “charm.” A series of events happen, mostly involving a feud between Nomi and established star Cristal Conners, which result in Nomi’s moral compass coming undone. Never mind that, prior to Vegas, Nomi didn’t really have much sense of dignity. The tall, blonde vixen admits in one scene that she has a history of engaging in prostitution in order to get by. She also carries a switchblade on her at all times, never afraid to pull her piece out on anyone who seems the least bit threatening. Showgirls is not the tale of a good girl gone bad, but a bad girl finding her place in the world. The end of the film shows the antihero hitching a ride to Los Angeles — like Vegas, LA is a place known for rewarding those who aren’t afraid to give up a little bit of their dignity to get ahead.

Joe Eszterhas was recruited to write the script while Paul Verhoeven was hired to direct. Eszterhas and Verhoeven previously teamed to write and direct Basic Instinct, a sexually charged neo-film noir that was a huge hit and MGM hoped to reproduce the success with an equally tawdry tale. Eszterhas and Verhoeven visited Las Vegas for “research” and Eszterhas was paid $2 million to produce a script. The film was originally envisioned as a big budget musical. The character of Nomi was named for Eszterhas’s wife (I’m sure she was ecstatic), Madonna was envisioned to play Crystal, and Drew Barrymore was seen as the film’s Nomi. When that casting didn’t work out, other pairings were considered – Sharon Stone and Charlize Theron. Gina Gershon eventually won the part of Crystal. As for Nomi, the role went to a fine up-and-coming actress named Elizabeth Berkley. Berkley had been the star of the kids sitcom, Saved By The Bell. I’m sure the irony was not lost on Eszterhas and Verhoeven of having a former child actor playing a role in which she’d have to be naked or nearly-nude for pretty much the entire film.

I suppose you can argue that Berkley has “the looks,” although with her height, horse teeth, and man ass, I find her pretty unappealing myself. I’m tempted to say she looks like a tranny … but that would be an insult to trannys.

As for “the moves,” this is where Berkley really falls flat. Here’s a hint: Licking a dirty stripper pole is not sexy. Nor is thrashing around like an epileptic during sexual intercourse. Flailing about in general … not sexy. And I don’t know who taught Berkley that running her lizard tongue over her front teeth every time there is a lull in a conversation is hot … it’s not.

I’ve probably more than made my point clear that Berkley/Nomi is visually unappealing, but it’s not much better when Nomi isn’t stripping or making other vain attempts at coming across as eye candy. Nomi is one of the most obnoxious characters in any movie … ever, which is really messed up considering she’s the center of this film – the main character. She’s like a toddler. She pouts and throws temper tantrums. She’s a bitch to pretty much everyone that crosses her path, including those people who are out to help her. Even if there had been more of an explanation for why Nomi is the way she is other than “she was once a hooker and vague bad stuff happened to her,” I probably still would have hated her.

In my 2010 movie wrap-up, I mentioned that a true mark of good acting is when an actor can get you to feel empathy for a really unlikable character. What’s odd is that I’m not sure if Eszterhas and Verhoeven ever intend for you to feel sorry for Nomi at any point in Showgirls. If that’s the case, why would you waste the audience’s time, not just portraying, but basing your entire movie around such a shallow, hollow character like Nomi? And this movie is two hours long. I’m warning you, as someone who cares, if you watch Showgirls you will have thrown away two hours of your life. I, at least, am able to write a semi-entertaining review. You will get nothing out of the experience. You might laugh a few times initially at the film’s sheer absurdity, but I promise you that – at the two hour mark – you will no longer be laughing.

I guess I should mention the other main characters. There’s Gershon’s character Crystal. After graduating from Cheetah’s Topless Club, Nomi competes with Crystal for the lead in Goddess, a topless revue. Crystal is Goddess‘s featured dancer and looks down on Nomi, referring to her job at Cheetah’s as being no better than prostitution. Crystal – who is bisexual – is also attracted to Nomi.

Then there’s Kyle MacLachlan as Zach Carey, the entertainment director at The Stardust, the hotel that is home to Goddess. As a Twin Peaks fan, it’s sad to see Agent Cooper in this role, engaging in what is perhaps the worst sex scene ever with Berkley.

Gershon and MacLachlan are passable in their roles, although it would take a miracle to turn Eszterhas’s script into something watchable, and neither actor is a miracle worker.

There are other characters in the movie too: Nomi’s friends Molly and James.

Then there’s Penny, a dancer at the Cheetah club played by Rena Riffel, an actress with the unfortunate bad luck of being in both Showgirls and, the following year, the Demi Moore stripper movie/box office bust, Striptease. The resourceful Riffel was able to capitalize on her breakthrough performances and is now a pretty successful B-movie actress appearing in movies like Caligula’s Spawn, Trasharella, and Trashella in Space. I’m guessing that she takes her clothes off in at least one of those movies, because – spoiler alert — Riffel takes off her clothes in Showgirls … just like everyone else. I bet even the boom mic guy was naked at some point.

Let’s be honest. If you’ve decided to watch Showgirls, you’re not looking for a great story or great acting. You want to be titillated. You want to see a dirty movie. Sadly, Showgirls fails in that respect. The amount of nudity on display in Showgirls is staggering … so much, in fact, that by the time it was through I worried that I would never want to see another boob again. Or if I did see a boob, it just wouldn’t register. I felt like a male gynecologist must feel or a plastic surgeon specializing in breast augmentation. There’s nothing sexy about the nudity in Showgirls.

Maybe Showgirls would have been sexy in the 1950s, when nudist magazines were all the rage – mostly due to the fact that they were the only way a straight man (or gay woman) could ogle other folks naked in the privacy of their own home. In a time when the average Joe (or Jane) could get their jollies looking at pictures of a bunch of naked people playing volleyball or whatever the hell else nudists do, maybe Showgirls would have been hot stuff.

But Showgirls was released in 1995 and there is nothing sexy or edgy about it. Even the NC-17 rating slapped on it is nothing more than a joke.

Showgirls sucks in pretty much every way possible. It is not a good movie. It is not as unintentionally funny as the studio executives who tried to pass it off as a “new camp classic” after its initial release attempted to make it seem. It’s not cool in an ironic way. It’s certainly not that sexy, unless you’re the type of person who would actually go to a nudie show in Vegas.

It is a movie that has earned its place as one of the worst movies of all time for a reason – and the careers of pretty much every person associated with this movie have never been the same. Not to mention no studio has agreed to purposely finance an NC-17 rated movie since Showgirls was a bust. That might be for the best, since the result would probably be something like Showgirls, flashy and empty – just a big, worthless tease.

Showgirls is available to watch instantly through Netflix – but you have been appropriately warned. Click here to add it to your instant queue.

Next week: They make movies in New Hampshire?


Matt D.’s Top Five Unsexy “Sexy” Movies

5. Cinderella aka The Other Cinderella (1977) – I’ve been waiting a long time to bring up this movie, which features a king with erectile difficulties, an effeminate African-American fairy “godmother,” and a heroine with a “snapper.” What’s a snapper? I’d rather not explain it here, but there’s an entire song in the movie devoted to it. Hilarious, but not in the least bit sexy.

4. Lolita (1997)Unlike the Kubrick version, this one is played straight. As a result, it could be sexy if you can overlook the fact that barely-legal Dominique Swain is supposed to be playing a 14-year-old girl, and Jeremy Irons is like … 50. Yuck. If you find this sexy, you had better keep it to yourself.

3. Last Tango In Paris (1972) – Not quite as sexy as it is really depressing. I won’t make too much of a big deal out of the butter thing, except to say gross, ick, and ew. Marlon Brando was way past his prime. A good movie. Just not sexy.

2. Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989) – Another one that falls under the category of “too depressing to be sexy,” which I think is going to be the case for most of the movies on this list. Also a good movie. Just not sexy.

1. Caligula (1979) – Tinto Brass’s masterpiece, featuring critically acclaimed actors Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole, Helen Mirren, and a bevy of Penthouse Pets. One minute McDowell, playing the mad emperor, is giving a passionate soliloquy about how he’s a god and how his horse would make a really great senator. The next minute the movie’s all up in your face with hardcore lesbian porn. A bizarre, baffling film. Too weird to be sexy.

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