People talk of certain films as guilty pleasures. It’s a ghastly phrase and a bizarre idea. Like a movie or don’t – but just have an honest reaction. Still, I have experienced over the years a faint sort of guilt, or at least a sense of social exclusion, for not liking (or “getting”) one particular film that is regularly lumped in that spurious “guilty pleasures” category: Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls. It is the everyday story of Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley), a Las Vegas dancer whose main ambition, as the critic Anne Billson put it, “is to emerge topless from an imitation volcano”.
I found the picture shrill and cold when it came out in 1995, even as friends of mine were whooping about how deliriously camp and crummy it was. And I have tried and failed to laugh along with it over the years whenever someone has put it on in my presence. A few weeks ago, energised by my love and admiration for Verhoeven’s latest film, Elle, I gave Showgirls another shot and found that I couldn’t even make it past the first third. I adore Verhoeven and his defiant, demented sensibility but this still feels to me like one of his few insincere films.
Now, I can get on board with camp and crummy—my film education was as much about Truck Stop Women and Caged Heat and Faster, Pussycat, Kill! Kill! as it was about Bresson and Bergman. But something of the innocence of those films (a funny word to use, perhaps, about such knowingly sensationalist works, but there you go) is charming in a way that Showgirls isn’t. Possibly this is because Joe Eszterhas is the screenwriter. The movie may have Verhoeven’s deadpan gleam to it but it feels like Eszterhas’s vision in a way that even their previous collaboration, Basic Instinct, wasn’t quite. Verhoeven found some mischief in that thriller which was partially redemptive. The script of Showgirls, on the other hand, feels irredeemable. “When Joe [Eszterhas] gave me the screenplay, I thought it was perfect,” Verhoeven told me in 2007. “So many nude people in one movie, all delivering their lines naked. It was like a dare: ‘What idiot would dare to do a film like this?’ ‘Me!’”
I admire how the director dealt with the negative response to the movie: turning up at the Razzies (the anti-Oscars) to collect his Worst Director prize, which was one of seven awards that the film received at that ceremony. In fact, he was the first Razzie recipient to attend the awards. That’s very him: fun, shameless, unapologetic. It’s just that any aura of absurdity in the movie feels so remote because it has to first be filtered through Eszterhas’s thuggish writing style before it reaches the screen. So what we get is Verhoeven slapping the glitter and the baby-oil and the lipstick onto something that doesn’t have any brightness or levity at its heart. You might say he’s trying to polish a… well, a Joe Eszterhas screenplay.
As is so often the case with bad filmmaking, though, it proved to be the catalyst for some sparkling reviews. There was Adam Mars-Jones, writing in the Independent (under the headline “Lapdances with Wolves”—way to go, sub-editors of 1995!), describing the film as “All About Eve remade by Paul Raymond” and delighting in one particular sex scene:
“Nomi writhes and twists in the water, shaking her head convulsively, covering her lover with chlorinated suds. It’s like a pelvis powered Jacuzzi. Apparently in Vegas the way you ask if someone had a good time is: ‘Did the water move for you?’”
There was Anthony Lane in the New Yorker, who called the title “not so much a noun as an imperative” and the film itself “the first movie about Las Vegas that is actually more vulgar than Las Vegas.”
It was Anne Billson, though, who really excelled at nailing the film’s particular mix of the bad and the delightful – that mix which still remains tantalisingly unavailable to Showgirls unbelievers like myself. (Incidentally, she also offers some stimulating commentary on the subject of guilty pleasures herself here.
In Billson’s Showgirls review, available in her collection Spoilers, reviewed here by Nicholas Lezard of this parish, she writes:
“I expected make-up and grooming tips and, reader, I got them. Never wear pale lipstick without first applying dark lip-liner. Grow your nails so long they could get you arrested for possession of offensive weapons, and then cover them with pink and purple harlequin patterns. Always bare your teeth in a snarl. And never ever perform Sylvie Guillem-type leg manoeuvres in a G-string unless you have first applied napalm to your bikini line… As if all this were not more than enough for one bopsical, we also have two catfights, several acts of bitchy sabotage (one of them involving diamante), a chimpanzee alert in the dressing-room, and a gratuitous gang rape which might have been offensive had its context borne any relation to life as we know it.”
Come to think of it, I get the sort of pleasure from reading that review that most people get from watching Showgirls.
‘Elle’ is on release.