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DIARY OF A MAD MOVIE: Was Vegas-centric ‘Showgirls’ a camp disaster or a cult classic? Or both?

Film: Showgirls (erotic drama, 1995, rated NC-17, 131 minutes)

Availability: Free on-demand to Showtime subscribers through Aug. 31

Budget: $45 million

Box office: $37.8. million

Stars: Elizabeth Berkley, Kyle MacLachlan, Gina Gershon, Robert Davi

Supporting Cast: Alan Rachins, Gina Ravera, Glenn Plummer, Rena Riffel

Director: Paul Verhoeven

 

Was it merely bad?

Or was it so epically awful … so stupendously stupid … so breathtakingly bizarre …  so toweringly terrible … that it deserves a kind of twisted cinematic canonization?

That debate over Showgirls will never die, and we thank the movie gods for it — because that’s why everything about this landmark stinker is so much fun.

This sex/nudity/profanity-riddled, All About Eve-esque ripoff tells the tale of drifter/dancer Nomi (as in “Know Me” — wink, wink) Malone (played by Elizabeth Berkley, whose career never recovered), who worms and strips and sleeps her way into star billing atop a Vegas showgirl revue.

Showgirls supersized just about every lazy cliché about Las Vegas.

And yet — given how Hollywood depictions of Vegas often test an audiences’ capacity for uptightness, gratification and standards of morality — Showgirls wound up as a kind of Rorschach test for perceptions of our fabulous town. Was it celebration or condemnation of our pleasure ethic? Was it a madcap synthesis of innocent, fun-loving Vegas movies and downbeat, cynical Vegas cinema?

Think of it this way:

If the peppy Rat Pack Ocean’s 11 and Elvis’ merry Viva Las Vegas had a kid, and if the booze-soaked Leaving Las Vegas and the drug-addled Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas had a kid — and if those kids grew up to have a kid of their own — it would be Showgirls.

Without further ado over a film that caused such a to-do, here are several tantalizing tidbits from the titillating Showgirls:

Actress/model Jenny McCarthy auditioned for the lead role. She was on the short list until filmmakers discovered one shortcoming: She couldn’t dance.

Jennifer Lopez told The Hollywood Reporter that vying for a role in Showgirls was the worst audition of her career.

The filmmakers’ first choices to play the roles that eventually went to Gershon (as the reigning diva) and Berkley (as the dancer upstart) were, respectively, Madonna and Drew Barrymore. Other actresses considered for Berkley’s role included Pamela Anderson, Angelina Jolie, Vanessa Marcil, Denise Richards and Charlize Theron. Names floated for Gershon’s role were Sharon Stone, Sean Young, Daryl Hannah and Finola Hughes.

To date, Showgirls remains the only NC-17 film to get wide theatrical distribution, opening in 1,388 cinemas.

Just before the movie opened, screenwriter Joe Eszterhas triggered a ruckus when he suggested younger moviegoers use fake IDs to get into the flick.

Film distributor United Artists had staffers fan out to theaters across North America to make sure film-goers were over 17 years old, and that patrons wouldn’t sneak in to see Showgirls from other theaters in multiplexes.

Showgirls taglines: “Beyond your wildest dreams. Beyond your wildest fantasies”; “The most controversial movie of the year is here”; “Sensual. Controversial. Available”; “The side of Vegas you were never meant to see.”

Showgirls was banned in Ireland upon its 1995 release. The ban was lifted in 2002.

During the infamous (and ridiculously acrobatic, widely ridiculed) pool sex scene, MacLachlan can be seen wearing his tighty-whities.

Gershon was asked to re-create the infamous Sharon Stone leg-crossing maneuver from Basic Instinct. She refused.

Reportedly, the only time actresses required to be topless felt uncomfortable was when they were around trained monkeys used on the shoot — which constantly stared at their breasts.

For a movie that, for better or worse, is inextricably linked to Vegas, the movie’s only exterior scenes actually shot here are the closeups of Nomi playing slot machines at the Forum Shops at Caesars.

MacLachlan’s reaction at the movie’s premiere: “I sat there and suffered for the whole two hours.”

MacLachlan’s reflection on Showgirls: “I was absolutely gobsmacked. … It’s a very slow, sinking feeling when you’re watching the movie, and the first scene comes out, and you’re like: ‘Oh, that’s a really bad scene.’ But you say, ‘Well, that’s OK, the next one will be better.’ … And it just gets worse. … But it’s inadvertently funny so it’s found its place. It provides entertainment, though not in the way I think was originally intended. … It was just, maybe the wrong material with the wrong director and the wrong cast.”

Alternative rocker Toni Halladay, who contributed to the movie’s soundtrack, reflected on her involvement this way: “I met Paul Verhoeven and he was just so charismatic. He wowed me into this horrible film, selling it as some intellectual comment on the sex industry. I walked out after 45 minutes. The screen went dead every time that woman (Berkley) was on it.”

Verhoeven heard that Steven Spielberg requested a copy of the film when it came out, but stopped watching halfway through.

What one word did Verhoeven use to sum up Showgirls? “Fellini-esque.”

How’s this for a win/loss record: In 2000, the infamous Golden Raspberry Awards (aka the Razzies) nominated Berkley as Worst Actress of the Century. But she lost to Madonna. She was also nominated as Worst New Star of the Decade. But she lost that to Pauly Shore. Consolation prize? Showgirls did take home Worst Picture of the Decade, beating out The Postman and Hudson Hawk.

After Showgirls was critically pilloried, Berkley’s agent dropped her. Other agents refused her calls.

For a starring, big-budget role that turned her into a pariah, Berkley was paid only $100,000. When a special “VIP” edition of the DVD was made in 2004, she demanded $2,500 in return for an interview. She was turned down.

In 2015, Verhoeven took responsibility for Berkley’s career nosedive, saying: “Showgirls certainly ruined the career of Elizabeth Berkley in a major way. It made my life more difficult, but not to the degree it did Elizabeth’s. Hollywood turned their backs on her. If somebody should be blamed, it should be me.”

Looking back on her own involvement, Berkley once said: “Ever since those reviews for Showgirls, it’s like I was that woman in The Scarlet Letter, except that instead of having to wear the letter ‘A’ for adulteress, I was condemned to wear an ‘S’ for showgirl.”

Eszterhas reflected on the film in a 1997 interview: “Clearly, it was one of the biggest failures of our time. It failed commercially, critically, it failed on videotape, it failed internationally. … In retrospect, part of it was that (Verhoeven) and I were coming off Basic Instinct, which defied the critics and was a huge success. Maybe there was a certain hubris involved: ‘We can do what we want, go as far out there as we want.’”

Despite being a box-office bomb, Showgirls rebounded on DVD, eventually landing among MGM’s top-20 all-time bestsellers by raking in more than $100 million. And it does hold the distinction of the highest-grossing NC-17 production, topping $20 million in North American box-office ticket sales among the relatively few movies with that rating.

Though it was an overall flop, the film birthed the phrase “Showgirls badas a superior guilty pleasure, to be enjoyed with ironic mockery. Fans of camp place it alongside titles such as Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Said Verhoeven of the film’s unexpected re-emergence: “This kind of ritualistic cult popularity isn’t what I intended, but it’s like a resurrection after the Crucifixion.”

Capitalizing on its transformation into cult-classic status, MGM in 2004 released a “VIP” DVD edition of Showgirls. Extras included: cards printed with drinking games, two shot glasses, a nude poster of Berkley with suction-cup pasties to play “pin the pasties on the showgirl,” a video lap-dance tutorial hosted by real-life strippers and a “pop-up” trivia track.

A spinoff-sequel, Showgirls 2: Penny’s from Heaven, centered around the minor character of Penny, portrayed by Rena Riffel. Its fate: midnight film showings and direct-to-video oblivion.

But in 2013, an off-off-Broadway parody, Showgirls! The Musical, opened to overwhelming critical and audience response. Its original score includes song titles we cannot cite here for reasons of taste.

On Rotten Tomatoes, Showgirls has a 22 percent rating. Consensus review: “vile, contemptible, garish and misogynistic.” And yet …

Eventually, it had to happen: Showgirls was “critically re-evaluated,” with some lauding it as serious (if misunderstood) satire. Among the film’s defenders:

  • “A full-on, gigantic, big-budget exploitation movie” (Quentin Tarantino)
  • “One of the most vitriolic allegories about Hollywood and selling out ever made” (Jonathan Rosenbaum)
  • “Verhoeven may be the bravest and most assured satirist in Hollywood” (Michael Atkinson)
  • “One of the most honest satires of recent years” (Slant magazine)
  • “Takes mass culture seriously” (Noel Burch)
  • “A critique of human vice and folly” (Chon Noriega)
  • “It wasn’t completely terrible” (Roger Ebert)

Author  Adam Nayman cites Showgirls as his inspiration to pen the novel, It Doesn’t Suck, in which he argues that it is actually a masterpiece.

Memorable quotes (the clean ones, anyway):

  • “Why did you stop hooking? You had your future pretty well mapped out for yourself.”
  • “I don’t care whether you live or die. I want to see you dance and I want to see you smile.”
  • “I’m doing some of the finest cocaine in the world, darlin’. You want some?”
  • “This isn’t Champagne. This is Holy Water!”
  • “One, two three and thrust it! Thrust it! Thrust it! Come on, thrust it! OK, that’s enough.”
  • “Wouldn’t it be great if one night she just fell down the stairs?”
  • “It’s amazing what paint and a surgeon can do.”
  • “Can you spell MGM backwards? I bet you can’t.”

C’mon, you have to admit — that’s funny.

 


To offer feedback on this story or suggestions for future stories on Las Vegas Newswire, contact Managing Editor Steve Bornfeld at SBornfeld@lvcva.com.

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