Elizabeth Berkley plays a wannabe dancer who winds up selling her soul in Paul Verhoeven's "Showgirls." Credit: MGM
When it came out, “Showgirls” was a punching bag. It still is — it’s just that now people actually enjoy hating it. It's become a bad cinema classic, to be watched a la “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” (MGM once said the DVD was one of its top-20 all-time sellers.) But there exists a wave, peopled by J. Hoberman, Jim Jarmusch and Jacques Rivette, that argues it’s a self-aware satire along the lines of director Paul Verhoeven’s other work, including “RoboCop” and “Starship Troopers.” To this posse, add the critic and scholar Adam Nayman, whose book “It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls” makes a convincing and enjoyable case for its sneaky and subversive craft.
Did you always feel this way about “Showgirls"?
I saw it in theaters when it came out. I had to sneak in. The reason I wanted to see it at 14 was I wanted to see why it got zero stars from The Globe and Mail [Canada’s national paper]. I was interested in why people thought it was so bad. That probably had something to do with how I watched it the first time: Instead of being skeptical of the movie, I was skeptical of the negativity. Even though I liked it as a teenager, because I thought it was funny and outrageous, it wasn’t until I got a little older and a little more well-versed with Verhoeven that I thought it could support a book.
The path of this movie from punchline to video hit is rather extraordinary.
One of the things I’m trying to get across in this is not that “Showgirls” is a great movie, but to explore what can account in 20 years for that kind of turn. You couldn’t find a film critic in 1995 who would give this movie the time of day. And now whether it’s for ironic reasons or if people are recognizing the artistry in it, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t like it.
Still, the majority of its fans belong in the former group.
I’m generally opposed to the ironic reclamation of movies. The idea of writing a “Showgirls” guide or a “You’re Doing Showgirls Wrong” kind of book — those things were never on the table with my editors, who didn’t want that. You’ll notice in the book I don’t talk that much about the movie madness or the drinking games. I could have. There’s a lot out there. I wanted to focus on what’s onscreen, as opposed to the fan culture.
One of the questions raised by its viewers is whether Verhoeven and/or writer Joe Eszterhas knew what they were doing.
I would argue that they knew what they were doing. I know Elizabeth Berkley is a tough element to reconcile. I saw it recently, and people who had never seen it before were saying they didn’t think she was that bad. That was a revelation to me — that there were people who were seeing “Showgirls” for the first time and they didn’t even think the one seemingly obvious bad thing about it was very bad at all.
But even if one thinks it’s bad cinema, it’s not your typical bad cinema.
You see a film like “The Room” and nobody would say, “Oh, that’s not that bad, the acting isn’t that bad, the camera angles aren’t that bad.” This to me is a little closer to “Ishtar.” I think that’s a good film, too. It’s interesting to see how people watching it for the first time now see it as opposed to people burrowed into that climate in 1987, when the film is a punchline. I hate the mentality that something is clearly bad because everyone says so. Critics just save up their one-liners or put-downs instead of maybe applying to movies that are not consensus bombs. I don’t particularly like “The Lone Ranger,” but that just seemed like an odd case where instead of engaging with what’s in it, everyone was racing to put it down the most viciously. “Showgirls” is a really terrible victim of that. You’d be hard-pressed, 15 or 20 years later, to find a critic who would stick to their original consensus.
Even though this is a defense, you don’t go out of your way to praise it as good or bad.
It’s really not that interesting to assert that something everyone doesn’t like actually should be liked. What I wanted to do was work through all the problem areas of the movie. I always appreciate criticism that works through problems more than those that say something is good or bad. One of the nicest things someone said to me about the book was, “I wasn’t sure whether you liked the film or not, but you certainly watched it carefully.”
Where do you stand?
I wish I’d read more things about “Showgirls” that said what I think about it, which is that it’s well-crafted and some of that craft is persuasive, and then it clashes with how craven some of the dialogue and some of the characters are. To me that would be a more valid critical observation. Instead you just read review after review of people saying how inept it is and comparing it craft-wise and style-wise to “Valley of the Dolls.” That’s when you realize these people weren’t really trying. Or if they were trying they’re just not very good at their jobs.
It could be argued that part of the reason it failed so miserably was mainstream audiences, historically, tend to only have short love affairs, if you will, with sex. “Basic Instinct” hit a nerve, then came a period of shame. And when “Showgirls” upped the ante severalfold, the results were bloody.
If you revisit “Basic Instinct,” it’s a movie that’s impossible to be affectionate towards. I think the scorn and derision and the skepticism of “Showgirls” was in proportion to how big and incredibly successful “Basic Instinct” was. That wasn’t a niche hit. That was the highest grossing film of that year internationally. When you make a film like “Basic Instinct” that’s as big and unlikeable and as politically incorrect as it was, back when that was a big issue, anything they made next was going to be pilloried. But it feels like a superior film to “Showgirls.” It has a more compelling plot and a better lead performance by Sharon Stone. But what “Showgirls” was doing was more subversive. The way it played with cinema history was much subtler than “Basic Instinct.” In “Basic Instinct” all the Hitchcock stuff is right on the top. In “Showgirls,” for the MGM musical stuff, the Busby Berkeley stuff, the connection to “All About Eve,” you have to dig a little more.
One thing almost no one talks about when they defend “Showgirls” is its writer, the notorious Joe Eszterhas.
When people are positive about “Showgirls,” it’s all in a pro-Verhoeven way. Eszterhas is seen as either just along for the ride or the thing that the movie is fighting against. I think that undermines what’s interesting or good or provocative about his screenplay. At the same time, there are a lot of things in his screenplay that, had they been handled differently, they wouldn’t be as valuable or as enjoyable as how Verhoeven directed them.
It’s become de rigueur for trash cinema to get reclaimed. An entire culture has thrived defending, even intellectualizing genre films that don’t get major awards.
Actually, the movies that tend to never get rewritten about, never get analyzed deeply or have interesting online writing about them are well-reviewed, upper-middle-brow movies from the ‘80s and ‘90s. When I go to the Internet Movie Database to find a review of something that came out in the mid-‘90s, I find there’s a couple of dead links for The Washington Post or The New York Times from 1994. You can’t find anything else about it. Whereas if it’s a genre film, like “Species,” you can find really long-form online writing about it. Movies like “Howard’s End” or “The Madness of King George” — you can’t find writing on them.