It cannot be understated how much of an impact Basic Instinct had on this film. The second collaboration between writer Joe Eszterhas and Paul Verhoeven following the release of the Sharon Stone fronted erotic thriller, Showgirls is a case of an Icarus story if there ever was one in the film industry.
More explicit and sleazy in an outright sense than it’s predecessor, the modern reappraisal of the film has come to the rather logical conclusion of this being something a little ahead of its time, which to link another Verhoeven film, is a similar outcome for Starship Troopers. Despite a few poorly aged visual elements, still holds up strongly as a critique of fascist material. While the likes of Quentin Tarantino have since heralded this as some kind of post-golden age exploitation film, it’s best to take it straight from the horse’s mouth and the anecdote Eszterhas shared regarding the meticulous writing process. Detailing the forensic manner in which he and Verhoeven penned the screenplay satirising the grand MGM musicals of times gone by and also firing a few shots in the direction of general romance film conventions along with the grandest 80s trend of all time. Dance movies.
The story of a young drifter, Nomi Malone, and her move to Las Vegas in an attempt to fulfil her dream of making it as a titular ‘Showgirl’, though it fast becomes apparent the job isn’t as glamourous as she once fantasised and brings with it a whole web of complex politics and relationships.
A lot of that initial backlash the film received has either relented or met with positive reappraisal. Parroting the prior point, it is worth acknowledging that cult films in particular still have a marmite appeal. I fall in the camp of rating the film quite highly but that stems from a like for Verhoeven’s filmmaking and I can understand quite clearly how Showgirls lacks appeal both contextually and in isolation (and yes, isolation is referring to the sub-par, unbelievably clunky performances among other drawbacks).
Having subjected myself to a couple of watches of the film and even acknowledging my Verhoeven bias, a lot of the backlash feels hyperbolic beyond belief, especially in regards to performance. The cast size is perhaps a little overwhelming given that a majority of background characters get a decent showing in the limelight but its main players are a decent standard. Berkley’s turn here is undoubtedly the one to gain most from the passage of time, a bold jump to make after Saved By the Bell, leaping to the polar opposite in terms of both medium and genre. She makes for a solid lead given how complex her arc is. Kyle MacLachlan is, granted, a million miles away from his Twin Peaks and David Lynch collaboration levels while Gina Gershon makes for an excellent nemesis of Nomi’s – all proving themselves as capable in their delivery of that layered, biting dialogue that truly makes this film what it is. Hell, even the rampaging gang of Monkeys have a memorable cameo!
The satire at hand here and how it takes shape is an incredible, subtle act, as oxymoronic as that sounds. The play on genre is quite impressive and the rinsing of the MGM musicals hits the nail on its head – demonstrated with sequences in which Berkley’s character, Nomi, sets in motion her plan to reach the forefront of the ‘Goddess’ production. From lavish, densely populated and extravagant stage performances to hectic backstage scenes, it’s a case of finding the humour by playing on pre-existing beats and it is done masterfully as expected given the talent’s capable hands.
Eszterhas got his chance at redemption in this case after the middling Flashdance of 1983, which holds some embryonic themes and concepts that eventually matured into this title which leads onto the narrative itself. Categorised as a drama across any online database, it is perhaps a misleading direction given that genre takes a backseat. When away from the grand and intimate performances it is, in its purest sense – a romantic film, of sorts at least. Charting Nomi’s process of finding her feet in all aspects after her initial move to Vegas, she navigates love, sexual relationships and her career in this almost hyperactive sense. Again playing on beats somewhat synonymous with that genre, it’s a remarkable achievement how seamless the flows between genres are, especially given the then sharp left turn to a pseudo-revenge-thriller in the closing stages.
The visual quality is immense. Shot by another frequent Verhoeven collaborator, Jost Vacano, his camerawork again meets the challenge of multiple genres and scale demands, coupled with the wildly varying backdrop of the city itself. Where Verhoeven’s filmography is concerned, or at least his golden period of the pre-2000s, there’s a strong case for Showgirl‘s being his most refined. It’s scale still feels a lot grander than Basic Instinct, with sequences not as obviously filmed on rigid sets which leans into its broader feel – if you haven’t already picked up on it by now, regardless of their intent, the creatives behind the piece genuinely managed to forge their own ‘epic’ of sorts, this twisting long term narrative of rags to all the riches one can imagine, picked up along the way on the journey of self-discovery for our lead.
It comes across as something similar in some respects to a play and that high-brow, ‘classical’ means of presentation as we’re invited to witness acts from the turbulent life of this wide-eyed dreamer. Whether that same standard is met is a wholly different issue and depends on where one falls on the spectrum of reception, but it would be hard to deny that such factors play a massive part in its cult cherishment, particularly the many ‘ironic viewing parties’ that catapulted its home media success to the stratosphere and beyond.
A camp, sleazy, grand tale, at this point you’re genuinely missing out if you’ve yet to see Showgirls. Whether its a watch heavily swamped in irony or you join the quest in campaigning for its reappraisal, Verhoeven’s film functions perfectly for both – something you can effectively ‘switch off’ to and equally, something with immense value as a riff on popular cinematic trends.