Review by Megan Weireter
Posted on 31 August 2007
Source MGM DVD
For the purposes of discussing Showgirls, let’s stipulate that the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct in its postulation of the existence of an infinite number of universes. Some of these universes might look similar enough to our own that, were you to suddenly find yourself in one of them due to some improbable quantum phenomenon, you could navigate it with only a small degree of discomfort. Taking this as a given, it’s certainly possible that the universe in which Showgirls takes place exists in another plane of reality. This is a universe in which the dancers of Las Vegas are international superstars of great interest to the media, in which women walk down the street wearing what is essentially underwear, in which a floppy haircut and neon palm trees on your property make you cool, in which someone can dance like an epileptic chimp and actually rise to the heights of stardom.
Say you somehow arrive unexpectedly in this universe. You might not notice anything is wrong at first. Probably you sense that everything is more colorful, somehow a little too bright. Then you see that this is true of not just the light but everything—everything appears to be an exaggerated version of itself. Even the people are hyperreal, identifying themselves as archetypes as soon as they’ve met you. A narrative unfolds before you, and it looks familiar. It’s about a girl said to be very talented, but also obviously deeply troubled, trying to scratch her way to the top of the Las Vegas showgirl dancing circuit. Of course you recognize this story as a version of what in our universe we call the American dream. But in this telling, the story’s edges are ragged and bizarre, and even when plot developments are predictable, something is warped in the way they unravel. Most surprisingly, by the end, nothing has changed and no one has learned anything. Somewhere, Paul Verhoeven is pulling on marionette strings and laughing inscrutably.
Please understand that I am a besotted, slavering fan of Showgirls. I don’t think there’s a film that can touch it for sheer nerve. Is it bad? Is it secretly good? Is it so bad it’s good? Is it so bad/good that it’s actually, ultimately, bad? I’m not interested in the möbius-strip continuum of goodness and badness that seems to frequently come up when discussing this film. What keeps me watching again and again is the film’s weirdness, its energy, and its utter lack of apology for being the mess that it is. You’re only going to enjoy Showgirls if you want a movie you can enter completely and surrender your brain to. This movie shows up on your doorstep in tears, demands kisses, smashes your windows, spits in your face, and leaves you in want of a shower.
There would be no Showgirls without the biggest attention fiend of them all, our heroine Nomi “Did You Notice There’s a Pun in My Name?” Malone. Oh, inimitable Nomi! In the first, say, fifteen minutes, Nomi hitchhikes, pulls a switchblade on someone, wins heaps of money on a slot machine, loses it all again, is offered money for sex, gets all her belongings stolen, attacks someone’s car, narrowly avoids death, throws up on a stranger’s shoes, and throws french fries all over a patio. And it just keeps getting better. When she hails a cab, she flails her entire body into the street to get its attention. When she eats a hamburger, she ravages it like a starving shark. When she seeks revenge, she prepares for the role by porning up her hair and putting lipstick on her nipples. When she dances, she dances… well, the dancing is amazingly graceless, to say the least. In her actions, her choices, her emotional ups and downs, and her clothes and makeup, Nomi epitomizes the hyperreal. Like a theoretical five-dimensional object brought into our own dimension, she can be observed, but her reality isn’t entirely comprehensible to our senses. I think this is why almost every other character in the film is instantly enamored of her. She draws people to her not with any obvious charm, but with the supernatural force of her mystique, a force at least as intense as gravity. And it’s that force keeping the whole film together, for without people to love her, Nomi could never ascent to the heights of smut that she does.
Nomi excels at the three types of dance the Showgirls universe allows for. First, there’s the kind of dancing Nomi does at the Cheetah, which is presented as inherently degrading. Second, there’s the kind of dancing that appears in Goddess, the big show at the Stardust, which is presented as edgy and racy but also well within the realm of acceptable, even sophisticated, commercial entertainment. Third, there’s the kind of dancing that James, who studied with the Alvin Ailey troupe, tries to teach Nomi, which is presented as high art. This is the only dancing that James feels is worth Nomi’s time and talent.
And all these distinctions are all very well and good, except that all the dance is exactly the same. “Dancing ain’t fucking,” says James, but in fact every form of dance in this world is a form of fucking.1 I’m no expert on dance, but come on: the big quasi-artistic routine that James writes to show off Nomi’s much-lauded talent is called “A Private Dance” and is basically a choreographed lapdance that depends heavily on simulated oral sex. (Also, when they rehearse it, it ends up leading naturally into some of the grossest sex play in the film.) Goddess features topless women in identical wigs simulating BDSM and climaxes with a naked wedding/ascension-into-heaven that makes little sense except as porn for Catholic weirdos. The fact that the directors of Goddess wonder out loud whether Nomi’s background is as clean as they’d like it to be points to their utter hypocrisy. They might have no idea what kind of show they’re actually running, but everyone watching this movie does.
So is Nomi a whore? She certainly insists vigorously that she’s not, even though almost every character disbelieves her. And can dancing, in fact, save her from the whoring she’s been forced to do her whole life? Of course not, because by definition here in Showgirls land, dancing equals whoring. When Nomi finally realizes the sordidness of what she’s been doing, that her path out of the gutter has actually led her right back to the gutter, it’s meant to be a huge revelation, but it’s no surprise to anyone paying attention. One of the big clichés about this film is that, despite all the nudity, it’s about the least erotic film ever made, and I think a lot of the reason why is because all the scenes with nudity are either businesslike (backstage at the clubs) or completely demeaning (the dancing, the infamously awful sex scene). We can all see that Nomi’s whoring herself out long before she can.
A woman like Nomi gets used to being alone I would imagine, and indeed she’s not great at having any relationships that looks normal to us here in our universe. Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, who never wrote a female relationship he didn’t want to insert a lesbian subtext into, is particularly clumsy with capturing the sense of female, us-against-them camaraderie that I think is supposed to exist in the backstage scenes at the Cheetah and maybe also at the Stardust. And Molly, Nomi’s pushover roommate and BFF, is really very little more than that. There’s a tone-deaf feel to most of the dialogue between women.2 Besides, what woman can appear in a shot with Nomi and not be instantly relegated to the background?
No woman—except for the glorious Cristal Connors. Cristal is an older, wiser, and more talented version of Nomi. But the major difference between them is a deal-breaker as far as friendship goes. The scales dropped from Cristal’s eyes long ago, and she knows the secret that we filmgoers know too, which is that all dance in this universe is actually a form of prostitution. It takes Nomi the whole movie to learn that dancing is fucking, and meanwhile, as long as Cristal keeps telling her she’s a whore, their relationship must be fraught with tension. This is not a petty argument. The question of whoredom is central to Nomi’s entire worldview. She will not be a whore again if she can help it, and she just can’t believe that her dream of dancing is just a cypher for whoring.
The relationship between Nomi and Cristal is strained, but as they know, they have a great deal in common. Their lunch at Spago illustrates their natural affinity and is actually a little moving. Both of them ate dog food as children, and liked it—and as they both admit it, they eye each other over the table with small smiles of perfect understanding. This is actually the only piece of information Nomi ever gives about her childhood to anyone. She is too ashamed to speak any more directly about growing up in poverty, but in that moment when she realizes that she and Cristal have the same background, and that the two of them are lunching together about a million miles from the dog food dish where they started, there’s a glimmer of why they are attracted to each other in the first place. And you can see why Nomi could, if she weren’t just so Nomi about it, take on Cristal as a mentor. Whatever Cristal did to get here, whatever she had to sell of her soul, Nomi seems to gradually accept the idea that it was worth it. Cristal is definitely a whore. Nomi is a whore-in-training who eventually defeats Cristal at her own game.
As she says at the end, in this whole sordid story, Nomi’s at least found herself. But that doesn’t mean what you might think it would mean, that she’s finally giving up her whorish nature and will devote her life to being a decent law-abiding citizen. Nope—she’s on her way to Los Angeles, in the exact same truck she rode in on, to whore herself out in a whole new city. This is the perfect ending because there is no softer, better side to Nomi that the film wants her to discover about herself. The ending we expect is completely turned on its head. She is only the person that we see, the tempestuous dancer who’s going to keep selling herself as long as she’s got buyers. What did you win, Nomi? “Me,” she says with a grin. What she’s learned, if anything, is that she’s as awful as everyone always thought she was.
For a universe so colorful and glittery and smutty and fun, Showgirls ultimately offers a bleak worldview. Are you a cheerfully humble person who lacks any grandiose ambitions beyond a crush on one unattainable guy? Showgirls will rape you with that guy. Are you a legitimate artist who wants to care for a gifted, vulnerable person in your life but can’t seem to find a way? Showgirls will get your girlfriend pregnant and force you into a loveless marriage. Are you a superstar at the top of your game? Showgirls will push you down the stairs and break your hips like the old lady you really are. Are you a conniving yet troubled young ingénue whose search for stardom is really, probably, a search for love? Showgirls will strip you down and reveal you for the whore you really are. No matter who you are, Showgirls will dress you in all kind of artifice while never forgetting your dark, dirty truths. So if you do ever find yourself in a film like this one – and I hope you don’t – you may as well revel in all that beautiful, beautiful smut.