showgirls, elizabeth berkley, paul verhoeven, joe eszterhas

Why ‘Showgirls’ Is The Best Satire You’ve Never Seen

The world has just received notice that Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 stripper epic Showgirls (starring Saved by the Bell‘s Elizabeth Berkley) will get a theatrical re-release in a new 4K digital restoration. Yes indeed, someone took the time to scan in and manually get erase all noise and scratches from the film’s originally celluloid so that generations of soft-core filmgoers can enjoy this scantily clad camp classic. So to celebrate, we’re revisiting the film and what made it so horribly great.

“Worst movie ever” is a phrase that gets bandied about quite often. If you look the phrase up on Wikipedia, you’ll find any number of contenders for the title. However, it’s actually just as difficult to make a completely awful film as it is to make a “perfect 10.” To genuinely be considered a “worst movie ever”, literally every single aspect of the film has to fail, whether due to incompetence, indifference or a combination of both. Even the slightest bit of self-awareness or dedication saves a film from being the worst ever; if someone deliberately tries to make the worst film ever, they’ll automatically fail.

One of the more recent films to be “honored” by the title of Worst Movie Ever is Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 NC-17 opus Showgirls. To be sure, the film was a critical and financial bomb when it was initially released, and it took home a then-record seven Golden Raspberry Awards the same year, and in 2000 an eighth award for “Worst Film Of The Decade.” But the fact that Verhoeven showed up in person to accept his Razzie for Worst Director is the first hint that Showgirls isn’t the horrible film its reputation suggests and may actually be far smarter and deeper than it seems.

Now THAT'S a dramatis personae.
Now THAT’S a dramatis personae.

To examine it, though, it’s necessary to go back in time to 1970 when 20th Century Fox released a film called Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls. Directed by Russ Meyer and written by Roger Ebert, it was one of the earliest X-rated films to be released by a major studio, and the second that year to be released by Fox (after the notoriously and genuinely awful Myra Breckenridge).

While it was intended to be a satire of 1967’s melodrama Valley Of The Dolls and other tragic melodramas like it, Beyond was mistaken by many for a straight-up drama. Reviewers lambasted and criticized the film for its sex and violence, all but establishing the film a reputation that helped ensure a box office haul as healthy as the chests of its Playmate lead actresses.

It wasn’t until decades later that Beyond got recognized for the stealth satire it was, and watching it with contemporary eyes, it seems difficult to imagine that it could be taken for anything but. Meyer worked as a trained cinematographer before he became a director, and it’s evident in his masterful composition and framing. The dialogue is so over-the-top that it could only be parody, and by Ebert’s own admission, the barrage of climactic plot twists — rape, abortion, crippling injuries, surprise transgenderism — were arbitrary on purpose.

Similarly, ShowgirlsPaul Verhoeven was no amateur. He’d been directing films for over 20 years by the time he’d gotten to Showgirls, and several — like Fourth Man and Robocop — had been very positively received by both critics and the box office.

In fact, the film he did prior to Showgirls was Basic Instinct, which managed to make seven times its $49 million production budget and kickstart a surge in mainstream erotic thrillers to varying degrees. A rush to imitate Basic Instinct gave rise to flops like Body Of Evidence, Sliver and Color Of Night, which proved that it took more than just the promise of kinky sex and creative murders to make a successful erotic thriller. Obviously, Verhoeven knew how to make a hit.

So how did a film directed by the man who gave us Robocop, Total Recall and (later) Starship Troopers become one of the all-time worst? The answer is both textual and metatextual in equal measures.

On paper, the film was a hard sell (pun partially intended). Showgirls was the first (and so far only) NC-17 film given a wide release by a major studio. This wasn’t the first time Verhoeven’s films had faced the possibility of an X or NC-17 rating, but it may have been the first time that he aimed for one completely on purpose. Despite being a major studio film, its rating prevented it from getting as much advertising or screen shares as it would have if it had been rated-R even if, like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, the content seems quite tame now.

Pictured: Pure terror.
Pictured: Pure terror.

On a deeper level, though, Showgirls was a victim of American culture’s tendency toward Puritanism and sublimated sexual repression, the same attitude it was created to lampoon. Basic Instinct’s lurid content garnered it many headlines and angry commentaries, but it was still a massive hit. Clearly, people wanted to see it even while they denounced it.

Showgirls was Verhoeven’s indictment and demonstration of this duality: it was a film that people could pontificate about in public while getting-off to in private, all while Verhoeven laughed about a culture that celebrated Robocop‘s excessive violence while also feeling terrified of Elizabeth Berkley’s breasts.

Looking at Showgirls 20 years after its release, it’s hard to see how it could be viewed as anything but the acidic, satirical commentary that it is. It has pointedly absurd plot twists, flat-out ludicrous sex scenes, a script covered head-to-toe in Joe Eszterhas’ purposefully inorganic dialogue, and a cast of veteran actors all playing to the back rows. It’s no less than the spiritual successor to Beyond and, like that film, is clearly not to be taken at face value.

Verhoeven’s body of work both prior to and after Showgirls also supports this. He includes a great deal of social commentary in his films, often extrapolated through the trappings of genre and sugared with salacious sex and violence. Verhoeven traffics in crapsack worlds that are a logical extension of a cynical contemporary society, whether an American metropolis, a colony on Mars, or a future Earth under threat from giant insectoid aliens. To put it simply, nearly everybody in a Verhoeven film is an asshole, up to and including the ostensible protagonists, and the setting is always decidedly dystopian.

Although sometimes the metaphors are also pretty easy to spot.
Although sometimes the metaphors are also pretty easy to spot.

The problem with Verhoeven’s work is that perhaps, like Meyer, he’s far too good at hiding his metaphors. Robocop was awash in violent excess. Total Recall was an adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasy. Showgirls was a tragic star-is-born tale. In all cases, these films were celebrated for how well they exemplified those capacities or hated for failing to do the same. By holding up a mirror to each genre’s tropes (and to the American public’s expectation of those tropes) — as often happens when someone looks in the mirror — the reflection was not always welcome or appreciated.

Verhoeven may have severely underestimated the public’s appetite for the forbidden back in 1995, but 20 years later, Showgirls‘ message seems to resonate loud and clear. It has become one of MGM’s all-time best-selling titles and a midnight movie sensation akin to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and star Elizabeth Berkley has gone from never mentioning the film by name (even when she described making it in her book Ask Elizabeth) to being the guest of honor at one of those midnight showings.

It took Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls at least as long to come to the same point, so maybe the American public just has an exceptionally long refractory period when it comes to sexual satire. Or maybe, like Berkley’s character in Showgirls, it takes us just that long to admit that yes, darlin’, we the movie-going collective, really are a whore.

(This article was originally published on September 23, 2015)