Wednesday, September 16, 2020

In Laman's Terms: The Showgirls Must Go On!

In Laman's Terms is a weekly editorial column where Douglas Laman rambles on about certain topics or ideas that have been on his mind lately. Sometimes he's got serious subjects to discuss, other times he's just got some silly stuff to shoot the breeze about. Either way, you know he's gonna talk about something In Laman's Terms!

CW: Discussions of sexual assault and sexual predators like Harvey Weinstein ahead

When it debuted in 1995, Showgirls was seen as the most scandalous thing to hit the silver screen since Greta Garbo smooched a lady in Queen Christina

Still the only NC-17 rated film to play in a wide release in North America, Showgirls was the story of Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley), who comes to Las Vegas looking for a fresh start. To make ends meet, she becomes an exotic dancer working for various clubs across the Sunset Strip. In her quest to reach the very top of her profession, Nomi ends up making an adversary out of Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon). Nomi and Cristal son begin a cat-and-mouse game as they try to undercut one another in pursuit of glory. 

Like most works directed by Paul Verhoeven, Showgirls has plenty to say about the real world. In this case, Showgirls is a reflection of how American society views women as objects. It's also a commentary on how also that view reinforces the idea that women must always be at war with each other. The only definition of "success" for women requires Nomi to alienate her friend Molly (Gina Rivera) while Nomi literally destroys Cristal to ensure she can have the lead role of the show Goddess. It's a brutal representation of how women are pitted against each other in American society, all while they're viewed as just objects for male pleasure. 

Also like most Verhoeven works, Showgirls is incredibly fun. Whereas prior Verhoeven works like Total Recall and RoboCop created entertainment through hard-R violence, Showgirls finds entertainment through super ribald camp. Every character in this movie is outsized to a profound degree. Subtlety has died and gone to Heaven, in its place is characters like Cristal Connors or Henrietta "Mama" Bazoom. All of it gets handled by actors like Gina Gershon and Kyle McLachlan who are masters at handling this kind of over-the-top material.

In 2020, it's apparent just how enjoyable Showgirls is. However, the movie torn apart in its initial theatrical release. "Critics of the era were merciless, and it racked up a then-record seven Razzie awards, with [director Paul] Verhoeven picking up his award for Worst Director in person," recalled The Independent in March 2020. The fact that Showgirls also flamed out at the theatrical box office just rubbed salt in its wounds. The film quickly became instant shorthand for "bad movie", a status previously bequeathed on the likes of Plan 9 From Outer Space.

To be sure, Showgirls isn't perfect. No movie is and one this simultaneously gung-ho and bizarre certainly won't live up to perfect. Most notable among its flaw is an onscreen rape scene for the character of Molly in the third-act. Employing this sequence undermines critical aspects of Showgirls. For one thing, just having the camera leer at a woman being sexually assaulted runs counter to Showgirls' central objective wanting to highlight how women are dehumanized in the world. Molly's experiences and perspective are pushed away just to provide a breaking point for Nomi. It's an alarmingly nonchalant attitude towards sexual assault.

It's like how Hacksaw Ridge wants to be a film commemorating a non-violent soldier while reveling in some gorey warfare. You're engaging in the same material you're trying to condemn. 

Plus, it's such a predictable way to create drama. The history of cinema is dominated by male writers and directors deciding that the only way to reflect pain for women is through brutal depictions of on-screen sexual assault. Going down this road for the character of Molly shows no creativity on the part of Eszterhas' screenplay. So much of Showgirls has felt like it comes from a totally different planet and delightfully so. Here, then, is a scene that brings the viewer straight back down to Earth. In terms of additional flaws, some line readings just don't land while the handling of characters of color is...questionable, let's leave it at that.

Showgirls certainly isn't without flaws. But looking back on the response it received in its original release, it's a pity how many critics interpreted Showgirls as a straightforward drama rather than as the campy thoughtful film it actually is. Elizabeth Berkley flinging her food around in an outdoor eatery. Gina Gershon wistfully recalling her days of eating doggy chow. These are just two indicators that Showgirls is aiming for a tone drastically different than what many in 1995 wanted. While more over-the-top than what moviegoers expected, the very unique atmosphere of Showgirls proves surprisingly effective at capturing the realities of misogyny.

In a world where the sitting President of the United States brags about how he likes to "grab [women] by the pussy", is any of the off-kilter dialogue in Showgirls that detached from the real world? Berkley and MacLachlan's hotel pool sex scene is preposterous but is it anymore prespoterous than the sitting Vice-President allegedly refusing to be alone with a woman? And then there's everything surrounding Harvey Weinstein, a microcosm of how women are reduced to be sexual pleasures for men in the entertainment workplace. The minimization of women as people runs rampant throughout the world. It always has. Heck, it even, unfortunately, manifests in Showgirls with its decision to have Molly be sexually assaulted to create drama in Nomi's life. 

However, Showgirls is aiming for, and largely succeeds, at recognizing and reflecting the oversized ways misogyny manifests in the world. Much like Richard Kelly's similary initially maligned but ultimately brilliant Southland Tales, Showgirls is a movie that needed time to be fully appreciated. 25 years after it first strolled into theaters, both the entertaining camp and thoughtful sociopolitical commentary of Showgirls can be savored like that Doggy Chow that Cristal used to love so much. 

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