In 1993, Paul Verhoeven and Joe Eszterhas were not friends.
While their 1992 erotic thriller Basic Instinct, had been a modest success, the director and writer clashed before filming had even begun. It’s hard to piece together exactly what caused the rift, but a bit of searching suggests that it all boiled down to the old standard of “creative differences.” Eszterhas wanted to make script changes. Verhoeven liked the story the way it was.
However it all went down, by the time Eszterhas left the project in 1990, it seemed clear the two would never work together again. But all that changed some time in 1993 when Verhoeven says the two met for lunch at The Ivy to “see if there was anything left” of their friendship. Apparently there was.
After a few drinks, Joe pitched the fated idea. “What about a musical about Las Vegas?”
Fortunately for Eszterhas, Verhoeven was a life-long musical fan and even considered a career as a dancer when he was young, so it didn’t take long for the duo to sketch out the story. The plot would revolve around showgirls working on the strip. But since neither man had a relationship with any real-life showgirls, they knew they’d need to devote some time to research.
Vegas in the early 90s, however, was all about rebranding as a family-friendly getaway. Very few of the review shows on the strip featured the “topless nudity” and “sexy dancing” Verhoeven envisioned for his film, and while there were plenty of dancers, bouncers, and directors willing to share their stories, the general lack of skin in sin city wasn’t giving them the fodder they needed. So where do you go when you’re in Las Vegas and looking for flesh? The strip club, of course.
At the Cheetah, the Crazy Horse, and the Palomino, Verhoeven found more than just the right level of debauchery, he also found the kernel of his main character. “Some of the women we talked with had really strong personalities—real ‘fuck you’ attitudes,” Verhoeven recalls. “They were difficult to deal with and had sharp tongues.” Wilting flowers, it seems, don’t blossom under neon lights.
It was meeting the real working class of Vegas that finally helped Eszterhas graft the specifics of his characters onto the bones of the classic tale of the hungry underdog.The film would follow Nomi, a woman with a “disturbed past” who comes to Vegas to fulfill her dream of becoming a dancer in one of the big shows. From humble beginnings as a stripper at the Cheetah, Nomi “claws and manipulates her way up the ladder of success,” paying a “higher and higher price for what she is getting.”
In many ways Showgirls is an updated version of All About Eve. In that film, a young woman ingratiates herself into an ageing star’s life to help her own career aspirations as an actress. But while All About Eve retains a certain level of class between its two warring female leads, Showgirls would gleefully revel in its source material’s baser instincts. On paper, it’s a clever modern update, but some special alchemy occurred when the duo decided to combine this classic plot with an over-the-top MGM musical and the down-and-dirty reality of 90s Vegas dancers.
To underscore the strange fruits of this magical mixture, let’s look at the first big dance sequence, and surrounding scenes in the film.
After her eventful start, Nomi settles into a routine of doing her nails, eating chips, and working nights at the Cheetah. But things change when she agrees to accompany her costume designer roommate, Molly, to her job at the dance review Goddess.
While Molly works backstage, Nomi takes in the show. It’s glamorous, bigger than life. As she gazes on from the audience, Goddess lead Cristal Conners emerges from a volcano as music swells. It’s old-school musical camp, but it’s shot with clear-eyed ingenuity by Verhoeven. In fact, this exact dance number will happen three times in the film, and Verhoven was specific in how he differentiated the three performances. For the introduction to Goddess, Verhoeven keeps his camera static, letting us see the show the way Nomi sees it from the house. Once Nomi joins the show, he switches to a Stedi-cam to emulate Nomi’s rocky start as a chorus girl; then he moves to an ever-expanding crane shot for the final performance when Nomi has ascended to the starring role.
There’s no arguing that Verhoeven understands the principles of filmmaking. What has been argued, however, is whether the director was aware of the camp masterpiece he was creating. I think the answer is yes and no, and the evidence can be found in this exact sequence. As Cristal ascends from the volcano, she is announced by a disembodied voice. Cristal lets her arms fall from fifth position above her head as the music swells. Sparks fly as the chorus writhes on the floor at her majesty.
It’s cheesy. But it’s exactly what you’d find in a classic dance review or musical.
The performance continues. Rhythmic drums push the dancers to begin a more aggressive (if slightly ridiculous) dance, while Nomi looks on in awe. Then the fated move. Cristal and her corps leap to the side and quickly wave their hands across their faces twice. So far, even if you find this type of dance cringe-inducing, it’s not out of place for this type of entertainment.
The editor cuts back to Nomi repeating the hand gesture. It’s stiff, aggressive, and outright silly for some reason. Of course, it makes sense for her character to be compelled to mimic the dancers’ movements. After all, her goal is to be in a show like this one. But for some reason this particular move, performed at that exact second, in the way it’s performed, never fails to elicit laughter. That’s the special sauce no director can anticipate. The logic of the shots is all there, but instead of inspiring awe or empathy, it’s just funny. But why?
A few reasons are likely. The music the Goddess performers are dancing to is melodramatic, hitting a wry sting just as Nomi mimics back. Elizabeth Berkley’s commitment to the gesture is almost too earnest, always a recipe for giggles. But the true culprit is likely the dance move itself. The quick hand wave is staggeringly pedestrian. Almost anyone could do it. And I think it’s the mundanity of the move that surprises audiences.
Nomi is in the middle of a live audience, she can’t be expected to perform a full-body routine, but leaving Berkley with nothing to repeat but a simple waving of her hands doesn’t really show the audience what she’s capable of—just when we expect to see our first hints of her talent.
This tiny sequence may be the key to why Showgirls is such a film apart. Instead of highlighting what makes Nomi extraordinary, we see what makes her just like everyone else. She latches on to the same simple moves, she’s awed by the same flashing lights. We expect camp from musicals, and we expect commonality from dramas, but Showgirls clips the threads and re-wires the whole circuit board. Instead of letting the film glide between genres depending on the needs of the scene, Eszterhas and Verhoeven cram both into every frame at the same time.
The film works hard to be high art and everyday. It strives to be epic but can’t escape its hunger to explore baser instincts. It’s fine crystal and it’s jazz hands. The results are overwhelmingly strange. But that’s what makes it so damn entertaining.
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