For twenty-five years, film lovers have been trying to understand why they can’t get enough of Showgirls. While other movies can simply be dubbed favorites without dissection, Showgirls has never been given the same grace.
We don’t know why we love it, but we’re desperate to find out.
I have a theory that it all lies in expectations. Without a doubt, Showgirls breaks your expectations at almost every turn, even when it doesn’t. And nowhere is that more apparent than in the opening scenes.
Make sense? I hope not. Let’s dive in.
The whole plot of Showgirls can basically be boiled down into a few sentences. A young woman with a mysterious past moves to Las Vegas to find fame and fortune as a dancer. Along the way, she must make increasingly dire moral decisions about who she is and what she’s willing to do to achieve success.
It’s like a singing, dancing, naked All About Eve with Agent Cooper wearing a wig that seems specifically engineered to give people nightmares.
While I’ll admit that a deep dive into the opening scenes of Showgirls might seem a bit over analytical for a movie about backstabbing dancers, I think it’s important to lay a foundation of sanity to these proceedings before we dive in. You see, the actual plot—the scene-by-scene construction of this film—is surprisingly traditional when you start to break it down.
For all the legends that say this movie shirks the standard rules of storytelling (myself included), some aspects of the movie are pretty normal. If the film truly didn’t follow a single rule of modern storytelling, every frame would just be people screaming nonsense and throwing themselves around while flashing lights and glitter light up the screen.
Even in its most jaw-dropping moments, the audience is still able to identify who the characters are, what they represent, and, to a lesser degree, what the stakes mean. In a movie with absolutely nothing tethering it to the ground, these basic pieces of information would be lost as well.
What I think people are really reacting to when they watch Showgirls is not the beat-by-beat plot, but the how of each situation. It’s not the basic pieces of information that are the “problem,” it’s the way characters receive those pieces of information and how they process it that really makes this movie unique.
But we’ll get back to that here in a bit. For now, let’s set up the beginning of this movie.
In the Beginning
The movie begins without any opening credits, just a title card sans music. While this seems pretty normal by modern standards, in 1995 it would have still been a fresh change from the several minute overture that usually preceded the action of the film.
The action starts with a Steadicam shot of the back of Nomi’s head as she walks toward the highway. It’s a simple set up devoid of distractions. It lets you know this character is important and to pay attention to her actions.
Nomi gets to the side of the highway and starts hitchhiking for a ride. She’s quickly picked up by a man named Jeff with a slick bouffant in a pickup blasting Garth Brooks. He’s headed to Vegas. It’s her lucky day.
It seems like things are off to a good start, but then Jeff invites Nomi to sit a little closer to him. It’s a creep move, to be sure, but instead of politely declining or asking to be let out, Nomi pulls out a switch blade and flicks it open with dramatic flair.
This is the first indication that something is going to be very different about this movie. While other films tend to give characters props that fit with the characters age, look, and general style, in this first scene, Verhoeven gives his 23-year-old protagonist a weapon more often seen as an accessory for violent criminals and 1950s street gangs.
After nearly getting in an accident with a semi, Nomi decides to open up a little and tells Jeff her name. Jeff responds well to this and asks what type of name it is. As a way of skirting around the truth, Nomi responds, “My mom was Italian.”
Jeff, putting the pieces together, pushes for more details. “You one of those mafia girls? Is that why you got your blade?”
And here is where Nomi makes her first mistake. Instead of telling Jeff the truth, she decides not to answer, leaving him to believe that perhaps she really does have mafia connections.
As the two enter Vegas, Jeff decides to push his theory on Nomi’s past. He asks if Nomi plans to gamble. “You can use some of that mafia money you’ve got in the suitcase,” he hints. Once again, Nomi doesn’t come clean. She doesn’t tell Jeff that she’s really a down-on-her-luck woman with a bad past. She doesn’t tell him there’s no money in her suitcase. In Jeff’s mind, this omission is enough to inspire his next move and seal Nomi’s fate.
Jeff convinces Nomi to leave her suitcase in the trunk and heads off in search of his uncle who allegedly works at the Riviera. While waiting for him to return, Nomi plays the slots, wins big, and then loses it all. After a brief encounter with some Vegas sleaze, Nomi realizes that Jeff never came back for her.
With a look of sinking understanding, Nomi takes off for the parking lot to discover what she already expected: Jeff is gone and so are all her belongings.
This pattern of lies and consequences will repeat throughout the film until the truth finally catches up with our hero at the end.
Taken purely beat by beat, it’s a surprisingly traditional sequence of cause and effect, conflict and resolution. In fact, the way that it sets up the themes of the movie is actually pretty great. You don’t notice it, of course, because you don’t know what the movie is going to be about, but it’s still a nice touch and something cool fun to find on a second viewing.
So if the basic plot isn’t that different from other films, what makes Showgirls so different from other movies? I’m glad you asked.
What vs. How
Like I alluded to before, I think the real reason why Showgirls has gotten its reputation lies not in what the film is about but how everyone working on the film reacted to the material. From the directing and writing to the acting and design, everyone on this movie was working under the assumption that this film could use the same trademark Verhoeven style that had worked in the past.
Verhoeven’s earlier American films were full of over-the-top violence (Robocop shooting someone in the genitals), intrigue (is Catherine Tramell the killer?), and absurdity (three-boobed alien). But while those films have strong genre tropes that can support a more surrealistic directorial style, Showgirls doesn’t have any overt fantastical elements. At the outset it’s basically a drama about a woman finding her place in the world.
It’s this imbalance between the what of the plot and the how of the action that I think most people remember after seeing Showgirls.
And that “imbalance” starts when Nomi pulls out her switchblade. While it makes sense for a giant robot cop to shoot someone in the penis, or for a femme fatal to wield an ice pick, nothing about Nomi’s character at the beginning of the film suggests she’d be packing a blade. But is Nomi’s switchblade really such a big deal?
On its own, probably not, but it’s just the first of many Verhoeven-esque decisions that eventually compound on themselves to create a film that audiences weren’t ready for at the time.
After all, the only thing that seems to set Showgirls apart from Verhoeven’s other films is its subject matter. And I’m not talking about body parts. It’s the only one of his American films from the time that didn’t have an obvious genre connection an audience could understand before they even make it to the theater.
Without understanding what genre the film was meant to be, people assumed it would function like other sexy dramas at the time: with a smoldering pace and easily identifiable motivations. And then they got this.
But before anyone accuses me of bagging on this incredible film, you have to understand this is exactly why I and others like me love Showgirls. It defies expectations, which makes for a movie-watching experience like no other.
So how did this happen? What genre did Paul Verhoeven and his old pal Joe foresee for this ticking time bomb? We’re just at the tip of the iceberg.
That’s where we’ll pick back up when we take a trip to see the Goddess stage show and get our first look at some real live showgirls.