LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
This episode includes mention of sexual assault.
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HOLMES: Twenty-five years ago, critics howled and self-appointed guardians of good taste were horrified at the release of "Showgirls." Directed by Paul Verhoeven with a screenplay by Joe Eszterhas, the film is an NC-17 story of a Vegas dancer who wants to move up from a seedy club to a glamorous hotel show.
AISHA HARRIS, BYLINE: The movie was a notorious flop at the time, but is now considered a camp classic and a window into a moment of moral panic. I'm Aisha Harris.
HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. And today, we are revisiting "Showgirls" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. So don't go away.
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HOLMES: Welcome back. You just met our own Aisha Harris. Also with us, from his home in Washington, D.C., is writer Chris Klimek. Hey, Chris.
CHRIS KLIMEK, BYLINE: I burn when I dance, Linda.
HOLMES: And also joining us, from her home in Washington, D.C., is NPR Weekend Edition books editor Barrie Hardymon. Hey, Barrie.
BARRIE HARDYMON, BYLINE: Hi. I don't burn at all.
HOLMES: We are all very excited to talk about this movie. So as we said, "Showgirls" came out 25 years ago. It has Elizabeth Berkley, who you might know from "Saved By The Bell" in particular - plays Nomi. She's this kind of tough girl who hitchhikes into Vegas and decides she's going to become a glamorous dancer. She meets a young woman who invites her to move in with her - so all of a sudden, she's got a roommate.
She meets Gina Gershon, who is a dancer named Cristal who's kind of the big star, who she kind of dreams of being just like. Kyle MacLachlan is there as a gross dude who wants to promise to make her a star. You sort of follow her through several different phases of her career, as she kind of works her way up. It has a lot of echoes of, like, the star and the woman in the wings, like, waiting to take over for her.
Aisha, because this came out in 1995, this was kind of, you know, my generation of films. I was, like, 24 when this came out. I would have assumed that it wasn't for you because you are a bit younger than me, but you do have an attachment to this film. So tell me about you and "Showgirls."
HARRIS: Well, I definitely was way too young to have seen this movie when it first came out. And honestly, I think I've only seen it for the first time probably within the last decade or so. And I don't really remember how I saw it or why or what the context was. I'm pretty sure I watched it by myself, which to me, this is the type of movie that, like many so-bad-it's-kind-of-good movies, you really - it really benefits from having an audience with you or at least a couple of other people to laugh about it with you.
Funny enough, this year I've now watched it twice. I introduced it to my partner during the early days of quarantine. And I realized that this is exactly the type of movie that I want to watch over and over again for the rest of my life, probably (laughter).
HARRIS: So I just think it's really, really fun. And it's terrible, but I think part of what makes it so good and what has made it become the camp classic that it is, is the fact that, like, everyone is so committed to this movie. And the commitment is right there in the way that Elizabeth Berkley, as Nomi, thrashes around, responds very, very overaggressively and overenthusiastically about everything. When people ask her where she's from, she's just like, different places.
HARRIS: And she says it a couple of times. And it's just wild the way in which she channels this anger and aggression and this, like, underlying trauma that they don't really explore with her character but you kind of sense is there. So, yeah, just the commitment to this movie and the execution of it are, I think, what has made this such a lasting movie.
HOLMES: Well, and the other thing I think is so interesting about everything being extreme in this film is, like, there's only one thing I think that I would really call a sex scene in this movie, but everything else is at this incredibly exaggerated level of, like - her entire approach to acting is that she looks like she's going to make out with everyone all the time in every situation.
HOLMES: And so everything about it is so cranked up. Barrie, tell me about you and "Showgirls."
HARDYMON: Well, that's a long - no.
HARDYMON: So the movie "Showgirls" - I was too young when it came out to see it and would never have been allowed. But I eventually saw it later on when I was living in New York. And I had a bunch of gay roommates, and it was introduced to me as this camp classic, which it has now become. So I think seeing it first in that context, where everybody knew every line, where there was just raucous whooping and hollering. And, you know, it felt like watching "Rocky Horror."
HARDYMON: And, you know, I'm a kind of over-the-top dame. You know, I love a Busby Berkeley kind of - you know, so all the sequins and the dances and the fires and the not - all of that really does appeal to me. I will say, I watched this movie again for this conversation, and I watched it by myself, which is not ideal, I think, and I came out of it feeling a little bit more horrified than I did - like, I can't tell if it's just that I'm an old lady now (laughter). Like, I don't know, but I was sort of - like, I couldn't catch the fun vibe because I used to watch it all the time with my roommates, and it was so much fun. And I couldn't catch that wave...
HARDYMON: ...This time around. I couldn't get it.
HOLMES: Yeah. You know, one of the things I noticed when I watched it through again, it has a very brutal assault sequence that I think has often not been part of that sort of it's-a-camp-classic
KLIMEK: approach to it.
HARDYMON: Yeah. And, in fact, isn't part of that - usually, that cut when they show it.
HOLMES: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
HARDYMON: You know, they usually excise it. And either it had been excised when I had watched it as a younger person or I had blocked it out. But it is not only quite a brutal sexual assault; it is such a terrible way to treat the only character of color. So my rediscovering of this movie, you know, now has been less fun. I'm - turns out maybe I'm - I might be less fun.
HOLMES: No, I think you're right that when that happens, it's a very big tonal shift.
HARDYMON: It is.
HOLMES: Because up until then, a lot of what's going on does feel sort of harmless and silly.
HOLMES: And when that happens, it's this thing of, like, oh, no, wait. Chris, one of the reasons why we wanted to make sure that we had you on hand for this conversation is that you're a Paul Verhoeven guy from "Robocop" and "Total Recall" and...
KLIMEK: Right. Yeah.
HOLMES: ...Some of the big sort of blockbusters he had made in addition to his earlier sort of more auteur-y (ph) kind of films. How do you see this as kind of part of his canon and career?
KLIMEK: I think it's important in his filmography because this is the big flop that basically cancels his blank check in Hollywood. He is coming off of three big hits - "Robocop," "Total Recall" and "Basic Instinct," which were commercial but also had an edge of scandal and sleaze and satire to them, but were all critically pretty well-regarded. You know, and even though I was very young when those films came out and I had to sneak "Robocop" and "Basic Instinct" - somehow I got to see "Total Recall" in the theater. I guess I convinced my dad to buy a ticket - those films are all framing their critique of America through violence.
And we are much more accepting of over-the-top, cartoony, you know, explode-y (ph), squib-y (ph) violence than we are when he tries to apply that same frame to sex, which I think why "Showgirls" was so resoundingly rejected at the time. You know, and we can even talk about the way that that sexual assault - that I think the fact that it can be so easily removed from the movie without really altering the narrative...
HOLMES: Yep. Yeah, that says a lot.
KLIMEK: ...Just speaks to how unnecessary - the fact that that whole assault and the aftermath occupies maybe 90 seconds of screen time in a movie that's 2 hours and 15 minutes long really harms the entire thing for me. I mean, I am basically prepared to defend this movie until that happens in the final 10 minutes, and then the movie does not deal with it in any other way except to make it the sort of engine for the revenge narrative that we usually get...
KLIMEK: ...With a male character, right?
KLIMEK: Like, the spouse is killed or whatever, and the man has to go kill a bunch of people (laughter) in response. I have the, perhaps, unique credential of having seen this movie upon its release in 1995 on a date.
HOLMES: Oh, my God. Oh my God.
KLIMEK: We parted amicably and immediately.
HOLMES: Midfilm or...
KLIMEK: No, no, no - thereafter. I mean, I actually remember the screening being sort of - you know, we've all heard the This American Life fiasco episode...
KLIMEK: ...Where the audience starts to rebel as it's happening, and it ends up being a pretty good time. I mean, I definitely knew who Paul Verhoeven was. I was a fan. The prerelease publicity about how scandalous and shocking this movie was going to be and the fact that it was showing in the very conservative town where I went to college all contributed to making it an event. So we certainly thought we were being a little rebellious and, you know, doing something risque and forbidden, and it was more than just going to a movie. But it was (laughter) not a relationship-starter.
HOLMES: Yeah. I went back and read some of the reviews that came out at the time that it was released. One of the things I thought was interesting was not only was everybody talking much more about - it has so much nudity and has so much, you know - one was obsessed with how much language there was in it. But also, they were kind of scandalized by the whole idea of a story about a woman who had done sex work who was trying to sort of have some kind of dignity about herself and her life. There's a lot of mockery in some of those reviews...
HOLMES: ...About sex work in general. And instead of talking about things like - look, you know, I can defend a lot of things in this movie. To me, that central Elizabeth Berkley performance is hard to understand as anything other than a very strange, clearly intentional but, ultimately, for me, not successful...
HOLMES: ...Series of high-key choices. But if your angle on this movie is - and for a lot of these people, it was - essentially, you can't have a story that's sort of "All About Eve" with strippers because who cares about strippers? That's kind of what the attitude was. And to his credit, I will encourage you, if you look up the Roger Ebert one...
HARRIS: Ebert, yes.
HOLMES: ...It's way more interesting and thoughtful, which is not surprising because, of course, he worked on "Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls," and he had a fondness for these kind of pulpy things that a lot of critics didn't share. But it is so interesting to me - and go back and be like, why can't you just talk about how silly the dialogue is? And they do, to some degree. But why are you focused on whether or not you can have a sympathetic story about women who dance topless? Because that, I don't think, is really the point at all.
HARRIS: The film itself has, like, a weird relationship between this idea of sex work and how it should feel about the...
HARRIS: ...Elizabeth Berkley's character. I mean, aside from the rape and the way in which the rape of a Black woman is Nomi's way of coming up and getting revenge and having this successful moment, that aside - as creepy and gross and, in some ways, kind of racist that part is - there's also, like, a lot of moments where Nomi says, like, oh, I'm not a whore. Someone might call her a whore. There's that infamous scene between Nomi and Cristal where they're at Spago and they're talking about doggy chow at one point. But then she says, you know, I'm not a whore. And Cristal is like, well, we're all whores. We all take the money. We give what they got.
And I don't know - it's like Nomi is at once supposed to be a character that we admire just because she's able to get by on both her aggressiveness but also her likability to just bring people in. One of my notes while watching this movie again was just, like, why is everyone drawn to her? I don't understand. Like, you know, Molly saves her - you know, Gina Ravera's character saves her from getting hit by a car. They don't know each other. And within seconds, she's like, you can come stay with me.
And then, obviously, there's Glenn Plummer as James, who's, like, a wannabe dancer, I guess, who wants to dance with Alvin Ailey, who's just like, you have more talent than I've ever seen anyone else.
HARRIS: And it's just very, very strange to see this character and that sort of dichotomy between her being both empowering but also she's still a sex worker. It's a very bizarre tone that the movie doesn't quite strike, which I think is another reason why it's so fascinating to watch.
HOLMES: For sure. For sure.
KLIMEK: I actually want to stick up for Elizabeth Berkley. Now, I have no prior or subsequent exposure to her as an actor. I never saw "Saved By The Bell" until I saw those clips that are in the documentary about the afterlife of this movie, "You Don't Nomi." So all I know about her comes from "Showgirls." But Paul Verhoeven has said that he directed her to play every scene at 11...
HOLMES: Right. Yeah.
KLIMEK: ...To give that super aggressive, you know, overamped response to absolutely everything.
KLIMEK: I feel badly for her because, you know, by all accounts, she had the time of her life...
KLIMEK: ...Making this movie. She worked so hard. She loved dancing. After this, you know, her agent drops her, like, after the weekend this movie is released. She stops dancing for a while because she's so depressed about its failure. And this kind of strident character, to this performance, it's the kind of thing that we never punish when, say, Tom Cruise does it or Christian Bale does it or - you know, we just accept it.
HOLMES: It's true. It's true.
KLIMEK: And I'm not saying her performance is good, but I don't think the fact that it's bad is necessarily her fault. Verhoeven was talking about how he and Joe Eszterhas set out to, like, update the classic MGM musical, and I think he gave the direction only to her to play like she was in one of those movies. Now, why Gina Ravera is then, you know, opposite her just doing a perfectly credible impersonation of an emotionally stable, ordinary human being, I think that's bad direction.
KLIMEK: But I just - I feel bad for Elizabeth Berkley.
HARDYMON: You should. And I think one of the things that really did leave this taste in my mouth upon a second exposure to this film is that she never got to have a second act, whereas Paul Verhoeven goes on to have multiple movies, gets to sort of work out how he feels about women. There's this kind of auteur - and you'll notice the names that I'm about to say are all men - of, like, Michael Haneke and Gaspar Noe and, you know...
HARDYMON: ...Peter Greenaway, you know, these men who make movies in which - you know, I think in the last movie that I saw by Verhoeven, a woman is literally covered in feces at one point...
HARDYMON: ...Her body. So upon looking back at this and the performance and all of that, I find myself really kind of mad about how much he's able to be like, well, it's camp. And she never got to do that.
HARDYMON: And this is one of these things where it's like, the - you know, "Basic Instinct" is, I think, a perfectly serviceable thriller. It's totally fine. But, you know, Sharon Stone kind of, like, had to fight back from that, too.
HARDYMON: Like, all of these actresses are treated so badly. So I sound like I'm just no fun at all (laughter), but I really, like, this - a rewatch of this really, really left a yucky taste in my mouth.
HARRIS: I mean, I think that as much as I do love this movie, I agree completely with both what you, Barrie, and Chris said. It reminds me of - I remember, you know, I was, like, 12 or 13 when Christina Aguilera decided to go dirty.
HARDYMON: Oh, yeah.
HARRIS: And, you know, I think it's a common thing we see where young actresses who are, like, child stars - I mean, Elizabeth Berkley wasn't quite a child on "Saved By The Bell," but she was a kid.
HARRIS: She was a younger child. And the fact that she thought that this was going to be the way for her to become a star in itself is part of the problem with the industry because that's the only way young female actors tend to be able to jump into bigger roles, is that they have to, like, go all the way to the extreme of being super sexual or taking on those types of adult roles, whereas, you know, Shia LaBeouf doesn't have to do that when he tries to transition.
HARRIS: It really is sort of this tale as old as time within Hollywood, and I think this is probably one of the more prominent examples of that happening.
HARDYMON: I find myself able to have fun with this movie when I have completely divorced it from any context whatsoever, which - it means the whole point of it being like, oh, it was a satire on purpose, goes away. You know what I mean? So, like, I can only have fun with it when I'm enjoying the terribleness of the dialogue, the ridiculousness of the headpieces and not thinking about the context of all of these things, of this child star who's - you know, has to do this and then is completely left in the dirt, of the Paul Verhoevens of the world, of the Joe Eszterhases of the world. You know, at this age, I find myself having to, again, divorce it from all context, which makes it hard to appreciate it as satire. Do you know what I mean?
HOLMES: Yeah. And I think, you know, it's not just that Verhoeven and Eszterhas weren't followed around by this movie forever, which - in a negative way, which I agree with and which you can point to a million examples of that...
KLIMEK: Well, I mean, Eszterhas' career is pretty much over after this. I mean, Eszterhas doesn't have another big - you know, this is pretty much the end of him as a big-shot screenwriter.
HOLMES: But I don't think, if you talk about him, that he's as defined by this alone...
HOLMES: ...As she is, as Berkley is.
KLIMEK: Oh, certainly.
HOLMES: But also, think about, like, Kyle MacLachlan. Kyle MacLachlan was able to go on and be a respected, prestigious actor in all kinds of different projects, despite the fact that - if I'm going to say I think her choices in that performance are weird, he's the closest to making choices that are just as weird as hers in terms of how kind of exaggerated they are and how silly the sex scene between the two of them is. Like, that's because of both of them, not just because of her.
And I think if you chalk that performance - hers or his - up to ineptitude, that's obviously wrong, right? They are choices. And the question is - who made those choices? And I think, as Chris said, there's good documentary evidence that Verhoeven made those choices and directed those choices because that's what a director does and is for.
And Chris mentioned the documentary "You Don't Nomi" - N-O-M-I, of course - which you may be able to find sort of streaming or - keep an eye out for it. And it really goes back and looks at a lot of these things, what this film meant for some of these actors and for some of the crew, but also the legacy that it has had as a part of, like, drag shows and beloved - like Barrie said, these kind of Rocky Horror-esque kind of things because it does have a weirdly interesting legacy.
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HOLMES: Well, we want to know what you think about "Showgirls." This one seems to go on and off various streaming services, so kind of keep your eyes peeled. You can find us at facebook.com/pchh or on Twitter at @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks to all of you for being here.
KLIMEK: Thank you.
HOLMES: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you have a second, subscribe to our newsletter. It's at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. We will see you all back here next time.
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