“How can it be a rubbish film if there’s loads of tits in it?” a friend asked recently when I said I was preparing to review notorious 1990s smut-fest Showgirls. It’s a perfectly valid question. And it’s true that Showgirls doesn’t disappoint on that score – there are tits galore. There’s also some shapely bottoms on display too, plus some fleeting glimpses of fanny. It no doubt kept red-blooded teenagers “busy” in 1995, but looking back from a contemporary standpoint – where every conceivable fetish is only a mouse click away – it looks very tame indeed. So perhaps the question to ask is: in a world where we’re up to our eyeballs in tits and arse, is Showgirls just another rubbish movie?
It certainly belongs to a bygone era. No-one makes ‘erotic dramas’ anymore and thank god for that. Whether it was Sharon Stone crossing her legs sans-pants in Basic Instinct or Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke flicking the contents of the fridge at each other in Nine 1/2 Weeks, ‘erotic dramas’ were almost always awful. Showgirls arguably marked the endgame for the genre, a portent of what was to come in the internet era, where we no longer need to fanny around with plot and can get straight to the fanny.
Indeed, Showgirls doesn’t so much have a plot as a series of salacious set pieces. It tells the story of Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley), an out-of-towner who arrives in Vegas and works her way up from being a stripper in a sleazy lap-dancing club to becoming a ‘showgirl’ in a marginally-less-sleazy erotic dance show. I struggled to see much difference between the two worlds – both involve being on stage swinging your knockers about – but the bulk of the story is concerned with Malone moving up this particularly greasy career pole and how she deals with the sleazy guys she meets along the way.
And the guys are all sleazy bastards of varying types. There’s the guy who runs the strip club who comes on like an evil Fonz (“if you want to last more than week you better give me a blowjob!”); the guy who runs the upmarket show who chastises Nomi for not having sufficiently erect nipples (“I’m erect, why aren’t you?”); Kyle MacLachlan (him from Twin Peaks) as a better class of sleazebag who drives a sports car and gets it on with Nomi in his swimming pool but still turns out to be a bastard; and, finally, the big Vegas star who gang-rapes one of Nomi’s pals.
The rape scene is genuinely shocking within such a frivolous movie. However, Nomi gets revenge by setting up a honey trap and giving the villain a savage beating – whilst topless, obviously. The only non-sleazy male character, relatively speaking, is a fellow dancer who attempts to guide her from lap-dancing to proper dancing (“dancing ain’t fucking!”), but he still can’t get her into bed. “You can fuck me when you love me,” Nomi tells him. And the point is forcibly made throughout that – despite getting her baps out every five minutes or so – she won’t actually sleep with anyone so is therefore definitely NOT A WHORE.
The other character of note is Cristal Connors, played by Gina Ravera but originally intended for Madonna (whose acting ability would’ve have been a perfect fit for this movie). Cristal is the top showgirl in town, who sees Nomi as both protégé and rival. The pair spend their shared screen time either bitching at each other or making out, and there’s a particularly risible scene where, over lunch, they discuss how much they like each other’s tits (see clip below). Rather than sharing a tiramisu for dessert, they slink away for an erotic dance-off instead and, for once, Nomi’s tits ARE erect, though I wasn’t sure if this was an important plot point or whether I was just paying too much attention.
Nomi eventually usurps Cristal as the queen of Vegas and in the final scenes we see her leave town with her name in lights, her journey from street hustler to superstar complete.
What does this all mean? Although dismissed at the time as trashy nonsense, Showgirls enjoyed an interesting second life, picking up a cult following on VHS/DVD and attracting some high-profile fans within the industry, notably Quentin Tarantino. These people will tell you that Showgirls is actually a clever satire on celebrity culture or a comment on the exploitative nature of the Hollywood star system. There is, probably, a feminist interpretation too if you look hard enough (which I haven’t).
It’s nonsense, of course, there’s no subtext. But Showgirls certainly meets the so-bad-its-good criteria and lovers of high-camp comedy – and tits – will be thoroughly entertained.