Whenever there is a disaster, there are always the inevitable questions that follow. Where did it all begin? Could it have been avoided? What can we learn from this? No, I’m not talking about the oil leak in the Gulf. Hollywood is no exception. You have your disaster movies like Earthquake, and you have your movies that are disasters like Waterworld. Of course there are even disaster movies that are also disasters like the recent 2012. Some disasters you never see coming. But, many such events could have been predicted and possibly avoided if only the right folks had been paying attention. This is the story of one such event: Showgirls.
I guess you could say that it all started with Basic Instinct. The film was directed by Paul Verhoeven and scripted by Joe Eszterhas. You remember the movie. It starred an as yet unknown Sharon Stone as the girl who dared Michael Douglas to arrest her for smoking in the interrogation room. There were ice picks, torrid sex scenes, and a few gender- bender moments. The film was a small affair with a budget under $50 million. It took the world by storm and raked in almost $400 million in the worldwide box office. It became that film that everyone talks about. Water cooler conversations were dominated by the thing. It quickly invaded the pop culture, and even if you’d never seen the movie you knew the common references. So, three years later when the same director and writer team decided to take on the Vegas showgirl world, expectations were high indeed. If Basic Instinct got them talking, Showgirls is going to have them screaming, and so it did … only not quite in the way everyone had expected. The end result? A mere $20 million at the box office. In less than a few weeks Showgirls had become one of the most disappointing movies in the history of the industry.
The story itself is a rather simple one. Nomi (Berkley) hitches her way to Vegas to dance. Her introduction to Vegas is not so kind, but she does find some kindness and a roommate in Molly (Ravera), who is a seamstress for one of the hottest shows in town, Goddess. Nomi gets invited to see the production backstage and instantly falls in love with it. She sees herself performing many of the complicated routines. When she gets a chance to meet the star Cristal Connors (Gershon) she is insulted because of the seedy reputation of the club where Nomi dances. But Cristal has a fascination with Nomi and gets her an audition for the production. Nomi gets the job, and the two ladies have an interesting relationship where Cristal appears to be her patron, yet obviously despises and sabotages her efforts. Of course, Nomi covets Cristal’s role and will do whatever it takes to get there. She sleeps with the show’s producer (MacLachlan) in what has been often referred to the ugliest sex scene ever in a major film. She eventually gets the part but finds life still isn’t all she wanted it to be.
So how did it go wrong? Let me count the ways. One of their first mistakes was their inability to understand the concept of overexposure. Alfred Hitchcock could have told them that less often equals more. Our imaginations can conjure images far more horrid than the screen could possibly depict. What was true for terror is also true with sex. And let’s not for an instant pretend that Showgirls is selling anything else. Within the first 15 minutes of the movie we’ve seen so much nudity and dance that we’ve become numb to the effect. By the time Verhoeven gets to the spectaculars of the showpieces, we’ve already been assaulted so much that we just aren’t noticing the sex anymore. Now, that might not be such a bad thing if he had provided us anything of value to capture our attention or our imaginations.
Elizabeth Berkley was known, at the time, for her role as Jessie in Saved By The Bell. She had done a few parts since that time, but she had failed to make any other kind of impression. I suspect she saw Showgirls as a way to totally shed her Jessie image and create a new iconic character to further her movie career. Unfortunately for her, the part pretty much killed her potential career so much that even her talent agency soon dropped her. She found it hard to do much of anything after Showgirls. While Berkley fans are quick to blame the crappy film for her career demise, much of the blame falls on the naive actress. First of all, what did she think was going to happen? Second of all, she really was awful in the part. A more bland performance I’m not sure I’ve ever seen. She did not get along with castmate Gina Gershon, who has had nothing but insulting remarks about Berkley since that day. She’s even mocked her kissing ability. Now that’s a low blow. Unfortunately, many of the crew members have had disparaging things to say about the young actress, perhaps to cover the fact that they participated in this mess to begin with. To be fair to Berkley, she was in over her head. It seems she was not really prepared for some of the scenes she was called on to perform. There are rumors that she fought many of them, but lost each of those battles. Who knows what might have been if she had been given half a chance.
The truth is that Verhoeven makes so many mistakes in this film that it never had a chance. How any studio executive could have been watching these dailies and not put a stop to it all is beyond explanation. Verhoeven spent all of his Basic Instinct capital on what is now known as one of the worst films ever made. To his credit, Verhoeven appears to welcome the position. He became the first, along with other cast and crew, to attend the Razzies to actually claim the prize.
Finally, it should be noted that this film is pretty much not for the kids. It’s one of the rare examples of a general release being issued an NC-17 rating. You might remember that around that time the MPAA created the NC-17 to replace the X rating. Due to a mixup decades ago, the X rating had not been trademarked like the others were. That led to the porn industry adopting the rating as a “badge of honor”, adding to the mix such exaggerations as XXX. To avoid the confusion between a mainstream “adult” film and a pornographic film, the industry adopted this NC-17 rating. It’s rarely used, and after Showgirls, with good reason. Still, take the warning seriously. You will see about as much nudity and vulgarity as any movie in the mainstream has contained.
Showgirls is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC/MPEG-4 codec at an average of almost 40 mbps. Say what you will about the film’s content, but you really can’t fault this high definition image presentation. The film looks quite solid. The glitzy colors of Vegas bring remarkable realism to your monitor. You can’t really judge flesh tones, however, because the actresses wear this awful peach-hued makeup that distorts those colors horribly. That’s the reality of the film and nothing to do with the release’s transfer. The rest of the colors are quite brilliant and glossy. There’s an energy and passion to these show numbers that I’m sure was part of Verhoeven’s intent to portray. He might not have accomplished it with his movie, but the image is beautiful. Black levels are excellent and offer wonderful shadow detail. The image is razor sharp and likely offers more image details than you’re likely going to want to see. If you are a fan of the film, or merely among the curious, this is the perfect opportunity to indulge that guilty peek. I doubt it looked any better for the few who saw it on the big screen.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 does offer incredible expansive range. Again, the film just shines in its presentation. The musical numbers are dynamic and rich in range. The subs will blow you away. I can honestly say it felt very much like I actually experienced these show numbers. Dialog is not always strong, but credit that problem to some inability of Berkley and others to project much here. There might have been some subtle attempt at a certain moody style here, I guess; I’ll never know. Whatever you think about the movie, the audio and visual presentations here are about as good as they can be.
There is an Audio Commentary by a guy named David Schmader. Apparently he has been doing annotated showings of the film for years, where he offers his take on the movie as it runs. When he was contacted to do the track, he thought they were going to tell him to stop doing his showings. He tries to make excuses for the film’s bad elements, all the while admitting there were big mistakes made here. Mostly he moans and ooohs a lot at Elizabeth Berkley. It’s kind of like sitting next to Paul Reubens in an afternoon matinee.
There’s a Pop-Up Trivia option which makes fun of some of the “badness” here and also includes a ton of Saved By The Bell trivia.
The only other extras are tutorials on Lap Dancing and Pole Dancing. The idea is you wives out there can shed a few pounds and turn on your partners at the same time. My wife didn’t watch these, so I think I’m safe.
Actually, the film isn’t completely that bad. I did find that it moved rather quickly. You can’t fault the pacing. The glitzy Vegas presentation is likely quite realistic. Unfortunately, we don’t always want to see reality in our movies. We get enough of that in our day to day lives, although I have to admit my life has never exposed me to anything like this. Rent it, if you’re curious. That’s really all this film is good for any more. It’s a hell of a curiosity. You’ll want to see it once. It’s like a train wreck or any other disaster. Our humanity teaches us to be solemn and look away. Our curiosity forces us to look anyway. This disaster won’t scar you for life, but it might give you a couple of nightmares. On second thought, the movie is really that bad. Not all of these ladies are really as attractive as you might think … or hope. Still, “It’s amazing what paint and a surgeon can do.”