It is my belief that “Showgirls” was conceived on a dare. Dutch director Paul Verhoeven and Hungarian screenwriter Joe Eszterhas had collaborated very profitably on “Basic Instinct” and, as a follow-up, wanted to appeal to their horny male fan base even more directly. My understanding is that after drinking a lot of Eastern European beer — something with an umlaut in its name — Verhoeven told Eszterhas, “I bet you can’t write a screenplay in which every character is unmotivated and unbelievable, every action implausible!” Eszterhas counterchallenged, “I bet you can’t direct a movie where instead of actors you just have dozens of naked breasts speaking to one another!” Neither man completely succeeded — two or three of the events in “Showgirls” do make some kind of logical sense, and Verhoeven was never able to perfect his TalkTit® technology — but on the whole, they met one another’s challenges admirably.
“Showgirls” is a modern, filthy variation on the old “A Star Is Born” model, where a young, naive person goes to the big city with showbiz dreams and works his or her way to the top. In this case, it’s a down-on-her-luck imbecile named Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley), whom we meet as she hitchhikes her way to Las Vegas. She wants to become a dancer. Later in the movie, we find out that she used to be a hooker and has moved to Las Vegas to get away from that lifestyle, which is sort of like moving to Tijuana to get away from Mexicans.
You might have noticed that “Nomi Malone” is a strange name. “Nomi” isn’t actually a name at all. I believe Eszterhas called his protagonist NOMI MALONE because of all the revealing anagrams those letters provide. We will refer to her by some of them throughout this column.
Within a few minutes of arriving in Las Vegas, LAME MOONIN’ has lost her suitcase, violently attacked a random car in frustration, dashed out into traffic, and vomited. None of these things are unusual in Vegas, though it is uncommon to see them all accomplished in such a short period of time. The car she pummels belongs to Molly Abrams (Gina Ravera), who, like all the women in this movie, is a part-time lesbian. She and Nomi almost kiss when they meet, no doubt because Molly is so turned on by seeing Nomi barf and Nomi is so turned on by the thought of a stranger being nice to her.
Then we jump ahead six weeks. LO, MOANIN’ ME is living with Molly in her trailer and dancing at a strip club called Cheetah’s. You would think the movie would show us something as important as its main character getting a job, especially a job that involves taking her clothes off, but “Showgirls” doesn’t have time for that kind of thing, not when there are stilted, innuendo-laden conversations to be had. Molly works as a costumer for one of those glitzy topless shows at the Stardust Casino, and Nomi is dazzled when she comes to see it. Why, if she could get a job in this show, taking her clothes off for money, she wouldn’t have to work at Cheetah’s, where she has to take her … clothes off … for … wait. Crap. Well, the Stardust job would be better, anyway. Never mind why.
The Stardust show is called “Goddess,” and its star is a woman named Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon). Improbably, the film tries to convince us that Cristal is the reason drunken Japanese businessmen come to see “Goddess,” as if it really matters which topless woman dances in front of the 20 other topless women. Cristal is an A-list celebrity in Las Vegas, her picture adorning the show’s posters and billboards. I don’t know why this would be. “Goddess” has no talking, singing, or story line and consists solely of scantily clad women and gay men dancing. It does, however, feature multiple elaborate sets and costume changes. As best as I can figure from the bits and pieces we see over the course of the movie, “Goddess” must be about four hours long, making it the “Lawrence of Arabia” of knockerfests.
At Cheetah’s, I’M ON A MELON’s boss is Al (Robert Davi), your stereotypically loathsome strip-club owner who sometimes requires sexual favors from his employees. You have to assume Cheetah’s human resources department is grossly understaffed. The club’s emcee is Henrietta (Lin Tucci), a brassy, fat woman who tells obscene jokes and flashes her boobies to the audience of hooting, appreciate regulars — because, as everyone knows, there’s nothing strip-club patrons love more than an obese woman doing stand-up. “Hey, get those naked chicks off the stage!” they yell. “Bring back Bette Midler and the knock-knock jokes!”
One night while ME LOIN MOAN is dancing nudely at Cheetah’s, she spots Cristal in the audience, leering at her while seated next to her boyfriend, “Goddess” producer Zack Carey (Kyle MacLachlan). Nomi and Cristal met when Nomi visited Molly backstage at the Stardust, and Cristal seems to like her. Or possibly hate her. It’s not clear how Nomi and Cristal feel toward one another — or, rather, it is clear in each individual scene, but not from one scene to the next. Sometimes it’s love, sometimes it’s hate; sometimes they try to kill one another, sometimes it seems like they’re about to go at it like rabbits. Their scenes together may have been placed in the film in random order. At any rate, Cristal pays five hundred bucks for Nomi to give Zack a private lap dance, which culminates in Nomi thrashing around like a trout on a hook, which Zack evidently finds immensely arousing.
Somewhere in all this, NO I’M ON MALE meets a man named Smith (Glenn Plummer), who is a bouncer at a nightclub despite being only 5’7″ and weighing no more than 150 pounds. A professionally trained dancer from New York, Smith assures Nomi not only that she has genuine talent as a dancer, which is manifestly untrue, but also that she’s too good to be shaking her tatas at Cheetah’s, which is untrue but slightly less obvious. He wants to choreograph a dance performance for her. He also wants to have sex with her. When she storms out of his apartment, they have this exchange:
SMITH: You don’t fool me. I see you.
NOMI: What do you see?
SMITH: I see you hiding.
NOMI: From what?
SMITH: From you.
This is the most complex dialogue Joe Eszterhas has ever written.
With Cristal’s help, Nomi gets an audition to join the chorus line of “Goddess.” Despite being well aware of the show’s content, and despite being currently employed as a stripper, Nomi is hesitant to take her shirt off for the director, Tony Moss (Alan Rachins). (What did she think the audition for a topless revue would be entail? Word processing?) Then, despite giving expensive lap dances for a living, she is appalled when Tony suggests she touch her own breasts.
This behavior is actually consistent with Nomi’s character, as she has demonstrated time and time again that she is very selective about what offends her. She’ll do all manner of debasing things one minute, then get angry if you flirt with her the next. I mentioned the random car-bashing; she also pulls a switchblade on one guy and hurls a plate of French fries at another, both essentially unprovoked. Sometimes she will respond to a question with silence and a blank stare (presumably because the speaker has used a word she doesn’t know); sometimes she will push you down a flight of stairs (as she does to Cristal late in the movie).
Against all odds, NOMINAL EMO gets a part in “Goddess,” then immediately misses the warm, family-like environment at Cheetah’s. It turns out show business is ruthless and competitive! No one ever warned Nomi about this. She is cheered when Al the grim-faced sexual harasser and Henrietta the zaftig nipple-flasher from Cheetah’s come to visit her. Ah, those carefree days of day before yesterday.
A lot more crazy things happen before the movie ends, but enumerating them would be like listing the specific cars involved in a 50-car pileup, or giving names to the rats in a landfill. Nomi makes it to the top of her chosen field and learns something about herself in the process, at least allegedly. The movie doesn’t really tell us WHAT she learned, only that she learned something. One thing she definitely never learned is that she’s as dumb as a jar of beans. You can see it in her vacuous smile, in her dead eyes, in her buffoonish mispronouncing of “Versace” as “Ver-sayse.” The other characters ridicule her for this, as well they should — but why is Nomi dumb at all? Naivete is required for the story to work, but not dimwittedness. Perhaps it’s something the singularly untalented Elizabeth Berkley brought to the role herself. Or maybe it’s there to further arouse the meathead audience: “Not only is she vaguely pretty and usually naked, but she’s dumb, too! HAWT!”
The great irony is that despite its famed luridness and ample nudity, “Showgirls” is not erotic. It barges up to the viewer and says, “Do you like boobies?,” and if you reply in the affirmative, the movie says, “We’ll see about that!” Then it bombards you with bosoms, all of them attached to dull characters reciting tacky dialogue full of double-entendres. It’s as if someone made a porno, took most of the sex out, kept the dialogue, and for some reason added Kyle MacLachlan. Why would anyone do ANY of those things? On a dare, obviously.
Note: In case you were wondering, here are anagrams of some of the other characters’ names.
Molly Abrams: BALMY MORALS
Cristal Connors: SCORNS CILANTRO
Zack Carey: CRAZY CAKE
Tony Moss: MOST NOSY