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I don’t even know where to start with 1995’s Showgirls. For a film filled with high-caliber actors like Kyle MacLachlan, Gina Gershon, and Elizabeth Berkley, and with acclaimed Basic Instinct director Paul Verhoeven, the final cut of this film failed to meet any and all expectations in the most unintentionally hilarious way. To be clear, I absolutely adore these actors. They’re genuinely talented! And this director has made some incredible films, like Total Recall and Robocop.
For 1995 especially, this film had the potential to blow some minds. Well, it did blow some minds, but not until a few years later, when viewing films ironically and appreciating them for camp value became mainstream.
Like many of Showgirls’ current devotees, I never watched this film when it was first released. Universally panned by critics, there was no appeal for me and many others in the mid-’90s. Only after a severe browbeating from a good friend in the mid-2000s did I rent the DVD and give it a chance. A few minutes in, I was laughing so hard I cried. A few minutes later, I got out a notepad to take notes.
The story laid the foundation for what could have been an intense thriller. A young, crazy-talented ingenue with a mysterious past breezes into town, threatening the career of a beautiful, superbly talented dancer who might be getting too old for the harsh standards of showbiz. A little violence. A little betrayal. Possibilities! Rivalries! Intrigue! The script was there. The director was there. The acting talent was there. So what went wrong?
Verhoeven has alternately stated that he intended it to be a commentary on society or that he intended it to be over-the-top. He’s also defended Berkley’s performance, saying he told her to overemphasize movements and overdramatize her lines. Berkley gave it her all, as did every single actor on screen. Their sincerity and earnestness are commendable. They had no idea how the film would turn out.
A few strange but consistent directing decisions, random elements, inclusions, and exclusions ultimately made this film a cult classic instead of a hard-hitting thriller: bizarre stomping, weak temper tantrums, an undeveloped rivalry between leading women, lip gloss, potato chips, the worst sex scene ever, an unnecessary plotline involving an egotistic dancer who seduces strippers by negging them, low emotional stakes, zero character evolution, and a play involving nudity, motorcycles, a volcano, and an unseen monkey act. I mean, there were monkeys dressed up, running around in the dressing room, and we never got to see how they fit into the show!
Overall, this film had all the potential in the world but fell flat on its face as if pushed down by an ambitious, sociopathic protege. Its appeal over the past decade or so is due in large part to the colossal failures on so many levels to meet even the bare-minimum standard for plot, character, and really any of the Aristotelian Unities. It’s pure camp, and I’m here for it.
Here, I’ll take you on a scene by scene, snarky commentary of this masterpiece. No heavy analysis, just pure fun in discovering exactly what makes each scene fail so horribly. There’s so much joy to be found in this film, and it’s a pleasure to share my takes with you.
Let’s dive in.
We start with Berkley’s character Nomi Malone hitching a ride to Vegas with an Elvis look-alike. A few seconds later, he tells her she can sit closer to him if she wants. So naturally, she pulls a knife on him and changes the radio station. I think the idea was to present her as a tough girl—a tough girl who wears more lip gloss than previously thought possible on a human.
Upon arrival in Vegas, this dude actually says he’s going to try to help her get a job. Friendly, forgiving fella. I suppose it could have something to do with the fact that Nomi’s floral blouse is cut nearly down to her navel.
Playing slot machines with this guy’s money while he talks to his uncle, she wins, then loses. A greasy fellow mistakes her for a sex worker. Offended, she stomps away, donning her fringed leather jacket as she goes. “Sooner or later you’re going to have to sell it!” he calls after her. She’s disgusted. Like anyone who comes to Vegas to “be a dancer” would be?
Then she realizes Elvis Dude may have just scammed her and stolen her belongings. She runs across the street to find his car missing, beats up another car, pukes, and is pulled out of the traffic on the Strip by the owner of the car she beat up. After a sort of homoerotic hug with this gal, they chow down on some fast food together.
Nomi’s lip gloss is undisturbed by the puking—and may have actually been enhanced.
When questioned about her origins, Nomi tosses a basket of french fries in the air. More accurately, she holds onto the basket, but the fries fly. I guess that’s one way to indicate your desire for privacy! Next time someone asks me for my social security number, I’m throwing food. Not at them, just in the air, because privacy matters. At least those potatoes were saved from a coating of lip gloss.
Oh! Now they’re roommates! I mean, Nomi did clarify that she wasn’t a “hooker,” so she’s clearly an ideal roommate. The lifesaver, Molly (Gina Ravera), prances around the house in her bra and underwear, like women always do, and not just in the imaginations of men imagining what women do, right? Nomi paints her nails and is very excited about them. They discuss chips. There isn’t a ton of lip gloss involved in the discussion, but the fact that the chips aren’t actually there makes me feel better about the situation.
Turns out Molly works behind the scenes at a big stage show featuring Gina Gershon’s character, the superstar Cristal Connors, as “Goddess.” She pops out of a volcano, nipples bedazzled by some sort of jewelry as dancers strip off their tops and dance in an epic display. Nomi watches, inexplicably stroking her neck. Cristal declares, “It’s the best show I’ve ever been in.” Throughout the movie, we never find out exactly what the show is about.
Molly and Cristal have a discussion about nipples, followed by Nomi admiring Cristal. Cristal accidentally insults Nomi, insinuating she’s a stripper instead of a dancer. Cristal is still topless at this point, removing her makeup. Nomi stamps off with the fury of an angry ostrich and a half-assed, “You don’t know s–t!” This apparently sets up a rivalry or friendship or something?
The next scene is in a nightclub, where more angry-ostrich stamping by Berkley happens, this time in the form of dance. Nomi shakes her feathers and grinds against a guy who declares she’s “teasing my d–k! You have potential, though. I could teach you!” Then he gets into a fistfight with some other guy. Somehow Nomi ends up in prison after kicking him in the nuts. He bails her out the next morning, and it seems he’ll be coaching her in dancing? Time will tell.
Backstage at the Cheetah club, where Nomi’s working, we meet her coworkers. Her boss, Al (Robert Davi) is a classy guy who changes the dancers’ names to ones he thinks are more “f–kable.” You know, a club that can really launch a girl’s career. Nomi explains her previous night’s absence by saying she has her period. Then he demands a b—job from the new girl, Hope.
A limo pulls up with Cristal and her boyfriend Zack Carey, played by one of my favorite actors of all time, Kyle MacLachlan. They show up just in time to see Nomi take the stage for a “sexy” ostrich stomp on stage. She twirls around on a pole, and when she sees Cristal, she makes it extra sexy by licking the pole. It’s unclear whether she’s contracting or spreading hepatitis, but either way, someone won’t be feeling well in a few days.
Oh boy! Lapdance time! Zack and Cristal take Nomi to a back room for some cocaine and ostrich-flavored grinding. Dance Teacher Guy is watching through a beaded curtain and is chased away by a bouncer. Nomi gives it her all, to be fair, getting Zack and Cristal all worked up. Cristal is visibly jealous of Nomi. So…rivalry? There’s a lot of nonverbal communication, but it has all the clarity of a steamy car window. Nomi makes out with $300 from the lapdance after giving a cut to her boss/pimp.
Molly and Nomi go shopping with the money, buying a super-classy dress from Versace. That’s important. It’ll come up later.
The next night at the club, after Nomi’s avian-style grinding on stage with another woman, a dude from Cristal’s show offers her an audition for the chorus line of “Goddess.” Talent pays off?
At the audition, the producer, Tony Moss, introduces himself as a “pr–k.” He proves himself right by running down the line and criticizing the applicants’ body parts as they suck up to him. Nomi impresses him by saying she’s “watching [you] be a pr–k,” then nailing the dance routine. Hooray! Nomi is one of three finalists chosen to show him her breasts. Tony likes them but wants her to perk them up. Who says chivalry is dead?! Not Tony. He gives her some ice cubes to help her out, which she throws in the air like they were french fries or something.
Yes, Nomi’s showbiz education is well underway. Cristal’s been watching and gets her the audition. They talk, their words obscured by several pounds of lip gloss.
All right! A ride in a convertible with Dance Teacher Guy, James, who drives her to his place to “show her something.” He lives in an unfinished building with a bed on the floor and photos of himself dancing on the wall. And he’s written a song about her! He puts it on and starts dancing, teaching her the moves. This actor, Glenn Plummer, is legitimately a talented dancer. His body moves fluidly and expressively to the music. Then Nomi starts improvising ostrichly (If I type it, it’s a word, OK?), which almost immediately leads to sex, but she has her period. No sex, so sad. She leaves him with a sassy, “You can f–k me when you love me.”
Don’t worry, we’ll see him again. Seems like true love.
Nomi gets a call that she’s in the chorus line for “Goddess,” then heads back to the Cheetah to pick up her stuff, where she insists she’s a real dancer, not just a stripper. She’ll go from dancing naked onstage with a pole to dancing naked onstage with a fake volcano. She’s moving up in the world of dance after all. She’ll show them! She’ll show them all!
The gross bossman says goodbye to her in the only way I ever want to part with anyone: by yelling, “I’m not hiring you back, you hear me? Not even if you give me a f–kin’ b—job!” Aw, so sweet. It’s like an adult version of “thank you, come again.”
Nomi tries to share her good news with James, who’s angry she isn’t working on the number he wrote for her and also has another girl in his bed. Oh, the heartbreak?
OK, remember the Versace dress? Here we go. Nomi goes in for a meeting with the “Goddess” production staff. Tony “Ice Cubes For Your Nipples” Moss compliments her on her dress. She replies, “Thanks, I got it at Ver-SAYCE.” I’m pretty sure this line is supposed to show us that Nomi comes from humble roots or something. I call it beating a dead ostrich, because of course she comes from humble roots! The production crew are nice about it, and then Tony threatens her about not letting him down, etc.
He sends her off for an orientation with Gaye, who mentions a diet of “brown rice and vegetables” several times—just to be sure Nomi heard her? She also ensures Nomi holds onto the handrail so she doesn’t fall down the stairs. Better than licking the handrail, I suppose. At HR, Nomi doesn’t know her Social Security number.
On her way out, she runs into Zack, who corrects her on her pronunciation of Versace. What a mensch. He then compliments her on her taste. He’s a flirty fella, and her lips are super-shiny.
At her first rehearsal, Gaye ensures her lunch order is brown rice and vegetables. The choreographer gives her helpful hints like, “Thrust it! Thrust it! Thrust it! Thrust it!” Then Nomi learns she’s debuting tonight.
She’s putting on her makeup, then HOLY CRAP! MONKEYS! Monkeys in suits and tutus, actual monkeys, run through the dressing room, followed by a fight between two chorus girls. Gaye breaks it up. I still need to know the plot of this play, and where the monkeys fit in! Are they part of the volcano scene?
On her way up the stairs to the stage, Nomi is offered cocaine (she refuses) and then ice cubes for her nipples (she accepts).
On stage, Nomi’s dancing with several partners, which definitely was not rehearsed, but she seems to be doing well. Cristal pops out of the volcano, and it’s a nipple show again. Everyone’s dancing around topless, but this time Nomi’s right beside Cristal, and nobody’s yelling about sex acts or licking stripper poles.
No sign of the monkeys.
Afterward, James shows up after the show, congratulating her on her debut by saying, “I’ve always had a problem with p—-y, and I’m always gonna.” Seems like a legit apology. No red flags. He’s definitely The One. He’s still going on about the dance number he says he wrote for her. Zack congratulates her, and James calls him a pimp. He’s totally negging her, and I’m here for it.
Back inside the empty theater, Nomi wanders onto the stage and shouts to see whether anyone’s there. Cristal’s there, snorting cocaine. She offers Nomi some, saying, “It’s good for the muscles.” Cristal’s trying to make friends, offering to take her to Spago for lunch. “It’s right down from Ver-SAYCE.”
At the restaurant, they bond in the only way women should ever bond, over a shared history of eating Doggy Chow. Yup, they both used to love it. That should be the worst part of this scene, but it isn’t. This is a scene I could study for hours. They both have the customary, huge amount of lip gloss on and are eating pre-meal chips. When I say “eating,” what I mean is, they are raising chips to their mouths and biting the chips with their teeth, lips completely uninvolved. It’s fascinating.
They proceed to drink champagne, splashing it in each other’s faces, talk about their breasts, and call each other whores, but in a friendly sort of way.
Back at the theater, Cristal has more advice for Nomi: “If someone gets in your way, step on ’em.” Cristal is supposed to be helping Nomi with her turns, so of course they do a sexy dance together. It sure looks like Cristal has a thing for Nomi, but the way the scene is played, I think there would be more sexual chemistry with the monkeys.
In the dressing room, there’s a random scene with a dancer yelling “F–k” at another dancer’s kids who are just there to see the monkeys. The kids are carried off crying, due to being yelled at and the lack of monkeys.
Me too, kids. Me too.
After that, a producer asks Nomi to earn $1,000 by just wearing her costume to a boat show with a bunch of visiting businessmen, on Cristal’s recommendation. Molly tries to warn her against it, but Nomi shrugs her off. What could go wrong?
Uh-oh. After dancing on the boat, Nomi doesn’t want to put out for foreign businessmen. She’s in trouble now! So she goes to Zack, who’s making out with Cristal. Looks like Cristal may not have Nomi’s best interests at heart after all? Who could have seen that coming?
Zack has her back, though. I’m sure his intentions are pure. He calls up the producer and makes him apologize to Nomi. I’m sure he won’t lash out when Zack isn’t around. Zack then explains what an MBA is to Nomi, because clearly it’s useful information for her? Then he calls the producer back up to make it clear that he was only joking, it’s okay to pimp out the chorus girls.
OK, now we’re in a scene from “Goddess” we haven’t seen before. Cristal has a different outfit: a sheer bodysuit, and an almost bridal headdress, complete with wiring that looks like a spiderweb, and a floor-length veil. Maybe now we will see monkeys?
Alas, no. Just more of a similar dance. Most of the dancers are fully clothed for now, while Cristal spins around and removes her headdress. One of the dancers throws some beads on the floor to trip someone. Nomi sees what happened. The kids’ mother scattered the beads, and the one who was yelling at the kids has fallen and is injured. Nasty business, this Business of Show.
Mystery, intrigue. My, my. That was Cristal’s understudy. Who’s next in line, now? Who could it be?
Nomi’s old boss, Al, who wouldn’t take her back even with a sex act? He and his sidekick, a gal named Henry, are inexplicably visiting Nomi at her big show. Henry greets her with, “She misses us like I miss that lump on my t–t I had taken off last week.” Al actually praises Nomi’s performance and appears sincere.
Her lip gloss glistens as he walks away with a wistful, “Must be weird not having anybody c–e on ya.” He knows how to make an exit, that Al.
Zack shows up, and Nomi asks him to take her to his place. He lives in a fancy house and plies her with champagne and some cheesy lines.
What comes next? What comes next is quite possibly the most embarrassing thing to ever be filmed and made public. Zack has a pool, complete with neon palm trees, and Nomi isn’t shy about skinny-dipping, completely uninvited. There’s also a water feature, which is a dolphin vomiting water into the pool. Zack undresses and climbs in with Nomi, pouring champagne on her. She goes underneath the water, leaving a trail of bubbles as she makes her way to the dolphin puke.
Zack heads in, hands-first. They kiss, and then the ostrich is back. Only this time, she appears angry, and is violently thrashing around in the water. Apparently this is exactly what Zack is into, as he fails to shut it down immediately. Everyone has their kinks, and Zack’s appears to be nearly drowning a flailing Nomi in the green glow of neon palm trees.
Upon returning home to Molly, she recounts her adventures, says she’s a little high, and demands “sugar snacks.” No sugar snacks, but she finds a bag of, you guessed it, potato chips! Her lip-gloss game is strong, so once again she eats them without any help from her lips. I’d like to thank the editor for leaving that in the movie.
The next day at the theater, Nomi’s auditioning for the role of Cristal’s understudy. Cristal isn’t happy, and Zack asks the producer for a background check on Nomi. When Cristal asks if he “f–ked her,” Zack replies, “Does that piss you off because you’re jealous, Cris, or because I beat you to the punch?” Ooooooh! Cristal doesn’t like that. Her pursed, glossy lips tell me so.
Nomi’s rehearses Cristal’s parts in the show, then uses a sink to rinse off only her mouth and chin. I feel like after a hard workout, maybe there are other parts of her body that might need a rinse, but I digress. Cristal confronts her about Zack. Nomi stands there with her chin dripping and says being pissed off makes Cristal look older.
She’s got the part. But in what? We still have no idea what this show is, and I doubt she does either.
Nomi visits Cristal, and they talk about fingernails. They’re kind of holding hands and flirting until Cristal sort of insults her about being “whorey.”
Cut to Nomi eating a burger on a rooftop. It’s important! It is! Someone said it was essential, so it is! Chomp, chomp.
Back at a strip club, Nomi shows up to see James performing his artistic dance piece with three women. The horny dudes at the dance club don’t appreciate it. James is negging another lady, saying, “Get me a beer, b—-h!” Ah, sweet James. He’s engaged to another stripper he knocked up. I wish him well. Nomi kisses him and leaves with a “see ya.”
Backstage at “Goddess,” Nomi finds a letter saying she doesn’t have the understudy role. Cristal threatened to leave the show, leaving Zack no choice.
Then a quick cut from backstage to yet another monkey-free scene from “Goddess.” This scene has motorcycles! And leather! And construction equipment! My GODDESS, I need to know the narrative here. What. Is. Going. On. With. This. Show?! Sparks are flying, so there’s apparently welding happening. Welding, cranes, motorcycles, leather, and metal-covered nipples. Implied BDSM.
Those poor monkeys must have a hell of a scene, if we aren’t even allowed to see it.
Next thing you know, the dancers are running down the stairs and Nomi pushes Cristal down them. The gal who threw the beads on the floor speaks up and says she saw it, and Nomi didn’t push her. Because loyalty among opportunistic sociopaths is a thing here at “Goddess.”
Old Mafia Dude who owns the show, Sam, demands an understudy for the show who’s also a star, but without a star’s salary. Zack suggests Nomi Malone, who makes her first eruptive appearance out of the volcano in the next scene.
Zack wants to be her real boyfriend now. She’s a star, and she has the glitter-stripes in her hair to prove it. Molly has guessed the truth about Nomi and isn’t going to support her in this shady business. She says she won’t be attending Nomi’s premiere party. Molly, it seems, doesn’t have what it takes to succeed and have the empty adoration of people who really love nipples, volcanoes, motorcycles, and monkeys. Molly’s lips aren’t glossy, and she probably eats potato chips like a normal person.
The next scene, damn. Molly’s there, ready to meet her idol, some famous dude, “Andrew Carver,” who vaguely looks like Jason Momoa mixed with Yanni. He compliments Nomi’s ass. Nomi introduces him to Molly. Good times ahead for everyone.
So that’s how to become a legitimate dancer and star in Las Vegas! Nomi made it all look so simple, right? I hope her nipples can handle the costume changes.
This feels like the end, but no. There are 20 more minutes in this movie.
At this delightful party, Andrew Carver takes Molly into a bedroom and proceeds to gang-rape her with a couple of other beefcakes.
Nomi’s macking on Zack while Molly’s being tortured beyond what a human should ever have to bear. Molly stumbles onto the dance floor, bloody and bruised and torn. In the hospital, a doctor says she’ll be there a few days. Nomi pats her head and asks Zack where the police are.
Zack then explains to her that Andrew Carver can do what he wants, and Nomi can’t do anything about it or he’ll expose her history of prostitution, drugs, and assault. So that’s why she didn’t give her real Social Security number to HR!
Always get a background check, if for nothing else, so you can blackmail a starlet to silence her about rape. That’s the moral here, right?
Nomi’s lips are colorful, but not glossy anymore. I suppose she’s lost her innocence? Zack tells her she’s a fantastic f–k, then she spits in his face and goes back to Molly’s bedside. I’m sure Nomi is just who Molly wants to see right now.
Nomi gets all dressed up and pays Andrew Carver a visit. She’s all made up, hair slicked back into a ponytail, and her nipples are painted bright red for some reason. Andrew licks them like they were potato chips, without his lips.
Nomi’s knife is back. She kicks him all over his white room, red nipples bouncing. She shows her teeth like an angry monkey (I assume, since we never see the damn monkeys again in this film) and walks out of there.
Good news! Molly’s OK! Nomi takes her a stuffed animal to hug in the hospital while she convalesces. She tells her she beat the crap out of Carver. That should make up for the gang rape, right?
Cristal’s in the same hospital, so of course, Nomi visits her. Cristal knows Nomi pushed her down the stairs but isn’t going to tell anyone. Yay?
Then the two french kiss. Nomi’s lip gloss gets all over Cristal’s face, leaving her chin as red as Nomi’s painted nipples. Cristal gives Nomi a cowboy hat, which Nomi wears on her head while hitching her way…out of town? Who picks her up? That same Elvis dude from the beginning.
He asks her if she gambled and won. She says she won, then pulls a knife on him again and demands her suitcase. Pan to a sign pointing to Los Angeles, which is maybe where Nomi’s heading? Credits roll.
Cue laughter and tears from the audience, because what the hell?!
In the end, nobody learned anything, except a new way to eat chips, and I couldn’t be happier about it. Someday, maybe we’ll find out about the monkeys. Some day.