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What is bad?
Story by Scott Dickensheets
By challenging our fond belief that Showgirls sucked, a new book offers thoughts on how to evaluate culture
All these years later, it might be hard to recall the critical stink bombs that rained on Showgirls when it came out in 1995. Trust us: Reviews were brutal. Made in a clear spirit of provocation by the guys behind Basic Instinct — director Paul Verhoeven (Robo-Cop, Total Recall) and writer Joe Eszterhas (Flashdance) — it starred Elizabeth Berkley as Nomi, an ambitious stripper clawing and sexing her way through Vegas’ treacherous entertainment biz. According to the critical hive-mind, Showgirls was lurid, grotesque and — when Berkley was onscreen — heinously acted. Worst film ever, many said. It departed in a shower of contemptuous Razzie Awards, its status as a legendary failure sealed.
Adam Nayman wants to unseal it. The Canadian film critic has written It Doesn’t Suck (ECW Press, $12.95), a game attempt to reposition this classic howler as an underappreciated masterpiece — or, mind-bendingly, maybe both. “I am serious,” he says, guessing your first question.
What does such a rethink entail? From the book and a chat with Nayman, here are a few pointers for appraising a (supposed) wreck like Showgirls — or any work of, ahem, art.
Don’t pre-judge. It’s clear to him that Showgirls suffered for the fantastically successful sins of Basic Instinct. Critics, aghast at that movie's cynical manipulation of Sharon Stone’s vagina, had their knives out for this next Eszterhas/Verhoeven pervathon. Audiences, still uneasy about turning such a nasty film into a hit, stayed away. "The two still had blood on their hands from Basic Instinct," Nayman writes, "and it can be hard to outrun your past." He adds, "Showgirls had very little chance to settle into theaters" before it became a cultural punchline. "I'm not sure the climate was right" for an honest appraisal. Time has helped: Showgirls became a top-selling home video, and Nayman's book is part of a critical rehab that's been underway for years.
Mind the details. Asked for a scene that might cue a more nuanced take on Showgirls, Nayman suggests a dinner between Nomi and the far more successful Cristal, played by Gina Gershon. "Verhoeven violates the 180-degree rule," he writes; that is, each character should stay on her side of the screen. Here, halfway through, they switch. A veteran filmmaker, Verhoeven knows the rule. But by violating it, he crystallizes the film’s character dynamic: Nomi not only wants what Cristal has, she wants to be Cristal. It's one of many example of the fluid technique that tells Nayman there's more going on here than the Razzies let on.
Instead of just “good” or “bad,” wonder about decisions. This brings us to Berkley’s acting. Nayman doesn’t contend that it's conventionally good. But one thing seems clear: Her over-the-top performance was a choice. So: Whose? Why? One theory, which requires thinking a bit outside the frame: Verhoeven — a satirist, after all — joined her bad acting to good filmmaking as a meta challenge to Hollywood's established values. So, while it's set in a soulless Vegas, Showgirls may truly be about soulless Tinseltown. About Berkley's acting, there's no certain answer — it's the questioning that matters. “The performance is what it is,” he writes, “and both Showgirls the Masterpiece and Showgirls the Piece of Shit are unimaginable without it.” And here we are, still talking about it 20 years later.
Not everyone buys this rereading, of course. Responding to Nayman, Esquire cultural critic Stephen Marche rewatched Showgirls: “The only way I could see Showgirls as a good film is if I completely re-established my criteria of aesthetic values …”
No kidding. But what if that was the point all along?
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