I guess I’m just a contrarian.
The critics really trashed Showgirls  — all the ones I read. And that just goes to show how shallow their evaluations of this sometimes shallow, sometimes compelling film are. I mean, it’s not Shakespeare, but it is art. What is the telos, in the Aristotelian sense, the end or purpose of a film? Is it to provide fodder for critics with slothful imaginations? to tell a story? to entertain? Or is it to be great art?
The neo-marxists historians say, rightly, that history is written by the winners, but it doesn’t follow that that history is therefore wrong. It’s a version, one tale among many possibilities. Is there a correct version, a true variant, a Platonically immutable form of the right movie about Las Vegas? What canon is being invoked here? What seems to have escaped notice in the general trashing-frenzy of Showgirls is that this is a very, very old story, and, unlike a lot of very, very old stories that Hollywood tells, this one is done with class, on its own terms.
True, most of the folks in it are some of the ranking vulgarians of our day, but they have stories, too, don’t they?
So, what is that old story here: surely, it’s Homer’s Odyssey in yet one more endless variation. The tone is set at the very beginning: a travel story. We see the callipygean Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) wiggling out onto the edge of the freeway stretching to Las Vegas, and this beauty is hitching a ride into town not, she mistakenly thinks, to gamble, but to dance. She does both. One ought to appreciate the structural Homericness of the ending, in which, the story returning to its beginning, she hitches out of Las Vegas with the same loser, telling him with a triumphant smile that what she won was me.
Nor will you miss the significance of the iterated motif of the new star being introduced to the press, first with Cristal, then with Nomi. This may not be Bildungsroman the way Goethe and nineteenth-century German critics thought of Bildungsroman but Bildungsroman it is nonetheless. Basically, a young woman is traveling in search of herself and — in that most Greek of quests — of what she is best at, where her ‘excellence’, her ἀρετή aretē lies. OK, so she’s not getting a Ph.D. in physics, or learning to be a doctor, or any of those other socially acceptable things. Is it wrong to want to be the star of a show in Las Vegas? To want to be the best of the best at a name hotel? Not only is this an odyssey, but it is also a quintessentially American one, a kind of Horatio Alger update for the mid-nineties, feminism included.
So there’s lots of t-and-a, great ‘a’ and cute ‘t’ to be sure — but so what? So most of the characters are slime, and all the glitter is on the outside? So what? As it turns out, the only truly moral person in this glitzy gathering of cannibals is the protagonist: a hero, or, rather, heroine, who never loses sight of her bearings, despite enormous temptations and a positively Homeric cast of monsters major and minor, and a good goddess here and there. Nomi Malone’s inner compass never fails to read true self.
If you want something to criticize, criticize the largely predictable contours of the plot: a nobody (is the name Nomi significant here? or the desinence in Ma-lone?) blows into town and has nothing. A friendly black woman takes her in and shows her the ropes around town (clearly, a guide in the Hermes-Athena mold, on my reading), and a black male dancer puts it into her head that she’s better than the Cheetah club. Her dancing draws attention, and she auditions, under humiliating circumstances, for the big leagues — and makes it on her own terms. Eventually, of course, she becomes the star. Here, unlike many American stories of this type, she does not fall into the tragic trap of hybristic arrogance and consequent decline, but hikes it out of town while the hiking is still good. True to herself, she appreciates the cost to herself and others of achieving what she set out to do. And decides it isn’t worth it — reflecting, no doubt, the contemporary phenomenon of professionals downsizing and simplifying their lives in order to escape the corporate rat race and its many rats.
Among these rats is the star of the show whom Nomi replaces, Cristal Conners. She is played by a marvelously sneering Gina Gershon with a prickly bitchiness that is sheer joy to behold. Her voluptuous lips curl ever so slightly and, in their mere curling, tales are told. Her crackling sexuality with its lesbian overlay makes for an interesting series of triangle conflicts involving Nomi and Zack, the entertainment director. If you elect to be offended by nudity, don’t see this film. As for me, I think it’s beautiful to look at beautiful bodies, and there are plenty of them in Showgirls, both male and female. There is an overarching kind of physicality to this film, and in that sense, as well as its underpinning theme of the Bildungsroman it calls to my mind Personal Best , a very different kind of film [see here] — if superficially considered.
And the dancing in Showgirls cooks, whether we’re talking about the lubricious lap dancing at the Cheetah or the uptown eroticism of a major hotel. It’s a kind of metaphor for hierarchies of esteem, and hence the fury of the competitiveness. There is a brutal rape scene towards the end. It seemed somewhat gratuitous, but it’s arguable that it is a powerful emblem of how the whole world of this film is a fake, all deceptive appearances, and ends up doing the innocent. It’s a world Nomi realizes she wants no part of. It serves, further, to make a point about the solidity of friendship in this slippery world of transient relationships and spectacular hypocrisy. Nomi’s essential toughness and decency emerge from this violence — she’s no saint, of course, but she never (sort of) sells it, and she has a kind of clarity of vision others lack.
Some may not be amused by the free use of profanity, but I’ll admit I found some of the dialogue riotously funny. And some of the catty scenes of coked-up dancers tearing into the fragile egos of their fellow workers are not without humor. Well, you can argue about taste all you want, but I’ll just say hooey to all those other critics.
I liked this one.