Showgirls (MA 15+) is now available to watch at SBS On Demand (for a limited time). Details below.
Having made his name in Hollywood in the ‘80s with sardonic sci-fi like Robocop and Total Recall, Paul Verhoeven went back to his roots (no pun intended) in the ‘90s with Basic Instinct. The explicit thriller was more in tune with the style of sexy movies for which he was better known in his native Holland, and, thanks to Sharon Stone’s game performance and cross-legged antics, it made money hand over foot, and patched up a frosty relationship between Verhoeven and his partner in crime, writer Joe Eszterhas. On the strength of the film’s worldwide box office in excess of US$350m (from a budget of sub-US$50m), the pair had momentum to double down with their next foray into mainstream erotica: Showgirls.
Inspired by the all-time classic All About Eve, Showgirls is a story of naked ambition (pun intended), from the perspective of a small-time dancer who struts and sleeps her way to the top of the Vegas erotic dance industry (and doesn’t learn a thing along the way). It’s a cynical and salacious satire of ‘the American Dream Factory’, and is thus intentionally, farcically over the top. From the exaggerated acting from Elizabeth Berkley, to the mediocre music numbers (written by The Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart), everything in Showgirls is a gloriously hollow spectacle, dipped in glitter and slathered in fake tan.
Sadly, the 1995 critics didn’t appreciate it as a screwball farce: they savaged it with almost universally terrible reviews.
Even here at SBS, our own Margaret David on the The Movie Show were united in their condemnation of the film. Margaret found no redeeming features whatsoever: "I mean, no one minds a walk on the wild side: 'Okay, let’s see how the other half lives’," she said, "But they’re so uninteresting, these characters, and actually so dislikeable. I mean, you just can’t have any sympathy for them at all." She gave it one star. David was equally critical of Eszterhas's sript ("full of poor dialogue and contrived situations"), but he thought Verhoeven's visual skills were a redeeming feature: “he made the best of a very sleazy situation”. For this, David thought Showgirls warranted an extra star.
Watch the original Movie Show review below:
In the U.S. the film’s NC-17 rating (which is harder than an R, under the North American the U.S. rating system) didn’t help it on release, as it limited the potential audience for the film (even so, Verhoeven had sought the harsh rating from the outset, to spare himself the back-and-forth with censors that had marred his experience making Basic Instinct, which garnered an R). It failed to break even, grossing just US$37m worldwide (from a budget of US$45m). It scooped the Razzies the next year and Verhoeven showed up to collect his gong(s) in person.
Happily, the passage of time has worked in the film’s favour, and restored Showgirls’ legacy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Showgirls eventually connected with its audience through the home entertainment release (it ranks as one of MGM’s top 20 titles of all time), and it now enjoys cult status as a misunderstood, misanthropic take on the tired ‘star is born’ trope. Is it art? Is it trash? Yes and yes. And we love it.
Watch 'Showgirls' now at SBS On Demand:
From the archives: Paul Verhoeven and Elizabeth Berkley speak to The Movie Show'