Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 film Showgirls is widely regarded as a flop. It was panned by both audiences and critics, earning the ignominious award for Worst Picture at the Razzies that year.
But now that nearly 19 years have passed, film critic Adam Nayman, who teaches a class on documentaries at Ryerson, explores why the movie is actually a cinematic gem in his new book It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls, which comes out April 15.
In the book, Nayman, whose work has appeared in The Grid and Cinema Scope, places Showgirls into the context of Verhoeven’s body of work and traces the movie’s path from its initial reception to its rehabilitation as a cult classic and makes the case for why the film deserves a second look.
Q: What is it about the movie Showgirls that makes it such a masterpiece?
AN: I’m not sure it’s a masterpiece, but it definitely doesn’t suck. The problem is that it’s not a movie that leaves a lot of room to take the middle ground. So if I have to choose between “masterpiece” and “piece of sh*t” — which seem to be the two takes that have endured to this day — I’ll go with “masterpiece,” albeit a very different kind of masterpiece than, say, Rembrandt.
Q: What was your initial reaction when you first watched the film?
AN: I was 14 years old and had a burning desire to go see this restricted, controversial movie, to see why it got zero stars in The Globe and Mail. You know, normal naughty teenager stuff. I liked it when I saw it. I thought it was funny and outrageous and pretty sure of itself. I haven’t really changed my mind in the last eighteen years.
Q: How did you find out so much on Showgirls that made you decide to write a book about it?
AN: I’m an auteurist, so I already knew a fair amount about Paul Verhoeven. Researching a movie like Showgirls is easy because so much was written about it — not good stuff, of course, but plenty of coverage.
Q: Your book argues that the film is much smarter and deeper than it is given credit for. Why?
AN: One of Verhoeven’s strengths as a filmmaker is that he understands how to make commercially appealing movies with a bit of a kick to them; he’s an entertainer with a subversive streak. Showgirls didn’t ultimately turn out to be commercially appealing, and a lot of people found it entertaining in a so-bad-it’s-good-way. But the subversive streak in it is thick and luxurious, to say the least. As a movie demolishing the mid-90s idea of Las Vegas as a kind of “adult Disneyworld,” it’s devastating. As a commentary on the sadistic and salacious sides of show business, it’s basically a master’s thesis.
Q: There are badly-reviewed films like The Room that have gained cult status over the years. Do you think Showgirls has come to that?
AN: I understand the comparison but the difference is that The Room is spectacularly inept — a movie made by people who had no idea what they were doing. I’d say Showgirls was made by people who had at least some idea of what they were doing, and if there is some tension between intention and outcome there, it’s much less obvious than it is in The Room, which is truly abysmal. I think both movies have cult followings, and both movies appeal to the ironic-viewer crowd, but whereas I’d say that’s the only way to appreciate The Room, it’s just one of a few ways to appreciate Showgirls. And not my chosen method, I should say.
Q: Why do you think critics were so harsh to Showgirls when it came out?
AN: I talk about this a lot in the book — the idea that Basic Instinct was a movie everyone hated even though it was a hit, and that its reception guaranteed that the follow-up would be trashed. Now, there are things about Showgirls that I understand could strike some critics as being bad, like Elizabeth Berkley’s performance or some of the dialogue. But after a while, the bad reviews weren’t even focused on the content of the movie. It was just a pile-on on a “bad” cultural object. And a lot of the reviews look pretty hasty and silly now when contrasted with more timely and nuanced critiques.
Q. Do you find that people are enjoying the film a lot more than before?
AN: Well, yes. Nobody admitted to enjoying it in 1995. A lot of people do now. I hope this book gives some idea about why both of these things are true.
Q: Should anyone studying film watch Showgirls?
AN: Well, as long as they promise to study MGM musicals, All About Eve, Valley of the Dolls, Viva Las Vegas, Verhoeven’s Dutch films and Flashdance first — then they’ll at least know what they’re looking at when they watch Showgirls. I’d also say that they should probably watch a bunch of other movies: I can provide a list upon request.
Q: When is the book coming out?
AN: I was pushing for April Fool’s Day but it’s April 15. So you can spend your tax refund on it.