In spite of her volatile personality, Nomi finds an important friend in Molly (Gina Ravera), who works in the wardrobe department at a Stardust stage show and gives Nomi a place to stay and a backstage pass to the cheesy nude extravaganza of her dreams. In the meantime, Nomi works the catwalk at Cheetah, a down-market strip joint run by an oily manager who offers job security in exchange for regular blowjobs. (And yet he's treated affectionately in the end, which speaks to how big the film's other scoundrels are.) Opportunity knocks when the Stardust's main attraction, Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon), takes an interest in Nomi much as a pimp might with a potential trick: She wants to turn Nomi out, just for the sport of it. When a chorus-girl position opens up in Cristal's show, Nomi rage-humps her way into it, with an eye on supplanting her curly-mouthed benefactor as the featured attraction one day. She also gets involved with the casino's entertainment director, Zack, whom Kyle MacLachlan plays as a floppy-haired, bare-assed tool.

Take away the sex, boobs, language, and other crude modern trappings, and Showgirls is actually an old-fashioned Hollywood story: Ambitious young ingénue from the sticks comes to the city with a dream in her head and a song in her heart, navigates a minefield of sleazy showbiz types, and comes out a big star in the end. (Incidentally, Showgirls would make a great double bill with Glitter, which is old-fashioned in a similar way.) I've already made the comparison to A Star Is Born, but it's also 42nd Street (about a chorus girl who steps in when the star breaks her ankle) or a reversal of All About Eve that casts Eve as the hero and Margo Channing as the villain. Having absolved herself of a checkered past, Nomi doesn't come to Vegas as an innocent, exactly, but as someone with a clean slate who's determined to get what she wants without dirtying it up too much.


Without getting too far into Marxist dogma, the film's basic point is that if you participate in a capitalist system, it will corrupt you. And what better setting to make that point than Vegas, the grotesque funhouse mirror of America? Nomi puts up fierce resistance, but she has a price, too, and Cristal feels like it's her job to make Nomi realize it. "You like her?" she asks Zack on an impromptu visit to the Cheetah. "I'll buy her for you." Nomi doesn't want to take any money from Cristal, but the decision is out of her hands: Her manager forces her to take half a grand for a lapdance, and after a few minutes of crazed tribal thrusting, Zack gets off and Cristal proves her point. All of which leaves Nomi feeling dejected and, yes, a little whorish: "You just got $500 for a lapdance," says her manager. "You act like somebody died."

The icy-hot exchanges between Nomi and Cristal are by far the most compelling in the film—partly because they're all about corrupting Nomi, partly because of the vapid mental jujitsu between the two actresses, and partly because they expose screenwriter Joe Eszterhas' hilariously bizarre notions of how women speak to each other. For me, there isn't a funnier scene in Showgirls than this heady dialogue on Doggy Chow and tits, which takes place in a fancy eatery that Cristal clearly picks to make her low-class, trailer-trash guest uncomfortable:


Here is the scripting of a man who was once the most sought-after screenwriter in Hollywood:

Cristal: I like nice tits. I always have. How about you?

Nomi: I like having nice tits.

Cristal: How do you like having them?

Nomi: What do you mean?

Cristal: You know what I mean.

Nomi: I like having them in a nice dress or a tight top.

And so on. It's like some adults-only version of Green Eggs And Ham: I do not like them in a box, I will not eat them with a fox. All of this tit discussion is Eszterhas' way of drumming up some sexual tension between the two, because there's nothing hotter (or more thoroughly a male juvenile fantasy) than lipstick lesbians who could fight or fuck at any moment. Verhoeven and Eszterhas teamed up earlier with Basic Instinct, and the two complement each other in an unusual way: Eszterhas writes the most vulgar commercial material in the business, and Verhoeven likes to comment on that vulgarity. I've never gotten the impression that Verhoeven respects Eszterhas' work as anything more than a means to an end—a vehicle through which he can make his own, separate points about American culture. (This as opposed to Ed Neumeier, whose scripts for RoboCop and Starship Troopers are closely aligned to Verhoeven's sensibility.)


Still, Eszterhas is responsible for the "everyone's a whore" theme, not to mention some of the ripest, most quotable bad-movie dialogue in Hollywood history. And when Nomi is faced with the decision to either stay quiet about her friend Molly getting raped by a popular Fabio-like performer or lose her status as Stardust's main attraction, Eszterhas also provides a more nuanced twist on the theme: Maybe everyone is a whore, but even whores can earn a sliver of integrity. In the end, Nomi loses a job that only superstars of Paula Abdul or Janet Jackson's wattage have the stature to fill, but she's the nearest approximation to a hero that Verhoeven and Eszterhas can bring themselves to champion. Laugh all you will at Showgirls—and how can you not?—but you have to appreciate its coal-black notions of redemption. Goodness knows, Nomi's was hard-earned.

Coming Soon:

Next week: Sexy Beast

August 14: Sonatine

August 21: Gremlins 2: The New Batch

August 28: Lars Von Trier's The Kingdom