In Hollywood, it is often said that you are only as successful as your last film. That has never been more true than with Paul Verhoeven and Showgirls. Despite having huge successes with Robocop, Total Recall and Basic Instinct, none of those films would have as much impact on his career as Showgirls, a film that is so notoriously bad, it was nominated for a record breaking 13 Golden Raspberry awards and was the winner of 7. Verhoeven at least had the integrity to admit to the films failures and actually attended the Razzies, picking up the awards himself, being the only Hollywood director to do so in the events entire history. With all this notoriety the big question is, is it really that bad? The answer is both Yes and No.
The film tells the rags to riches story of Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) who travels to Las Vegas in order to seek fame as a dancer. Whilst there, she starts work as a stripper before getting her big break in a show. That story, which cost the studio a whopping $2 million, was the brainchild of Joe Eszterhas, who had previously worked with Verhoeven on Basic Instinct, yet offers nothing that the viewer hadn't seen before. Had she not been a Vegas stripper and exotic dancer, then it would have been the same story seen in many other Hollywood films. The only new thing in the story was all the sex and nudity, but even that had been seen hundreds of times before in many a soft-core B-movie. Verhoeven himself has even stated that the story is probably the main reason the film failed. Had there been a murder mystery or thriller element to it, then it would have more likely been accepted by the masses, as was proven with Basic Instinct.
To blame the films failures solely on the story though is not fair. As bad as the story is, the way it was filmed didn't help. Verhoeven's early Dutch movies dealt with sex and nudity without the need of a murder mystery aspect in which to hang it on, and they weren't seen as failures. Had Showgirls been filmed in a similar manner, with a more gritty edge, it may have been accepted as a serious drama. Instead, it was filmed with a glossy look to highlight the look of Vegas, yet, ironically, it's this expensive look that makes the film look so cheap, giving the appearance of some bad daytime soap opera. There is no mood or style in the way it is filmed, making the expensive sets look cheap and tacky, which may also have been deliberate as a way of portraying the tackiness of Vegas.
The other problem with the film is the acting. After pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable with Basic Instinct, Verhoeven's intention was to make a big, expensive, Hollywood movie that pushed these boundaries even further, but then filled this expensive movie with a cheap cast of B-actors and soft-core porn stars. Had we seen the likes of Drew Barrymore and Charlize Theron, both of whom were considered for the lead role, as well as some respected character actors in the smaller parts, then he might have succeeded. Paul Thomas Anderson proved it possible only a few years later with Boogie Nights. Instead, the film's biggest star was Kyle MacLachlan, sporting one of the worst hair-cuts since Dumb and Dumber, but without the intentional laughs.
Instead of the aforementioned Barrymore and Theron, the lead went to the stunning star of Saved By The Bell, Elizabeth Berkley, in a role as far removed from that family sitcom as possible. The reasons for casting her were obvious. Saved By The Bell proved she can act, but she also had the credentials as a trained dancer. The film should have turned her into a star in the same way that Basic Instinct made a star out of Sharon Stone. Unfortunately, where Stone looked classy in Instinct, Berkley just looks tacky, which was probably deliberate seeing as she was playing a stripper. Despite a few subsequent and acclaimed appearances in Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday and Woody Allen's The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion, it killed her career stone dead.
The main reason the film failed though was simply because Hollywood just wasn't ready for so much sex and nudity in a big Hollywood film, and unfortunately, it still isn't. Even though the horrific gore and violence of the Saw films is perfectly acceptable for an audience of 15 year olds, if you dare to show a bit of nudity in Hollywood, without any gore and violence to hide it amongst, then the film is automatically given the death rating of NC-17. Originally conceived as a rating to highlight the fact that a film is intended for mature audiences, Americans had translated that to mean it's of a pornographic nature. This is a shame as it is forcing film-makers to be restrictive in what they can show. Whereas in Holland, Verhoeven didn't even need to think twice about showing full frontal nudity in Turkish Delight and Spetters, in Hollywood, it was a different matter. Verhoeven's biggest mistake when making Showgirls was simply that he made the film with a Dutch mindset, but for an American audience. Had he made the film in Holland, it would probably have been declared a masterpiece.
Despite it's reputation and the copious amounts of it, the nudity is never that gratuitous. Verhoeven never lets the camera linger on the breasts and buttocks of it's stars, and there are only a few moments of full frontal nudity. Instead, he just films the scenes regardless of the nudity on show, rather than because of it, the idea being that after a while it no longer becomes an issue for the viewer.
The film isn't all bad though. If you can get past the nudity, then you will find the film is surprisingly enjoyable, so much so that it has attracted a cult following in America and had become one of MGM's top 20 all-time best sellers. The film also has a satirical edge to it, as does all of Verhoeven's Hollywood films, that was widely missed at the time. Besides, it also has a great poster.
Despite IMDb giving it an understandably low rating of 4.1, I'd have to give it a higher 5.5, definitely Verhoeven's worst film, but not nearly as bad as people make it out to be.