Showgirls Is A Silly, Fun Cum-Stained Adventure Into 90’s Racial Blindness

I squirmed in my musty cum-stained seat at Cinema L’Amour. The dilapidated porno theatre is a throwback to the glamorous heyday of The Main. I wondered what the place would smell like if it weren’t for those barely hidden incense candles poking out of some seats.

Drunk on cheap gin and high on caffeine, my newspaper colleagues had dragged me to POP Montreal’s 20th anniversary midnight screening of Showgirls; director Paul Verhoeven’s infamous nineties bomb that failed to launch Elizabeth Berkeley’s fledgling career—or, as some might quip, nipped it in the bud.

Despite head-spinning female nudity, Showgirls is a woman’s bildungsroman. The plot—full of baffling holes—follows a down-and-out Nomi Malone (Berkeley) making her way through Las Vegas like a duck out of water aiming to become the most sought-after showgirl in town.

Starting out at a Vegas strip joint, she is noticed by Stardust Casino entertainment director Zack Carey (Kyle MacLachlan) and its star showgirl—and rival—Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon). Feeling threatened but mesmerized by the headstrong Nomi, Cristal gives her the chance to perform and dethrone her at Stardust. A thankless Nomi claws her way to the top, meeting friends and foes, and learning that not all that glitters is gold. It is Vegas after all.

Like Cinema L’Amour, Showgirls is a reminder of just how garish and outrageous Hollywood was in the nineties. Considered one of the worst and least profitable movies of all time, I expected a vivid, incoherent dud. And yet, as a movie buff, I could barely contain my excitement when the lights went out in the pervy grotto.

POP Montreal aficionados are a rowdy bunch. The movie hadn’t even started yet and some guy was already playing chorus. Imagine my disappointment at seeing the cheap screen’s tiny size. I felt like I was watching a movie from a giant TV in some horny dude’s basement. Still, I laughed my guts out at the chorus’ crude jokes.

Winner of two Golden Raspberries for worst picture and screenplay—here’s looking at you Joe Eszterhas—of 1995, the movie isn’t half as bad as what the critics would say. Now, I don’t know if this speaks to my lowered expectations or the state of Hollywood movies in 2015. Still, Showgirls is a hoot. Critics be damned; female nudity in this chick flick—though prevalent—isn’t near as lurid as what one might suppose.

Verhoeven ( Total Recall, Basic Instinct ) treats the divested female body matter-of-factly; as if it were normal to be undressed most of the time. Yet, far from off-putting and humiliating, nudity in this case becomes empowering. When Nomi dances, she becomes stronger than any man or woman.

Ask Zack Carey when she pins him down with her thigh during a lap dance. Or when she fucks him in a swimming pool creating ridiculous pulsating waves—the sole sex scene in the movie. She wears her nakedness like an eighties power suit. The movie is a precursor to this era’s female sexual empowerment trend—see Sex And The City and Girls.

She ditches her first Vegas beau—a would-be pipe-dreaming pimp who helps her out of jail—to pursue her goal of dancing at Stardust. And she does it with hawkish aplomb despite the macho show director who tries to demean her. Even a jealous Cristal can’t stop her. Nomi Malone is the female answer to every Tom Cruise character of the eighties and early nineties—see Top Gun, Cocktail, Days of Thunder.

At the end of the movie, after Nomi fucks and battles her way to the top only to throw it all away with youthful insouciance, every person in the theatre clapped and whooped.

It’s no wonder this story speaks to women everywhere; Nomi is no damsel-in-distress. She is a maverick forging her own path in the American West—living the dream of making a quick buck on her own terms, classy or not.

Yet, of all Showgirls‘ failings, none is more egregious than its depiction of female black characters. The magical negro—or in this case negress—acts as a plot device in Nomi’s blossoming from stripper to showgirl diva. Cristal Connors’ private costume designer Molly Abrams (Gina Ravera) helps out Nomi when she clearly didn’t need to—she even saves her life.

Meantime, Abrams barely has a life of her own letting the transient sleep in her tiny trailer. Instead, mammie is used as a plot device to ease Nomi’s backstage access into Stardust and first meeting with antagonist Cristal Connors.

Molly is the Jiminy Cricket to Nomi’s Pinocchio.

While Nomi’s depths are quasi-Shakespearean, black characters only serve as props. She channels a nail-painting Richard III with her power moves. The audience can only wince as they find themselves rooting for the bad girl. She sells her already damaged soul to become top showgirl—the face on Vegas billboards.

It takes Molly’s out-of-the-blue sexual assault—a real sucker punch to the audience’s suspension of disbelief—to set her back on the right track. This is Nomi’s crowning moment. When Zack refuses to press charges, her honour returns triumphant. She exacts revenge on the rapist—a bizzarro Kenny G—with the power of her long, lascivious but deadly legs. The movie sacrifices the magical negress to restore balance to the protagonist’s moral virtue—and an otherwise unraveling plot.

Despite its many faux pas—not to mention that the movie is over two hours long— Showgirls is a thrill to watch. It’s an action movie set in a feminine world where men play second fiddle, women are rivals but never enemies, life is cruel and—just like in Hollywood—black women get the short end of the stick.

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