'Showgirls': How Verhoeven's flop stripper erotica gained cult following after being tagged worst '90s film

Back in '95, when Berkley indulged in the Dutch filmmaker's elaborate fatansy of fetishes and voyeurism, she had no idea it was a set for an initial failure, or an eventual rise


                            'Showgirls': How Verhoeven's flop stripper erotica gained cult following after being tagged worst '90s film
Elizabeth Berkley as Nomi Malone (IMDb)

Armed with an arsenal of some of the most ridiculous sex scenes in cinematic history, Paul Verhoeven's ambitious, artsy erotica, 'Showgirls', was met with active criticism and brutal bashing in 1995, when it had first released. Don't believe us? Trust the reviews that labeled it "tawdry", "an exercise in excess," "sleazy and forgettable" with a "consistently talentless" cast. From Elizabeth Berkley violently writhing in an unnecessarily prolonged pool sex scene to Gina Ravera's character getting brutally sexually assaulted by three men at a party, Verhoeven's stripper drama really thought it did something with the overacting and highly exaggerated tensions of a recipe done and dusted since time immemorial.

Small town girl tries to make it big in the entertainment industry, soars and falls eventually to a puddle of epiphanies before finally leaving the industry after redeeming herself. This is the story of Nomi Malone in the movie that despite its record condemnation by critics, has earned a cult following today. What changed then? Was it Berkley's personal association with the project? Standing on the brink of Jeffrey McHale's upcoming docu-film mapping the trajectory of the same, let's take a look at the initial fall and imminent rise of Verhoeven's classic.

Back in '95, when Berkley indulged in the Dutch filmmaker's elaborate fantasy of fetishes and voyeurism, she had no idea it was set to be a failure. at least in its immediate future. With the film's raunchiness on full display during its promotion, the film still managed to win the title of the "worst film of the 1990s" by critics. With a budget that would equate to around a $100 million in today's money, 'Showgirls' was quite the big production back in the day. It's cast of big names saw the likes of Gina Gershon and Kyle MacLachlan play the leads; and with ample screentime dedicated to nudity, the joint venture of Verhoeven's director and Joe Eszterhas's script was expected to reach milestones enough to firmly ground Berkley as a Hollywood legend.

Berkley as Nomi Malone (RLJE Films)

Sadly, all that Berkley managed to do was get brashly mocked and ridiculed for a sex scene that looked like fish copulating out of water. Writhing and convulsing as if she were possessed, Berkley's sex scene with MacLachlan's character Zack Carey is hilarious and cringeworthy at the same time. The Washington Post called her character "a tarty blonde with the brains of an appliance bulb," and the San Francisco Chronicle sneered, "When she's not trying to be nude, unpleasant or both, she tries hard to act, but she's about as convincing as Joan Crawford." But after 25 years, all water's under the bridge between the masses and reruns of the film.

Back in the day, people were outraged that Verhoeven was trying to masquerade the erotica as an artistic attempt at exposig the dark secrets of titular showgirls through the dancer Nomi's struggle in the industry. In 1995, it won the Raspberry Awards, an anti-Oscar if you will, for all the negative superlatives in the film industry. Just five years later, it won another one of those infamous awards for being the worst film of the 1990s. Soon five more followed for reasons the film now seems to have immersed long ago in its past. Armed with salient cinematography, expository tropes, symbolic change in dynamics between characters and several other typically film-school aesthetics, some people are of the opinion that if you can overlook the script and the acting, things aren't entirely hopeless.

Technically, things aren't bad at all. Twenty years after its release, in 2015, Berkley finally began openly promoting the film as more and more audiences began attending reruns at local theatres. As McHale shared with the New Zealand Herald, back in the day, "Showgirls put sex in the foreground and people didn't know how to respond to it. US audiences see Showgirls like the outlier but it's Verhoeven at his purest." As it's hard to miss how when Berkley finally began associating with the film, its popularity boomed, be it for better or for worse. The revival, albeit slow, is remarkable. Probably, why now's a good time for McHale to reflect on the screen what worked and what didn't for Verhoeven in the '90s.

 'You Don't Nomi' premieres on June 8 on Virtual Theatres.

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