Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a rewatch.
The Astonishing: Showgirls
Having witnessed one of the most brazen and thoughtless acts of terrorism in American history this week, we need a stiff drink and a cinematic reprieve. Given the circumstances, we offer up this brazen and thoughtless schlockfest from American cinema: Showgirls.
Not a person reading this article will not have heard of Showgirls in some form. Fresh off the success of Basic Instinct back in 1995, writer Joe Eszterhas and director Paul Verhoeven reteamed for another erotic drama set in the backstage world of Las Vegas. Just as Instinct had pushed the boundaries of sex and violence in movies (not to mention those of good taste), Showgirls would go even further, accepting an NC-17 rating for its content.
The result didn’t have the same level of success, though it far surpassed the previous Eszterhas/Verhoeven collaboration in terms of infamy. Showgirls earned some of the worst reviews in movie history, bombed at the box office, and severely damaged the career of all those involved. In particular, Saved By the Bell actress Elizabeth Berkley, who made her debut as a cinematic lead in the film, was branded a no-talent bimbo and tossed by the Hollywood wayside.
Today, of course, audiences have come to love Showgirls for its audacity and camp value. Berkley has recovered and proven herself a capable and interesting actress, and currently heads up the Saved By the Bell revival on Peacock. The film itself has spawned two documentaries on its rise as a cult classic, You Don’t Nomi, and the forthcoming Goddess. If viewers can put aside the gratuitous violence, misogyny and ill-conceived nature of the project, Showgirls is downright hilarious to watch.
Moreover, though the film uses girl-on-girl bisexuality as a cheap way to titillate viewers, the movie does also have a weird pro-queer feel to it. Showgirls marks the first time we’ve ever seen two men slow dance in a movie, and Gina Gershon‘s bisexual villainess Crystal Conners has a certain unapologetic relish that makes her as empowering as she is loathsome. We’re not sure that’s what Eszterhas and Verhoeven intended, but hey, it’s probably the only compliment the pair deserve when it comes to this movie.
Lurid, sleezy, outrageous and mind-boggling, Showgirls is an utter failure as a movie, but always an entertaining film to watch. To quote the late Roger Ebert’s review (itself a hilarious read), “It’s trash, yes, but not boring.”
Streams on Hulu & Amazon.