In our new weekly series Anatomy of a Scene's Anatomy, we're going to be taking a look at (in)famous sex scenes and nude scenes throughout cinema history and examining their construction, their relationship to the film around it, and their legacy.
Enough time has passed since the release of Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls that the film can finally be recognized for its achievements in the realm of high camp. It wasn't always that way, though, and for many fans of the film, it still hasn't earned enough respect for the pitch black and biting satire it reserves for the male-dominated entertainment industry. Elizabeth Berkley, hot off of her role as Jessie Spano on Saved by the Bell, steps into the role of Nomi, a not-so-wide-eyed woman determined to make it big on the Las Vegas stage.
After being conned out of her possessions by a crooked con man who abandons her in a casino, Nomi takes a job at the strip club Cheetah's, careful never to do anything that might get her branded a "whore." One night, she is paid a visit by Cristal Conners (Gina Gershon) and her boyfriend Zack Carey (Kyle MacLachlan), the respective star and entertainment director for the Caesar's Palace showgirl spectacular "Goddess." They want to see what Nomi's all about by paying Nomi to give them a private show.
Now, make no mistake, she's giving MacLachlan's sleazy Zack a lapdance, but she's having sex with Gershon's Cristal and it's all happening in their eyes...
The more vigorous and aggressive she gets with Zack, the more it seems to turn Cristal on...
She also gives them a sneak peek at her signature "writhing dolphin" move, which she'll do again when she has actual sex with Zack later in the film...
I am of the belief that Gina Gershon was the only cast member who had an accurate assessment of the movie around her and pitched her performance accordingly. She revels in this role as Bette Davis to Berkley's Anne Baxter in this twisted All About Eve remake subplot, and she delivers perfectly on the promise that set-up provides. I firmly believe that had this film been recognized in its time for its genius, Gershon would've won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar that year.
Let's fast-forward to nearly an hour later in the film. Nomi accompanies Zack back to his tackily decorated Vegas sleazebag mansion. Fully aware of the game she's playing now, Nomi coaxes Zack into the pool with her for one of the most absurd sex scenes in the history of film.
Things start off pretty standard, with Nomi more or less recreating their lapdance from earlier in the film, this time in an aquatic setting. When it comes time for the "writhing dolphin" maneuver, however, one almost questions whether Zack is trying to actively murder her by banging her to death...
It's a hilariously misguided sex scene, meant to clue the audience in to the fact that this is high camp, but most of the laughs this got in theaters were of the "laughing at" not "laughing with" variety. It's as unsexy as sex scenes get, and transporting lapdance moves to a pool should've been a huge clue to the fact that this scene—and really all of the nude scenes in this film—are deliberately unsexy.
So why are these scenes so deliberately unsexy? The simple answer is that Verhoeven has engineered them in such an aggressively off-putting way that your brain rejects them as sexy. We know that the walls of this house have mold on them and a fresh coat of paint isn't going to cure that problem. But that's the Vegas way, paint over it and bring in a new set of people who don't know what used to be under there. It's likely why the film was so reviled at the time, because it was sold as the sexiest mainstream movie of all time, when it's actually quite the opposite.
The film's only love story that actually has any resonance is the one between Nomi and Cristal, however non-sexual the love may be, because Nomi ultimately rescues Cristal from this life in which she's been trapped. Sure, it's an inadvertent side effect of her scheming, but it's the most kind and merciful thing anyone could have done for Cristal. That it took another woman to rescue her from this world controlled by men is just another subtle dig at the misogyny that's still rampant throughout the entertainment industry.
The hardest truth Nomi/Polly Ann comes to realize over the course of the film is that in Vegas, the house always wins. No matter how much they butter you up, compliment you, and convince you to keep losing over and over again until you win, the truth is that you're never going to win until you pack up your bags and leave. Though Nomi tells the guy who brings her to Vegas that she is "gonna win," the only victory she ends up getting is a moral one. She wins because she decides not to play the game anymore.
Fans of the film can argue all they want that the film was a success in the end, but its reputation devastated careers and took well over a decade to shake. Audiences at large just weren't ready for high camp in this way, particularly for both Verhoeven and Eszterhas coming off Basic Instinct, where the camp is much more subdued and subtle. This film took years to catch on in any sort of meaningful way and only in the last ten years has it begun to be taken seriously as a satire on the entertainment industry at large. All of that was there from the beginning, but it took people a LONG time to figure it all out.
Much like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Mommie Dearest, Flash Gordon, and even Ishtar before it, the film's reputation had to fade enough for people to be comfortable admitting that they actually liked it. High camp, when done well and done intentionally, is almost never recognized for its genius in its own time, and that's ultimately the biggest danger of verging into that territory. Showgirls has finally earned its reputation as one of the all-time camp classics, but will likely always be thought of as one of those movies that is "so bad it's good." It's not, it's good all on its own merit, it's just that most people still don't get it.
I prefer Showgirls, one of the great American films of the last few years. It’s Verhoeven’s best American film and his most personal. In Starship Troopers, he uses various effects to help everything go down smoothly, but he’s totally exposed in Showgirls. It’s the American film that’s closest to his Dutch work. It has great sincerity, and the script is very honest, guileless. It’s so obvious that it was written by Verhoeven himself rather than Mr. Eszterhas, who is nothing. And that actress is amazing! Like every Verhoeven film, it’s very unpleasant: it’s about surviving in a world populated by assholes, and that’s his philosophy. Of all the recent American films that were set in Las Vegas, Showgirls was the only one that was real – take my word for it. I who have never set foot in the place!