Sex Scenes: A Study of 'Showgirls', A Camp Classique
“Thanks. I bought it at "Ver-sayce".
Screengrab via YouTube,
In the first five minutes of Showgirls (1995), Nomi Malone — played by Elizabeth Berkley —hitchhikes to Vegas, pulls a switchblade, wins big on the slots, loses all her money, is solicited, gets a bouncer fired, loses her suitcase, gets in a fight, vomits, and bonds with a hot seamstress whose trailer she immediately moves into. As Oscar Wilde said, nothing succeeds like excess. So far, so good!
Showgirls is a leaving-home story, and its stylistics excess is in theme with this year’s Met Gala: high camp. Hopefully the theme has many stylists reading Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay Notes on “Camp,”, and to understand Showgirls (and the pending red carpet looks) one should turn to Sontag on what exactly camp is. Camp is a way of aestheticizing that privileges style over content. Camp sees everything in quotation marks, yet it is not irony; it is instead a sincere attempt at seduction, one which “employs flamboyant mannerisms susceptible of a double interpretation; gestures full of duplicity, with a witty meaning for cognoscenti and another, more impersonal, for outsiders.”
It is an exuberant style that whiffs both of the cabaret and the brothel. (See: Showgirls) It stands against naturalness because it deals in creating fictions, and against seriousness, because its playfulness associates camp with the feminine (and the Victorian stereotype of the feminine as eternal childhood) as well as the “easy life” of criminals.
There is thus no better subject to explore this idea than a story about dancers and strippers in Las Vegas, a city founded by criminals. The forced glamour of this city that defies any functionality finds its way down to the copies of more famous urbane (read: New York City) restaurants, that manage to make you feel as if you are dining in a suburban mall’s food court no matter how high the price point. There’s the numerous residencies of burned-out setting stars, and high paychecks for the blandest of DJ’s. The director of Showgirls, Paul Verhoeven himself, declared that in coming up with the shows and the music for the movie he explicitly asked for a banality that would effectively recall the what the viewer would expect from a visit to Vegas.
Verhoeven had it big with the erotic commercial release Basic Instinct (1992) and kept his screenwriter from the collaboration. They interviewed strippers, wrote their stories into the script, and branded the film a morality tale. The final cut, rated NC-17 , was a commercial failure and derided by critics. The reactions surprised Verhoefen, and he attracted attention to how rabid and over-the-top they were, calling the movie “not sexy enough” while claiming they had to leave the movie because of how nauseous they felt.
Nausea is a bit of an exaggerated reaction considering how ridiculously funny the nudity and sex is, in all its unsexiness. The epitome is the famous underwater sex scene with between Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley) and Zach (Kyle MacLachlan). Foreshadowed by the lapdance she’s given him earlier in the film, Nomi goes back to Zach’s mansion. She strips totally naked, giggling, and dips into a pool crested with dolphins spouting water. There’s an underwater blowjob, some shots lingering on them beneath an infinity waterfall, and then Nomi shows us her skills, gliding atop Zach to put on a real show, bumping grinding, bending all the way backward in some truly acrobatic prehensility, shaking epileptic in a show of coming beneath the pool’s artificial waterfall.
It’s as if the vehemence of the critic is coming from the shame of being caught in their horniness. Embarrassed from the direct titillation elicited by the extended nudity, their only resort is that of denying that they are horny — or to morally condemn that which made them horny. Only after the reviews started to come in did Verhoeven realize that the difference between Showgirls and the incredibly successful Basic Instinct, was that the veneer of danger that sex scene serve in the thriller genre as a plausible deniability of the erotic pleasures it conveys.
Camp as a form of seduction is instead direct in its aims and methods, and is also very successful in being stimulating — though there’s a disgust and shame for the flamboyant display. It’s almost akin to being horny for the joke act at the strip club, which mixes self-ridiculing, humor and provocation in an undeniably sexual way. Susan Sontag remarks that the intimate relationship between Camp and “a mostly unacknowledged truth of taste” is that the most refined form of sexual attractiveness (as well as the most refined form of sexual pleasure) consists in going against the grain of one's sex. What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine.
Both Elizabeth Berkley and Gina Gershon, as Cristal, the gorgeous star who is both Nomi’s mentor and her rival, exude this androgynous (queer) charm. Nomi is hard, dangerous, loud, while having an absolutely perfect face, while Crystal is a hyperfeminine doll who speaks husky and deep. The Cinemax softcore style interaction of the two quickly turns the movie into a cult lesbian classic. When the two have lunch together, Nomi gives into Cristal’s flirtations, telling her how she likes to show off her tits, having them in a tight top, the two of them talking the slow deliberate language of 1-900 dirty talk. Crystal is mommy and Nomi wants to take her place, live her life and steal her man. The gay tension is at an all-time high.
Showgirls received seven Razzies, a parody award show for abysmal performances, and Paul Verhoeven appeared in good humor to accept them. “Thank you very much...” he said “I accepted seven of the worst awards, and I’m very happy because it was much better, much more fun, than reading the reviews in September.”
In 2019, Showgirls is a document of great camp and hyperbole. Taking a queue from the original champagne-papi of camp, Oscar Wilde, Showgirls indulgences in many memorable one-liners:
“I chipped my tooth on a quaalude.”
“She looks better than a ten-inch dick and you know it!”
“I’ll fuck you when you love me!”
“You’re gonna have to sell it eventually!”
“It's amazing what paint and a surgeon can do.”
“Come back when you fuck some of this baby fat off!”
“Thanks. I bought it at "Ver-sayce".
Showgirls is a love letter to camp, and maintains a well-earned spot in the queer cinema canon. It’s an ode to all that is class-drag and Vegas sparkle, to the comeuppance of a gay bitch on the pole.