Sex, Love and Videotape

On movie sex and movie love...

Tag: Paul Verhoeven

Showgirls

YEAR: 1995
DIRECTOR: Paul Verhoeven (as Jan Jensen)
KEY ACTORS: Elizabeth Berkley, Gina Gershon, Kyle MacLachlan
CERTIFICATE: 18
IMDB SCORE: 4.8
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 22%

SEX SCORE: 1.5/5
✔️ Showgirls does pass the Bechdel Test with lots of talk about dancing and work between the many named female characters
❌ But it’s not rewatchable. Regardless of how interesting and clever I think this film is, it is objectively bad.
❌ Extraordinarily considering how beautiful and naked they are, I don’t want to fuck the cast. They’re prickly and spiky and too too much to be fuckable
❌ And the hostile atmosphere meant that this movie didn’t inspire fantasies.
❓But is it sex positive? I’m going to leave this as a half mark of a maybe. I found it hard to decide as, superficially, it is not sex positive. There’s ample evidence of abuse, manipulation and extortion, but it never glamorises that attitude and does not shy away from showing how awful it is. It also approaches sexual taboos like period sex without any fuss. So…maybe?

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: YouTube (from £3.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

[Content warning: rape, sexual assault, violence]

Poster for Showgirls of Elizabeth Berkeley’s leg and a strip of her body against a black background

This is my 26th post for this blog – I’ve been writing for it for half a year! And this felt as good a time as any to admit that I have always, always wanted an excuse to obsess and analyse movies in this way. As much as sex Twitter and sex blogging is my heart and my home, movies were my gateway into the idea of Twitter and podcasts and blogs – I joined Twitter initially to follow cinemas and movie writers; my first ever blog post was an ultimately unsuccessful submission to the Prince Charles Cinema when they were looking for a movie blogger; and movie podcasts were the first that drew me to that form of media. Yes, once I found the sex and erotica, I didn’t look back, but I have carried on devouring movie media alongside.

And it was a movie podcast that lit the spark for this particular blogging project. The Dana Buckler Show, which used to be called How Is This Movie, has been my number one movie podcast for over 5 years now and most of my opinions on the business of movies, the complexities of the rating systems and the history of movies in general have come from these fabulously well researched episodes. Although I don’t always agree with Dana’s opinions on the films themselves, his insight and research is incredible and I am always fascinated to hear what he and his co-presenters think, in case it changes my opinion.

Which brings me to Showgirls – a film that is objectively trash. I know I enjoy a lot of films that others might describe as trash, but this really is awful. The acting is over done, the characters don’t talk like real people, the sex is not sexy and, although it has gained a cult following since its release on video, it was a box office failure that squashed the future careers of its star and director. This is a baaaaad film! This series of ridiculous gifs is proof enough!!

Which is exactly what I thought after my first viewing and I discarded it without much thought.

But then I saw that The Dana Buckler Show had an episode on Showgirls and I thought I would give it a listen to see what he thought. I must admit that I was listening in the shower, not quite relegating it to background noise but definitely not expecting to stop and give it my whole focus, which is exactly what I did! I stood there, soap in my hair, mouth agape as Dana and Ashley made me see the film completely differently. And then I started wondering what other films I might have misunderstood, what other films about sex might have been trashed without reason or unjustly ignored because of their sexual themes, what other erotic films might contain undiscovered lessons…and, well, that’s where this blog began!

Showgirls is essentially a modern day retelling of All About Eve, set in the glamorous world of exotic dancing in Las Vegas. Nomi Malone (Berkley) arrives in Vegas, all set to make her fortune, and starts dancing at a strip club called The Cheetah. Unhappy with her role as a stripper and wanting to be a real dancer, Nomi auditions to be a showgirl and backing dancer at the big Vegas show, Goddess. The star, Crystal Conners (Gershon), soon takes a shine to Nomi and acts as a mentor of sorts. Nomi pays her back by pushing her down the stairs so Nomi can become the star instead! But sadly, fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and, after Nomi’s friend is brutally raped and Nomi exacts a vicious revenge, she leaves – to try again in LA.

And, oh my gosh, there is so much to say about this film!

Because I’ve come to realise that Paul Verhoeven may just be too smart for his own good. He knew exactly what he was doing when making Showgirls and he has made exactly the film that he wanted to make, describing it as ‘probably the most elegant movie [he’s] ever done.’ Just like Kubrick and Eyes Wide Shut, Verhoeven is a very good and very precise director and he wouldn’t have allowed the film to be released if it wasn’t what he wanted: ‘As for the finished product: I thought it was perfect. Otherwise I would have changed it. I had time to change it. I could change whatever was there.’

Yet Showgirls was a huge flop. Roger Ebert felt it was ‘a waste of a perfectly good NC-17 rating’ and it only made back $20 million in US box office takings after costing $40 million to make. And I find the film to be almost completely unwatchable. It’s just too much and it’s quite unpleasant viewing in places – Elizabeth Berkley is almost a masterclass in overacting, the movie is full of cliches and parts of it are pretty distasteful. And its failure had lasting consequences for all involved. Verhoeven was never given as much freedom again to direct risky movies and Berkley was immediately dropped by her agent.

My main problem with this film is that it staggeringly unsexy. Marketed as an erotic thriller and as an NC17 film from the team who made the staggeringly hot but only R rated Basic Instinct, it somehow manages to be a film about sex that is profoundly unerotic. I have never seen so much gorgeous and beautiful nudity look so plastic and unappealing. All you need do is compare Nomi dancing in the club with the rougher but infinitely hotter dancing in Dirty Dancing to see quite how unsexy this film is.

An image from Showgirls showing Nomi licking a pole

And the sex itself is hilarious! No one ever, ever has sex like this – and I don’t mean because movie sex tends to be unachievable. I wouldn’t be surprised if Berkley gave herself a significant injury as she writhed and whipped her torso around. Roger Ebert described it as ‘masturbatory fantasies,’ commenting on how ‘eroticism requires a mental connection between two people, while masturbation requires only the other person’s image,’ and I’ve heard it described as sex written by as 12 year old boy who has never actually seen anyone have sex. The sex scene in the pool between Berkley and MacLachlan is famous for being so awful – it’s a waste of champagne, terrifying to watch, and is all over in a matter of seconds. I really hope that no one watching it thought that that was what sex was supposed to be like. As far as the overacting, fake orgasms and unrealistic positions go, it’s even worse than porn!

A gif from Showgirls showing the ridiculous pool sex

Which, of course, is exactly the point, and this was the huge revelation that I learned from the Dana Buckler Show. Verhoeven was trying to show just how unsexy the sex industry can be and how none of it is real. Just as amateur porn is often hotter than the overproduced, hairless studio versions, this feels too fake to be erotic. And none of the characters are realistic. Nomi is stroppy and unnecessarily aggressive, Crystal Connors is a cliche who talks like she has been written by a man – ‘I like nice tits. I always have, don’t you?’ – Zack Carey (MacLachlan) is too slimy, too polished and slick. All of the women are unrealistically beautiful too. Of course, everyone in movies is hot but these girls are a level above even the Hollywood norm. They are all so fit with tiny waists, flat stomachs and incredible legs, as well as perfectly sized tits that bounce perfectly when they dance. They’re perfect. On top of this, Vegas is too bright. It’s too well lit, too colourful; it’s too much. It’s all too much.

Except for the rape scene near the end. That looks real. It has a touch of the Verhoeven ultraviolence that I recognise from RoboCop and Total Recall but the sexual assault is very real. It’s incredibly shocking considering everything that came before it. And it’s made even more striking as it’s intercut with some of the softest and most romantic moments of the film, as Nomi and Zack dance in each other’s arms. When all of the previous sex has been hilarious and ridiculous and over the top, the simple but brutal reality of the rape is incredibly powerful.

Having now watched Showgirls again, knowing what I learned from Dana and Ashley, I have a new respect for the film and the message that Verhoeven was trying to impart. As I think I previously said about Basic Instinct, it’s really fucking clever! It was just released at a time when we weren’t ready to hear it.

Because Showgirls is about the #MeToo movement, nearly 20 years before #MeToo really existed. It’s about how women who work as dancers and strippers are treated like sexual objects, regularly abused and exploited, and generally not considered to be real humans. Verhoeven exaggerates their beauty to make them perfect and then they can be objectified because they are not real; they’re caricatures. We’re not supposed to find them sexy and, instead, we’re supposed to feel uncomfortable about how they are being used and abused. And because it is all so exaggerated and so blatant, we cannot possibly miss how much misogyny is built into the entertainment industry.

‘Sooner or later you’re going to have to sell it,’ says the man who gave Nomi a lift into Vegas. ‘If you want to last longer than a week, you give me a blowjob!’ says the owner of the Cheetah. And, when talking about Nomi’s nipples, the choreographer states ‘I’m erect. Why aren’t you erect?’ It’s disgusting. And it’s treated as completely normal – this sort of behaviour isn’t what the film is superficially about. All of the women just shrug and carry on. And when Nomi pushes back after being asked to privately entertain an Asian client after being paid a lot for making a personal appearance, insisting that she is not a whore, it’s suggested that she’s the unreasonable one. Yes, it’s unpleasant but that’s how it works. It’s how you get ahead. I sometimes wonder if this is why the #MeToo movement caught so many men off guard – their behaviour was neither new or unique. Everyone did it, it was how the industry worked.

A gif from Showgirls of Nomi pole dancing

And Showgirls strongly hints that this how the whole entertainment industry works, not just the sleazy and cheap underbelly. Nomi hates working at the Cheetah as she is treated like a stripper and wants to be a real dancer, but everything is exactly the same when she joins the Goddess team. Worse, she’s treated the same but they pretend that it’s different, pretend it’s classier: ‘You want tits and arse, you get tits and arse. Here they pretend it’s something else and still give tits and arse!’ It makes her exploitation all the more unpleasant to watch – she thinks she’s got out, she thinks it will be different.

As they discussed on the Fatal Attraction podcast, there are also a lot of other taboos that Showgirls touches against that are rarely seen in other films. She mentions her period more often than I can remember from other films, including a moment when she almost has period sex. It’s also pretty rare to see an interracial couple in a mainstream movie, even more so in the 1990s. It’s trying to be progressive and sex positive, and it nearly succeeds.

When I look at the film this way, it makes me really sad that it hasn’t worked. It could have been so good and so important, but it just didn’t work. It may have been exactly how Verhoeven wanted it, but it looks badly executed. He may have told Berkley to act as aggressively as she did for a reason, but the reasoning has got lost. Sadly, it’s fallen between the cracks when it comes to the success of a shocking movie – it’s not so powerful that you instantly get it and can rave about it, even if you can’t bear to watch it again; it’s not easy enough to watch that you will watch it over and over, and the message can seep in over time; and it’s not superficially good enough to enjoy without understanding it.

An image from Showgirls showing the dancers surrounded by fire

I also think it’s fallen victim to the issues that plagued Jennifer’s Body – it was marketed as a sexy film to bring in a male audience, but that’s not what the finished product provides. In a way, I agree with Ebert’s take that it was a wasted NC17 rating – people went expecting it to be porn, essentially. Expecting it to be better and hotter and sexier than Basic Instinct but it wasn’t. And when giving a movie that rating was so risky, it’s not surprising that it backfired.

This will be a topic that I am likely to come back again, but the rating system in American movies absolutely fascinates me. Because it’s not the same as the UK version – NC17 is more explicit than the UK 18 certificate and UK 15 certificate is more lenient than the R rating. Borderline R rated movies, such as Basic Instinct, often end up with an 18 certificate without much complaint but it was a big financial risk to give a film an NC17 rating – particularly when it’s given that rating because of sex. Violence is less of an issue but sex is a disaster!

Interestingly, despite it being widely considered a flop, Showgirls is the most financially successful NC17 rated film! These films just don’t make any money but the $300 million success of Basic Instinct despite a similarly aggressive sexual plot fooled the movie industry into thinking Verhoeven could do it again. And perhaps he could have if he had insisted on the NC17 rating because he wanted to create a sexy film, but that wasn’t his intention. It was almost as if he wanted to mock the rating system by demonstrating how unsexy sexually explicit material can be. And Showgirls has proved to be very successful on home video – as The Dana Bucker Show postulated, sexuality is much more acceptable behind closed doors. It’s just a shame that neither Verhoeven or Berkley received the praise that they deserved at the time.

I can’t say that I enjoyed Showgirls, even with this new appreciation of its intention, as I didn’t – it’s unpleasant to watch, both in the exaggerated acting and cinematography, and because of the aggressive and exploitative message. I know it has its fans who value the comedy and hilarity of the whole concept but, to me, the sexual exploitation is too all pervasive and I hate that there’s no happy conclusion. Obviously. We don’t yet live in a world where that kind of resolution is anything but fantasy.

And that’s just really depressing!

Next week: Bridget Jones’s Diary

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only. Gifs from Giphy.

Basic Instinct

YEAR: 1992
DIRECTOR: Paul Verhoeven
KEY ACTORS: Sharon Stone, Michael Douglas, Jeanne Tripplehorn
CERTIFICATE: 18
IMDB SCORE: 6.9
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 53%

SEX SCORE: 3/5
Fails the Bechdel test – none of the female characters speak to each other – and it generally portrays women very poorly…
✔️ I’ve not seen this for years but it definitely stands up to a rewatch and I’d be happy to watch it again so, yes, rewatchable!
✔️ I do think the cast are fuckable but this point comes with a caveat. The sex is hot and Sharon Stone is HOT but I really don’t rate Michael Douglas – as an actor or as an attractive lead. I don’t know why but he does nothing for me. And yet…
✔️ It did inspire fantasies – luckily for my husband, not fantasies of murder or manipulation but of sex that hot and of being a women who was in control her own pleasure. Who wouldn’t want that?
❌ But is it sex positive? Yes, it’s hot and explicit and kinky and mainstream and all about female pleasure but it’s kind of homophobic and the women are awful and sex is used as a weapon or threat and there’s the infamous story about Stone not consenting to the upskirting and I just can’t give it the mark…

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: YouTube (from £2.99), Amazon Prime (rent £2.99, buy £5.99)

I have decided to streamline this list and only mention Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime and any other free streaming services. A full list of availability can be found at JustWatch.com

[Content warning: discussion of non-consent and rape]

The poster for Basic Instinct - Michael Douglas looking over to the right with Sharon Stone glaring over his shoulder

I don’t really have a story to tell about watching Basic Instinct for the first time. It was sometime in the last 15 years and I saw it mainly because it was a film that I felt I ought to have seen. I knew all about the interrogation scene but very little about anything else. I saw it, I was fascinated and enthralled by the sex, but didn’t think much else of it – it was ridiculous, exaggerated, pulpy, and I don’t remember it being any good. I’d wanted to see it again for a long time, mainly to see if the sex was as hot as I remembered, but had never quite got around to it. It was low down on my list of rewatches.

Basic Instinct is essentially a murder mystery story. A rockstar is stabbed with an ice pick when having sex and killed, in a method eerily similar to that described in a trashy novel written by his girlfriend, Catherine Tramell. She is the prime suspect, but is this book the perfect alibi? The murder is investigated by an unstable and hot headed cop, Nick, who falls under Catherine’s spell and, well, all hell breaks loose. It’s tense, there are plot twists every two minutes, and I thought it was kind of stupid. Not bad, in the same way that Under Siege isn’t bad. Just stupid.

Except that I can see now that I completely missed the point! For its many flaws, which I’ll get to later, Basic Instinct is absolutely note perfect satire. Satire of the film noir genre, of the femme fatale trope, of everything Hitchcock made but definitely of Vertigo. It subtly but definitely mocks cops, detective movies, the 80s/early 90s (the dancing in the club is just too much), and I’d even go as far as to say that it is personally mocking Michael Douglas. How else do you explain that ridiculous green v-neck that he wears to the club? Combined with that ‘sexy-angry’ face that he wears throughout the film, he is a caricature of himself and that scene may be exactly when I stopped believing him as a heroic figure. And all in all, it’s clever. It’s really fucking clever.

I should have expected it. From RoboCop to Starship Troopers and all the way to ShowGirls, Verhoeven makes cutting satires that slice straight through whatever he is trying to expose but his satire is never obvious. In fact, it’s possible to watch the film, think it’s ridiculous and never understand his purpose (as I did with ShowGirls, a film on my list to review soon!) but the movie is so much better when you do!

Basic Instinct is also important as it marked a turning point in cinema history, ‘hitting America like a tidal wave of cynical hedonism run rampant.’ The indulgent excesses of the 80s were fading and we were moving into the steadier safer 90s, and here was a movie about excess and greed and sex but which had 80s yuppie hero Michael Douglas being brought down by the sexy and dangerous newcomer Sharon Stone rather than triumphing. It’s seedy, it’s gritty. It’s a film without heroes, without a good guy, without a clear moral conclusion and one that brought sex and kink and bisexuality to the mainstream in a way that changed everything that came after it.

And, of course, the sex was all that anyone talked about. It was all I remembered after all! Somehow managing to keep an R-rating in USA (avoiding an NC-17 was seemingly a bigger deal there as it was given an 18 certificate in the UK without much fuss), it has some of the most explicit and realistic sex that I’ve seen on screen outside of porn. Roger Ebert describes the sex scenes as belonging to ‘that strange neverland created by the MPAA’s Hollywood morality,’ showing what is allowed rather than what is good. He claims that trimming down hard-core sex to get a lower rating ends up being less erotic than more subtle, implied action,but I don’t think I can agree. The film buff in me knows that walking that ‘ratings line’ was necessary for the satire to work, over exaggerating the pleasure and hedonism, but as a horny kinkster, I also know it’s just hot!

Stone leaning back as Douglas kisses the front of her neck. Both are naked.

Sex under a mirrored ceiling? Hot. Tying wrists to the bed head to restrict your partner’s movement? Hot! Having your partner look up at you from between your legs as he eats you out? So so hot!! And the sex looked realistic enough to be believable. Everyone having sex with Catherine Tramell, Sharon Stone’s character, looked like they were having a really great time! It was sweaty and exhausting and parts of it at least showed sex that I recognised. Hot. Just hot.

Thinking about all the sex does reveal one of the major conflicts that I have with this movie. Is it sex positive? I concluded that it wasn’t in the end, but it wasn’t an easy decision. There is a lot to be said in its favour! For a start, it’s an erotic thriller where both of the main actors were over 30. Sharon Stone was 34 when it was released and Michael Douglas was 48. It also places female pleasure in the front and centre of the plot. Catherine does what she does and fucks as she fucks because it gives her pleasure. She doesn’t feel tied to old-fashioned expectations – ‘I wasn’t dating him. I was fucking him’ – and she is definitely in control of her body.

Stone looking up at Douglas

But, and this particular but comes up a lot when I’m thinking about positives for this film, she’s a complete psycho. [Edited in October 2019: I’d forgotten that I’d described Catherine this way as I’ve written in later weeks about how I dislike the common movie connection between mental illness and being evil. I’m sorry this one slipped through – Catherine is manipulative but, from memory, had no mental health diagnosis.]

It’s difficult to really take any positives from Catherine’s character because she’s such a terrible person. She’s the closest this movie has to a baddy! She’s manipulative and calculating. To quote from the film, ‘she’s evil. She’s brilliant!’ She’s much, much cleverer than anyone else but we’re not supposed to aspire to be her – she’s a warning to us all about the dangers of smart, sexual women.

Thinking about it, there are actually no women in this film who aren’t portrayed as at least a few sandwiches sort of a picnic. They’re either convicted murderers, stalkers or frankly unhinged. To me, it doesn’t matter that all the men are idiots and, my god, are they stupid. It’s not enough. Portraying women in this way is just perpetuating the patriarchy.

And I can completely understand why there were protests from gay rights activists about how lesbians and bisexual women are portrayed. Roxy, Catherine’s lover, is jealous, possessive and homicidal, confirming a long-standing Hollywood trope that lesbians are somehow evil, and it is really no comfort that all of the other characters are despicable too. Roger Ebert claims that protestors should ‘take note of the fact that this film’s heterosexuals, starting with Douglas, are equally offensive’ as if that would silence their arguments. Sadly, I fear this just reveals his privilege – being mocked or ridiculed or defamed is no big deal when society in general accepts you and doesn’t question your existence and rights.

Stone and Sarelle, with their arms around each other

Beth, Jeanne Tripplehorn’s character, is another character that particularly suffers to elevate Catherine. She’s a psychologist whose opinion is frequently sought but she never seems to a professional scene when she isn’t being overridden by a male colleague, or by Douglas himself. I don’t know why they gave her character such an intellectual career unless Verhoeven was deliberately trying to show her as a lesser women than Catherine.

Tripplehorn looking at Douglas, who is looking elsewhere

I also can’t mention Beth without mentioning her sex scene with Nick. Unlike the other sex in the movie, I did not want this type of sex but it was no less recognisable. Angry, fierce, entirely for his pleasure and in a consent grey area that looks decidedly rapey to me. Yes, she was there for sex but was she there for sex like that? Was this meant to highlight her weakness or emphasise Nick’s power? I can’t quite fit it into the rest of the plot, except perhaps to reaffirm that Nick is a twat but extra confirmation really wasn’t necessary!

Talking of non-consent brings me around to the infamous interrogation scene. What extraordinary cinema! It’s such a perfect scene – Catherine, dressed in white and looking stunning under the lights, holds every man in that room in the palm of her hand. She may be the suspect but none of the policemen could control her. She is in charge of everything; confident, slick, upfront about sex, teasing the increasingly sweaty men who are trying to intimidate her. In this context, the leg-crossing scene is the ultimate power play and it’s fucking hot. She’s taunting them with her sexuality, so close and yet unreachable.

A gif of Sharon Stone dressed in white and sitting with her legs crossed, rubbing them against each other

But IMDB reports that Sharon Stone had no idea that she would be so exposed when filming, which is frankly horrifying. According to Stone, Verhoeven asked her to remove her underwear as it was causing a shine on the camera and she agreed ‘under the assumption that her genitals weren’t visible,’ only discovering the truth at an early preview. What the actual fuck? Talk about a violation! Verhoeven’s version is slightly different, claiming that Stone changed her mind about the shot and asked for it to be removed, but he refused. I’ve got to be honest – this is no better! It’s still a massive violation!! Particularly in scenes with such a sexual content, she surely should be in control of how her body is used? Urgh…

As usual, I could witter on and on about everything that interested me about this film but I’ll finish with a subject that I could write 2000 plus words on alone – how the influence of Alfred Hitchcock is just flooding through this film. He’s there in the intense creepy music, in the car chases and shots within cars that were so clearly filmed in a studio. Thinking of Vertigo in particular, he’s there in San Francisco, in the clifftop scenery and long rolling avenues. And he’s there in the blonde heroine.

So much of Catherine’s style appears to be straight from Kim Novak’s wardrobe but they also share that typically Hitchcockian trait being icy cold and calculating. Hitchcock blondes are ‘beautiful and eye-catching, sure, but they also project the qualities of independence, poise, range, determination and, most significant, mystery.’ Hitchcock is said to have felt that blondes were ‘less suspicious’ than brunettes, which allowed him to create a duality of character – outwardly classic, beautiful, cool and internally conflicted, mysterious and aflame. He felt there was a ‘greater shock’ when a blonde is deceitful, further adding to the intrigue of his plot. Of course, it is possible that he was justifying a personal preference and there is much to suggest that Hitchcock had a very strange relationship with the women in his movies, but his legacy is certainly felt in Basic Instinct.

All the women are blonde and hiding a mysterious and potentially murderous past, apart from Beth who is the more traditional doormat of a women and is a more domestic brunette. Except, of course, when Beth’s history with Catherine is revealed and she becomes a suspect in her own right. Photos of her back then show a blonde woman.

Fancy that.

Next week: Secretary

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only. Gifs from Giphy.