A Critic's Worst Nightmare

The following article is under submission. Reproduction in computer message and file bases is permitted for informational purposes only. Copyright (c) 1995 by J. Neil Schulman. All other rights reserved.


by J. Neil Schulman

Suppose you had a movie whose director and screenwriter had previously collaborated to produce a classic in the suspense genre -- a director who had in addition produced a couple of the best science-fiction films ever made. Suppose this creative team had produced a brand-new movie which was particularly dependent on the press for box-office success because they had made a huge gamble: producing the first serious adults-only major motion picture since Midnight Cowboy in the 1960's.

Now suppose that the universal critical reaction in all major media was to attack this new movie as being incompetent in every respect -- accusing it of being badly written, badly directed, badly acted -- with critics accusing it not merely of being unprofessional, but in essence a gross fraud upon the movie-going public.

That was the paradox I was contemplating earlier tonight as I took a seat in my local theater, along with fellow science-fiction author Brad Linaweaver, to see Showgirls, written by Joe Eszterhas and directed by Paul Verhoeven, who previously collaborated on the suspense classic, Basic Instinct. Either I was about to see a truly awful movie inexplicably made by a very talented creative team -- or the critics were for some reason trying to assassinate a singular masterpiece.

As Brad and I walked out of the theater afterwards, we knew we had just seen a masterpiece. The only question we needed to debate was whether the American film-reviewing industry was a bunch of short-sighted incompetents or whether they are so morally flawed they had to try stamping out this particular masterpiece in order to hide from the light it shed upon their own moral corruption.

Now let me tell you what I saw on the screen.

I saw a film which stars Elizabeth Berkley, an actress whose next role should be Helen of Troy. Berkley is an actress who might be called Marilyn Monroe's sister -- the pretty one -- except that Elizabeth Berkley is already a more evocative and powerful actress than Monroe was at her prime -- and she's a dancer of powers equal to her acting strengths.

I saw a film, about the seedy side of show business, which combined the raw power of Scorcese's Goodfellas, in its ability to highlight the workings of evil minds, with Bob Fosse's ability to combine the onstage and backstage life of dancers in All That Jazz.

In a phrase, Showgirls is A Chorus Line's evil twin.

I saw a film with a main character, Nomi Malone, that I would have thought only Ayn Rand could write: a diamond in the rough, a pearl cast before swine. Elizabeth Berkley's portrayal of Nomi Malone, as written by Joe Eszterhas and directed by Paul Verhoeven, evokes an innocence that can stroll through Hell itself -- emotionally scorched by evil, a violent nemesis to evil, but unscarred and ultimately unconquered by it. Malone is a Candide figure who expects the best of all possible world in the glitter of Las Vegas -- and when she learns better that the glitter is a paper-thin covering for corruption worthy of Nero's Rome, she walks out as decisively as a cowboy riding off into the sunset, leaving the bad guys in her dust.

Finally, this is a movie about power: the power of money and the power of sex. America has an unfortunate history in that its puritan founders never understood that sex is not merely procreative but a core expression of our nature as rational animals. Ayn Rand showed in her novels that what our bodies respond to sexually are what our minds would have us become: if we are heroic in our ideals, we are turned on by beauty and heroism; if we are flawed, our sexual choices reflect our flaws.

With Elizabeth Berkley's natural beauty combined with masterful choreography, lighting, and direction, a man watching this film would have to be a eunuch not to be aroused by it -- and a woman would have to be one of Germaine Greer's female eunuchs. When critics call this movie non-erotic, all I can think of is that they're lifelong member's of Orwell's Anti-Sex League in his dystopian Nineteen-eighty-four.

The plot of Showgirls is more symbolic than dramatic; it uses the background of A Star is Born, Fame setting to display for us the conflict between artistic ambition and moral integrity. Those who seek nothing great never experience the forces which would tempt them to sell their dreams -- and that is why critics, who make their living as parasites on creative products they could never themselves create, are so offended by geniuses who have the bad taste to show them what artistic integrity looks like -- and the worse taste to show that the moral lesson works even in the near pornographic setting of erotic dance.

Nomi Malone in Showgirls is a young individualist who is unwilling to sell herself out. She does what is necessary to survive, even if distasteful, but she never loses sight of the value of her own life. When she is accused of having low self-esteem, her immediate reaction is to spit in the eye of the man who said it -- a man who truly does not understand the nature of the insult. Malone is capable of being extremely violent, but her violence is well-aimed at worthy targets; and she is generous enough to grant the boon of charity to an enemy who probably doesn't deserve it.

I have written in other places that we get what we pay for and do not get what we do not pay for. The price of having works of genius as part of our culture -- works that stand above the lowest-common-denominator which is our daily fare -- is that we not allow them to be marginalized. Whatever the value of a great movie is to the enrichment of our culture and the recognition of our human nature, we owe it to those capable of producing works of original merit that we not ignore them at the urging of the moral cripples who have seized control of the critical organs of our culture.

The sexually explicit Showgirls is not for children, but then neither are matches. Grown-ups who know that sex and violence can be an integral part of our moral life should see this movie before the critics empty the theaters and leave it to subsequent generations to discover its greatness -- leaving its writer, director, and star to wonder why their virtues are being despised.

-- J. Neil Schulman, September 24, 1995


Nomi Malone: Elizabeth Berkley
Zack Carey: Kyle MacLachlan
Cristal Connors: Gina Gershon
Molly Abrams: Gina Ravera
Tony Moss: Alan Rachins

Mario Kassar presentation, Chargeurs/Charles Evans production in association with Carolco Pictures Inc., Joe Eszterhas and Ben Myron, released by United Artists. Director Paul Verhoeven. Screenplay Joe Eszterhas. Producers Alan Marshall, Charles Evans. Executive producer Mario Kassar. Cinematographer Jost Vacano. Editor Mark Goldblatt, Mark Helfrich. Costumes Ellen Mirojnick. Music David A. Stewart. Production design Allan Camern. Art director William F. O'Brien. Set decorator Richard C. Goddard.
Running time: 2 hours, 11 minutes.
Rating: NC-17: No children under 17 allowed.

-- JNS

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