I remember it was in 1996, on the news, I saw that the actress Elizabeth Berkeley known for her role as Jessie Spano in "Saved by the Bell", was elected Worst Actress of the Year. It was my discovery of the Razzies awards and a timely one since "Saved by the Bell" was aired at that time and I didn't realize it then that there could be something as bad acting, or I never really paid much attention to it. But I'll never forget the clip they showed: it was that weird nervous smile after getting an indecent proposal from an Asian businessman, yes it was cringe-worthy even out of context.
I never really cared about the film given its trashy and trashed reputation, but now that it's been critically re-evaluated and perceived as a satire of some sort, even compared to an exploitation version of "All About Eve", I thought it was time to see where I stood, especially since I didn't see the film before so my opinion would be neutral.But to be honest, I don't see any connection with "All About Eve" except if we mean the nudity. On that level, "Showgirls" shows no limit, just when you think you've got enough breast-flashing, bottom-shaking, pole dancing and many other on-your-nose sexiness, you're served another ration. It's to Berkeley's credit to have wanted to distance herself from her good-girl image, but she couldn't have picked a worse role.
It's not about the nudity or the cruel abuse she'll be victim of (more on a verbal level), Ned Beatty became a star thanks to his ungrateful role in "Deliverance", but the problem in Elizabeth's character, Nomi, besides her name, is that nothing is ever made to make the audience root for her except for the fact that she's the main protagonist. What she needed was a little more exposition or scenes where she could talk of something else than 'sex' or 'not being a hooker' or anything to make her a three-dimensional character, a person. Nomi wasn't a person, she was a foil for a director who made to make a movie about the sleazy underground world of titty-entertainment.
So, if not the best performance ever, Berkeley as Nomi is one of the bravest... in a career-suicidal way.
Is she bad? Yes, but I guess she was misguided by Verhooven's approach to the idea of what Nomi should have been: a former drug-addict with a hair-trigger temper. From the very start; she sets the tone of her character's annoying unpredictability. She was so irritating I even wasn't noticing her acting, but rather Nomi's acting, and then it hit me. This is a film made by a guy and for guys, it doesn't give a rat's ass about women and in a way, it's very karmic that the film destroyed Berkeley's career and all the others continued making films. Verhooven, McLachlan, they didn't attract the same venom as the one who was under the spotlight: Berkeley, even Gershon played in the more successful "Face-Off" two years later.
The film is exactly a sort of "Casino" where the bad guys would win at the end, maybe it's honest and blunt but the film can only show these girls as lambs sacrificed at the altar of men's greed and sexual lust. The way girls are treated would make anyone cringe, especially at our time where even "undesired hugs" can push someone to take a leave of absence. I bet even a striptease club manager would be sued if he acted like that prick in the casting scene. It's not enough to insult them, but a tap on the shoulders, really? Women are patronized and insulted and reduced to a sex-cattle and it carries a certain truth and make even a guy root for a girl, and makes some of Nomi's reactions acceptable and bad-ass once you get past the acting (she's not always bad anyway).
But it's because we care for Nomi -she's weird but interesting, she's annoying but she stands for herself- that it's infuriating how the story takes many directions and you never really get whatever is wrong with her, or even right. It's like whatever you can get can only be accidental, as if the film could only be good despite itself. It's a shame because Berkeley sure has the moves and makes a convincing showgirl but the directing and her character-coaching were so lacking. I checked the French version of the film and seriously, Berkeley's performance is almost decent, so it's not just her body language but her voice that was problematic. I believe it could have been fixed.
Instead, the narrative structure is all messed up and never allows Berkeley to give her character a human density, she just yells, cries, runs away, acts badly with people who treats her nice, gets on stage, leaves stage, and she dances, teases customers, and insists on not being called a hooker as if at that point of the movie, the distinction made a difference. The film was made the same year than "Casino" and "Leaving Las Vega" "and both Sharon Stone and Elizabeth Shue provided more interesting characters who were supposed to be hookers. At least, they really hook you, in "Showgirls", there's not a single hook to latch onto.
Maybe Verhoovendidn't bother to provide one, maybe he didn't care about the audiences, only the audience to drool over the beautiful sight without caring for the story, embodying the very sleaziness the film supposedly denounces. As a result, "Showgirls" is only a big, bland and dull teaser... with Berkeley's acting career as a collateral damage.