How ‘Showgirls’ Takes Busby Berkeley to the City of Sin

A lot of things have been written about Showgirls, mostly in terms of its quality, and whether it’s some kind of misunderstood masterpiece despite its many, many flaws. But before all else, before even being a bad film, Showgirls is, first and foremost, an ugly film. Whether or not anyone thinks that Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 drama succeeds as a satire of the male gaze and objectification, it relishes in the trashiness of the surfaces it may or may not want to critique; a surface level look at a surface level city.

The camp glory of Showgirls, however, comes from those very surfaces. The film never knows if it wants to criticize or revel in the seediness and excess of Las Vegas, but given the constant current of sexual objectification and exploitation — which comes up everywhere from dance auditions to sex in a swimming pool — Showgirls is, in a way that feels uniquely Vegas (and uniquely trashy), obsessed with skin, movement and bright lights. The film is at its most compelling and coherent when it decides to shrug off its narrative entirely, and focus instead on the spectacle of a Las Vegas floor show. Of course, like the rest of Showgirls, these sequences are full of trash and excess, but they take on a strange, unexpected new meaning: they bring to mind the big musicals of Old Hollywood, the ones that, before anything else, were all about creating elaborate choreography, musical numbers that have been designed to within an inch of their lives. The closest parallel to Verhoeven’s monument to Sin City is the choreography of Busby Berkeley.

Berkeley’s films are about escapism; Footlight Parade exists in the shadow of the Great Depression, with its musical spectaculars designed as a perfect way out of a world that’s difficult to bear, even if that escape is only temporary. Dance-as-escapism is something that runs through the veins of Showgirls as well, although the world that Nomi is trying to escape from is unique for how singular it is: for better or worse, there’s nowhere else in the world like Vegas. And, like the Depression cityscapes in Berkeley’s films, Vegas is something barren, difficult to live in; Nomi is trying to get away from the past, from the people around her, from her inability to keep her life together. And the way that she tries to do this is through dancing, her overwhelming desire to be a showgirl. And it’s in these numbers that, in more ways than one, Showgirls lays itself bare.

Footlight Parade Movie

The performances in Showgirls are, like so much of the film, about sex. The costumes are designed to be revealing, and the choreography is a kind of hypersexual gyrating more than anything else. But there are other things going on beyond that; the performance at the Stardust has a fascinating production design that’s volcanic and violent, explosive like the dancing. This is where Showgirls is at its most camp, willing to embrace all of its excesses without any irony. Crystal appearing from an exploding rock formation is a legitimately impressive piece of stagecraft, and the Stardust performance brings to mind the human waterfall in Footlight Parade; both of them are about the ways in which space is manipulated, the use of a single body as part of a collective (more often than not, the dancers in Showgirls are locked together in some kind of embrace). The most obvious difference between Verhoeven and Berkeley’s films is the way that, while Footlight Parade flirts with sexuality and desire (in the “Shanghai Lil” sequence that hasn’t aged particularly well), sex is everywhere and everything for Showgirls .

The audition scene in Showgirls, where a floor show director wants to see the girls topless before anything else, seems designed to foreground the idea that, in Verhoeven’s Vegas, sex comes before anything else. This scene dehumanizes the women, reduces them to their sex appeal; this is what makes Showgirls’ relationship with satire a little thorny, it plays all of the misogyny straight. But the film is full of camp in other places, both on and off the dance floor. As Nomi, Elizabeth Berkley moves between emotions in the blink of an eye, and always at a hundred miles-per-hour. Showgirls is a film that loves excess. The reason that the floor show sequences are the best part of Showgirls is the fact that they manage to reveal everything about the film within the confines of dance numbers, from its constant barrage of sexuality to the more-is-more philosophy of Vegas.

Vegas is important to Showgirls. The film could never exist anywhere else; Sin City gives the film a perfect marriage of sex and excess, from the way that money runs through every aspect of the casinos and dancefloors where Showgirls takes place to the endless array of elaborate, neon buildings that dominate the skyline. And one of Berkeley’s films explores the intersection between money and female bodies as well: the “We’re in the Money” sequences from Gold Diggers of 1933. The costumes bring to mind the dancers at the Starlight; gold, revealing, flirting with the idea of selling sex. The reveal of the elaborate set, made of giant coins, is itself an exercise in excess. Both Berkeley and Verhoeven use their dance numbers as a way to not only reveal their thematic ground, but also to allow the films to explore excess.

Gold Diggers of 1933

Given that both films explore excess through camp – with Berkeley using classically camp gay ideas around musical theatre – the question of why they’re using excess as a device is something that becomes compelling. While it’s clear that Showgirls is a film that’s about excess, using dance numbers and comically bad sex scenes as a way of letting form dictate content, the idea of excess is different for Berkeley, even though both he and Verhoeven use similar strategies. As discussed above, Berkeley’s films exist as portals through which the Great Depression can be escaped, and excess is the antithesis of the reality of scarcity in which his films take place. Where Berkeley uses excess as a contrast to the real world, Verhoeven uses it as a magnifying glass.

The excess of these two filmmakers might be coming from worlds apart, but they’re rooted in similar things: an exploration of bodies, a camp sensibility, a kind of formal marriage between cinema and musical theatre (which serves as a plot device in Footlight Parade). Showgirls is Berkeley for a new world — in both time and place — and everything from the costume design to the treatment of the body is an illustration of this. The dialogue that exists between Berkeley and Verhoeven illustrates the idea that, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Sam Moore (@Sam_Moore1994) is a writer, artist and editor. Their writing on the intersections of culture, queerness and politics has been published by The Los Angeles Review of Books, i-D, Little White Lies and other places both in print and online.