Release Date(s)1995 (August 29, 2023)
Studio(s)MGM/UA (Vinegar Syndrome)
- Film/Program Grade: C
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: A-
Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls has had a fascinating journey from the ashes of box office failure in 1995 to its semi-respectable status as a cult film today. It was critically reviled when originally released, earning a record 13 nominations (and scoring 7 wins) at the Golden Raspberry Awards. While it’s hardly become a critical darling in the decades since then, it’s definitely gained a fanbase as a camp classic, and a little bit of cautious critical reappraisal in the process. Showgirls was first reviled as trash, and now is praised as high camp, but it’s arguably neither of the above. It’s not exactly a misunderstood masterpiece, either, although there are a few lonely voices in the wilderness who have been willing to make that case. The reality is that Showgirls isn’t any one thing, and it can’t be reduced to a single angle for analysis. That’s due to the contradictory nature of its conception, production, and promotion, but that’s also why it’s enough of an open text that it can be read in a variety of different ways. Showgirls has escaped the bounds of whatever Verhoeven and writer Joe Eszterhas may (or may not) have originally intended, and has instead entered the rarified air where it can be whatever the individual viewer wants it to be. Trash, camp, or unfairly maligned masterpiece, the choice is yours.
Regardless of what the writer and director of Showgirls may say about it today, there’s little doubt that they did indeed intend it as a serious exposé of the commodification and exploitation of women at the hands of the Las Vegas money making machine. The trouble was that Verhoeven and Eszterhas have never really shared similar sensibilities. Verhoeven may have been sincere when he made Showgirls, but he has always expressed his sincerity with a satirical bent. That’s certainly true of his older Dutch films, but it’s equally true of his entire American output. Yet satire is a mode that has never come naturally to Eszterhas. That wasn’t an issue for their previous collaboration Basic Instinct, since the story was always inherently trashy and exploitative. The satirical tone that Verhoeven provided enhanced the ridiculousness of the pulpy narrative without taking anything away from it. On the other hand, Eszterhas meant for Showgirls to be a cautionary fable, but while Verhoeven did agree with the core concept, he still couldn’t resist satirizing the very industry that he was supposed to be earnestly deconstructing. That’s a tonal balance that’s difficult to achieve and even more challenging for audiences to interpret: an over-the-top, exploitative movie about the very real issue of the exploitation of women.
Jade is what happens when a director takes an Eszterhas script at face value. In contrast, An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn is what happens when Eszterhas actively tries to engage in satire on his own. Both approaches were problematic. Basic Instinct was the perfect storm: an outrageous script that Eszterhas intended to be taken seriously, filtered through the mind of a director who takes his satire just as seriously. It worked because the stakes were so low—aside from questionable LGBTQ representation, it was a trashy story treated with the lack of respect that it deserved. That wasn’t the case with Showgirls, because the sober issue of exploitation was always going to be at odds with Verhoven’s love of excess. Showgirls was doomed from its conception by competing basic instincts that were never going to be resolved.
The remarkable thing was that Verhoven managed to get Carolco to bankroll his NC-17 vision for Showgirls to the tune of $45 million. Even if the film had been universally acclaimed and audiences had flocked to see it, the rating alone meant that it was always going to lose money. (Of course, Carolco was pretty good at losing money by that point, and the company was soon to put the final nail in its own coffin with Renny Harlin’s disastrously expensive Cutthroat Island.) It’s also amazing that Verhoeven managed to convince actors like Kyle MacLachlan, Gina Gershon, Glenn Plummer, Robert Davi, and Alan Rachins to come along for the wild ride. None of them came out completely unscathed, but no one suffered worse than Elizabeth Berkley, making her feature film debut fresh off of the inexplicably long-running television series Saved by the Bell. She essentially took the blame for Verhoeven’s choices, and her film career never recovered.
The reality is that the critical knives were out for Showgirls from the start. That’s partly due to Verhoeven’s hubris in making an expensive NC-17 epic that reveled in the lurid details that it was being sold as critiquing, but also because the industry media had been gunning for Eszterhas due to his status as the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood. He was being set up for a fall, and Showgirls provided the opportunity to push him off the cliff. (The fact that Hollywood continues to resent paying writers commensurate with their value is nothing new.) Showgirls seemed like it was destined to be consigned to the dung heap of critical and commercial history.
A funny thing happened on the way to obscurity, however. People started to revel in the wretched excesses of Showgirls, at least on an ironic level, and distributor MGM capitalized on that by rereleasing it as a midnight movie. Verhoeven’s filthy take on classic MGM musicals and All About Eve became something of a modern Rocky Horror Picture Show, and a satirical failure ended up turning into a camp classic. Showgirls can certainly be read as camp, especially since it does seem to fit squarely into one of Susan Sontag’s definitions from her 1964 essay Notes on “Camp”:
“In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.”
Yet there’s a fine line between satire and camp, and there’s little doubt that Verhoeven intended the former but not the latter. Mockery aside, Showgirls is still a serious satire on serious subject matter. Whether or not it fails hard enough to cross the line into camp is up to the viewer. Contrary to what some people seem to think these days, there’s no right or wrong way to read any given film. There’s no such thing as an objective text; all meaning is constructed in the mind of the consumer. Even the intentions of the filmmakers no longer matter once they’ve released their works into the wild. Moviegoing may seem like a passive experience, but comprehension still requires active participation on the part of the viewer, and the results will vary from individual to individual. Showgirls can be appreciated as high camp, valid social satire, or complete trash. No matter which one that you choose, Showgirls abides, with or without anyone’s approval. It’s become a phenomenon that may be derided, but it can’t be dismissed.
Cinematographer Jost Vacano shot Showgirls on 35 mm film (in Super-35 format) using Arriflex 35 BL4 cameras with Zeiss spherical lenses. While it was exposed full frame, the intended 2.39:1 image area was blown up and had an optical squeeze applied for anamorphic release prints. This version is described as “newly restored by Vinegar Syndrome from an existing director approved 4K studio master.” It’s based on the 2015 4K restoration by Pathé, but there doesn’t appear to be much specific information available about that restoration other than the fact that it was approved by Paul Verhoeven. Presumably it was derived from a 4K scan of the original camera negative, but the results as presented here feature heavy grain throughout. Super-35 has the reputation as being grainier than native anamorphic photography, but that’s partly due the fact that release prints were blowups. Depending on the film stocks that were used, scans from the original negative shouldn’t be quite so grainy. In this case, Vacano did shoot on high-speed Eastman EXR 500T 5298 stock, so that at least partly explains why it may be heavier here. Regardless, the grain in this version looks natural, and it’s handled well by the usual robust encoding that Vinegar Syndrome offers. Yet it’s still quite prominent, and it has the effect of obscuring some of the fine detail.
That’s where things get interesting. Capelight Pictures in Germany released a 4K UHD for Showgirls back in 2020, but their version used a heavy application of noise reduction that wiped out nearly all of the grain. Normally, that would also erase fine detail, but when comparing screen shots back and forth between the two, there’s not much difference in actual picture information. The reality is that there never was that much fine detail hidden behind the grain in the first place. Capelight’s version does look too smooth, and details like the feathers on the purple nightgown worn by Gina Gershon in her dressing room also looks a little softer. Vinegar Syndrome’s version is sharper and clearer, but there’s no getting around the fact that the grain itself prevents Showgirls from resolving true 4K worth of detail.
On the other hand, the High Dynamic Range grade (only HDR10 is offered on the disc) does a great job of resolving every last bit of color detail that was available in the original film elements. The original MGM Blu-ray for Showgirls pushed the saturation to extreme levels, but this grade is relatively restrained. It looks much more natural, and it has the benefit of displaying a wider color palette between the extremes. The daylight exteriors look appropriately hotter, and the nighttime glitter is vivid without looking oversaturated. Black levels are good. Despite any minor question marks, this is unquestionably the best that Showgirls has ever looked on home video.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English SDH subtitles. Showgirls was originally released in both optical Dolby Stereo and discrete digital multichannel formats. While the 2.0 track does have an encoded mono surround channel, the 5.1 offers split surrounds, so it’s definitely preferable. There are plenty of directionalized effects, including sounds panning from the front soundstage to one or the other of the surround channels. There isn’t a ton of deep bass, just a bit of LFE sweeting during the musical numbers. On the whole, the 5.1 does a better job of immersing the viewer in Verhoeven’s version of Las Vegas than the 2.0 does.
Vinegar Syndrome’s 4K Ultra HD Limited Edition release of Showgirls is a three-disc set that includes a Blu-ray with a 1080p copy of the film as well as a second Blu-ray with the bulk of the extras. The whole package is part of their Vinegar Syndrome Ultra line, and it’s a doozy. The amaray case with a reversible insert is protected by a slipcover, and that’s housed inside a magnetized hard case that also includes a 40-page booklet featuring essays by Abbey Bender, Adam Nayman, and Elizabeth Purchell. The gorgeous packaging was designed by Haunt Love, but it’s limited to 12,000 units and they’re already in short supply, so act quickly if you’re interested.
Note that the initial pressings of the discs contained an authoring error where the surround channels in the 5.1 track were encoded out of phase with the front channels. (The 2.0 track was normal.) Vinegar Syndrome has offered a replacement program, and while anyone who ordered directly from them will receive the new disc automatically, everyone else will need to contact them via their website and provide proof of purchase. (The audio review above was based on the replacement disc.) There was also an error in the accompanying booklet, so they’ve included a corrected reprint of that as well.
The extras combine five new interviews with a collection of archival featurettes:
DISC ONE: UHD
- Audio Commentary with David Schmader
DISC TWO: BD
- Audio Commentary with David Schmader
- Theatrical Trailer (HD – 1:59)
DISC THREE: BD
- You Gotta Gamble if You’re Gonna Win (HD – 14:25)
- All that Glitters: Filming Showgirls (HD – 11:55)
- The Rhythm of Chaos (HD – 16:11)
- Born to Dance (HD – 19:00)
- Free Lap Dance with Every Large Popcorn: The Cult of Showgirls (HD – 13:12)
- More Than Vegas (HD – 23:45)
- Special Behind the Scenes Featurette (Upscaled SD – 27:44, 12 in all)
- Dance Tutorial (Upscaled SD – 5:05)
David Schmader is one of the people who has parlayed mocking Showgirls into a minor career. His The Greatest Movie Ever Made commentary track was originally recorded for MGM’s 2004 DVD. As that intentionally hyperbolic title should make clear, Schmader is one of those who appreciates Showgirls as campy trash. He does call it the most misunderstood work of art in the 20th century, but that’s because he believes that everyone at every level made the worst possible decisions at every opportunity, and the density of its failures have made it sublime. That approach may or may not work for everyone, but the biggest problem with the track is that he’s prone to spending lengthy stretches just oohing and aahing while watching the film. He does apologize up front for the long pauses, but he keeps doing it anyway.
The new extras combine recent interviews with archival interviews and behind-the-scenes footage. You Gotta Gamble if You’re Gonna Win is with Joe Eszterhas. Like everyone else involved with Showgirls, Eszterhas has changed his story about it over the years, and he now says that he and Verhoeven always intended it to be campy. He talks about his fractious working relationship with the director, and the way that reactions to the film have changed over the years. All That Glitters features Jost Vacano and stage lighting designer Peter Morse, who offer some stories about the challenges of shooting the film. Vacano is open about the fact that he was never happy with the script. The Rhythm of Chaos is an interview with editors Mark Helfrich and Mark Goldblatt, who give a different angle on the production—Helfrich says that it may have been Verhoeven’s movie, but he stuck to the Eszterhas script. They’re both happy to have been involved despite the initially hostile reception to the film. Born to Dance is with actor Rena Riffel, who describes her path from dancer to actress, and somehow manages to completely omit the fact that she’s also the writer and director of the notorious Showgirls 2: Penny’s from Heaven. Finally, Free Lap Dance with Every Large Popcorn features the irrepressible Peaches Christ and Michael Varrati of the Midnight Mass podcast. They offer an unabashedly affectionate retrospective look at the film—Christ says that it was recommended to her by John Waters, and for her, it lived up to his hype.
More Than Vegas is a 2016 interview with Paul Verhoven, who admits that he didn’t like the Eszterhas script either because he felt it was too much like Flashdance. He ended up throwing himself into preproduction for his Crusades project with Arnold Schwarzenegger instead, but when the money for that fell apart for good, he returned to Showgirls. He says that he’s the one who pushed the story more to parallel All About Eve. He talks about his hyperbolic approach to making the film, and accepts personal responsibility for pushing Elizabeth Berkley too far into the staccato acting style that caused her performance to be so universally reviled. There’s some great footage of him enthusiastically accepting his Worst Director award at the 1996 Razzies ceremony.
The Special Behind the Scenes Featurette is actually collection of 12 different EPK featurettes from the original publicity campaign for the film, some of them running less than a minute. Needless to say, they’re all tonally quite different than everything else on the disc. Without the benefit of historical hindsight, everyone was selling Showgirls as a serious film, including Verhoeven and Eszterhas (although Verhoeven does admit at one point that it’s very over-the-top and theatrical). There are interviews with Verhoeven, Eszterhas, Elizabeth Berkley, Gina Gerson, Kyle MacLachlan, Gina Rivera, producer Alan Marshall, production designer Allan Cameron, choreographer Marguerite Pomerhn-Derricks, and music coordinator David A. Stewart. There’s an abundance of behind-the-scenes footage included here, some of which was repurposed for the other extras. That footage continues with A Showgirls Diary, which offers segments devoted to four different scenes from the film. They compare pages from Verhoven’s illustrated script to the final sequences, intercut with on-set footage showing how they were shot. Last (and definitely least), there’s a Dance Tutorial with some dancers from Scores demonstrating how to do a lap dance for your partner.
That’s a broad (rimshot) collection of extras, but there is one glaring omission: Jeffrey McHale’s 2019 Showgirls documentary You Don’t Nomi. Both Capelight’s 2020 German UHD and Umbrella Entertainment’s 2022 Australian Blu-ray included it, but since it was released as a standalone Blu-ray in North America by RLJ Entertainment, rights issues likely prevented its inclusion here. The Pop-Up Trivia Track from MGM’s 2010 15th Anniversary Sinsational Edition and their earlier DVDs is also missing, but that’s not a major loss. (Your own mileage may vary). So, this isn’t quite the definitive extras package for Showgirls, although the RLJE disc can easily be housed within the capacious packaging that Vinegar Syndrome has provided to make it into an ultimate edition of your own. Regardless, Vinegar Syndrome has corrected the DNR sins that Capelight committed, so this is definitely the ultimate audio and video presentation of Showgirls, and it’s a striking set no matter how you may feel about the film.
- Stephen Bjork