At¬†one magical time in cinema history, director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas teamed up to create a tale of toplessness and treachery.¬† Elizabeth Berkley, an actress then¬†best known¬†for her role as an over-achieving¬†feminist on the TV show “Saved by the Bell”, was recruited to play the¬†aspiring dancer¬†Nomi Malone.¬† The resulting NC-17¬†epic of garish gratuitousness has¬†met with considerable derision from mainstream audiences and critics over the years, achieving legendary status¬†for its¬†badness.¬† Rotten Tomatoes currently has it at a 12% Freshness rating.¬† Still, there are those who defend¬†Showgirls as entertaining¬†sleaze and/or brilliant satire.¬† Quentin Tarantino has said “I love Showgirls! It’s pitched high, it’s crazy, it’s wild and it’s a hell of a lot of¬† f**king fun.” French director¬†Jacques Rivette called it “one of the great American films of the last few years” (in 1998).¬† He even referred to Elizabeth Berkley, whose performance has been the butt of jokes from the get-go, as “amazing!”.¬† Released in November 2010, the PG-13 Burlesque is also about an aspiring dancer, played by the pop songstress Christina Aguilera.¬†¬†Instead of baring it all in a big Sin City production like Berkley, though, she¬†dons slightly less revealing outfits in a Los Angeles¬†burlesque club.¬† Out of these two tales¬†about hungry young women with big hopes surrounded by glitz and guile, which one puts on a¬†more rousing¬†spectacle?¬† Or, more to the point, which one delivers the best¬†soap opera histrionics and cat fighting?
Just from browsing the internet, it appears Showgirls and Burlesque are being compared a lot.¬† I¬†went to see Burlesque recently because I’m a fan of Showgirls, and I was¬†expecting something kind of similar.¬†¬†Of course, even if Burlesque was going for Showgirls-style campiness, there’s going to be a huge difference between¬†a NC-17 and a PG-13 flick in terms of content.¬† Gawker distinguishes the two by calling Burlesque “Showgirls, With Clothes.” But, is that really the only significant difference between them?¬† As far as the basic story, sure,¬†the movies are pretty similar.¬† Nomi Malone in Showgirls hitches a ride from the middle of nowhere in order to pursue her dreams in Las Vegas.¬† Ali in Burlesque quits her waitressing job in the middle of nowhere in order to pursue her dreams in Los Angeles.¬† Both have no family or ties.¬† Both become headliners¬†in a¬†dance spectacular¬†after¬†clawing their way to the top…¬† Nomi, however, does quite a bit more clawing.
One of my other favorite movies, Valley of the Dolls, is also about women trying to hit¬†it big in show business.¬†¬†Having been made in 1967, before the ratings system was even¬†introduced, there were greater constraints on what¬†the film could get away with.¬† So, Valley of the Dolls doesn’t come anywhere near the level of explicitness present¬†in Showgirls.¬† What it does have, though, is plenty of¬†attitude and melodrama.¬† Like Showgirls, it¬†doesn’t offer a cheery ending for all the characters, nor does it paint a flattering picture of human nature.¬† These are movies about reaching for the stars and getting burned, while Burlesque mostly¬†leaves the getting burned part out.¬† I don’t think that it’s unreasonable to say that the story in Burlesque exists to pass the time between¬†Aguilera’s song and dance numbers, so maybe edginess¬†wasn’t a priorty.¬†¬†A more accurate description of Burlesque would probably¬†be “Showgirls, Without Chutzpah”, since the movie barely has enough meaty¬†intrigue or adversity¬†to propel¬†the story forward.
While both¬†films¬†are comparable initially,¬†their paths diverge considerably before long.¬† Burlesque plays more like¬†a series of musical acts¬†held together¬†with an hackneyed¬†plot.¬† Showgirls weaves a much juicier tale,¬†while incorporating some flashy dance numbers into the story.
In Burlesque, when Ali is accepted as a performer at the club, she has this exchange with Sean the stage manager (Stanley Tucci):
Sean: So, is Ali short for anything?
Ali:¬†Oh, yeah, it’s short for Alice.
Sean: Alice, hm? Well, welcome to Wonderland.
Now, to me, “Well, welcome to Wonderland” sounds sort of ominous.¬† The problem is, the script doesn’t follow through;¬†Burlesque never goes anywhere near the rabbit hole. Ali doesn’t enter into any sort of dangerous or bizarre fantasy world. ¬†It’s all very¬†mundane and safe.¬† In Showgirls, Nomi¬†gets sucked into a land of lights and lasciviousness, populated by scoundrels and schemers.¬† Las Vegas itself could be considered the villain in the movie.¬† The closest thing Burlesque has to a villain is a real estate developer who wants to turn the club into a high rise, but he’s not particularly malicious.¬† He offers Tess, the owner (played by Cher), a¬†generous¬†sum of money for the property (because Tess can’t pay the rent)¬†and¬†doesn’t attempt¬†to swindle her.¬† In fact, when he questions Ali (whom he¬†had been trying to charm)¬†as to why she thinks he’s such a bad guy, the best she can come up with is “You’re not a bad guy.¬† Just the wrong guy”.
Speaking of Wonderland, Showgirls has its own (sort of)¬†Cheshire Cat in the form of Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon).¬† She serves as both Nomi’s rival and mentor, and is constantly provoking¬†Nomi with her devious grin and catty comments.¬†¬†Compared to the similar¬†characters¬†in Burlesque, Cristal is¬†far more interesting.¬† Tess¬†is Ali’s mentor, if only because she’s older and owns the club.¬† Her primary purpose early¬†in the movie is to repeatedly tell Ali that she’s not good enough to be in the show (even though, due to the shopworn¬†plot,¬†there is no doubt that Ali will be in the show).¬†¬†Later, she¬†teaches Ali how to apply makeup and gives her some life advice.¬† Ali’s rival is Nikki (Kristen Bell), whose only significant¬†underhanded act is an attempt to sabotage one of¬†Ali’s performances (but ends up helping Ali move up in the show instead).¬† In Showgirls, Cristal¬†isn’t just¬†an obvious plot advancement tool.¬† She manipulates and challenges¬†Nomi throughout the film, with a combination of¬†affection and disdain.¬† Just Nomi and Cristal’s conversation about eating dog food is funnier and more meaningful story-wise than any of the dialogue in Burlesque.
As for Nomi and Ali as characters, Nomi is the more complex of the two.¬† Ali is pretty much a sanitized version of Nomi, without any real foibles to add depth to the character.¬† While both are naive, Nomi is also¬†worldly and tough.¬†¬†Of, course, Nomi needs to be worldly and tough in order to¬†hold her own in the neon-drenched¬†den of vipers.¬† Ali doesn’t really need to be much of¬†anything, since the plot in Burleque¬†is by-the-numbers and the level of conflict is so meager.¬†¬†Contrary to¬†some interpretations of Showgirls, Nomi actually does grow as a character in the movie.¬† I won’t get into the full details¬†of¬†her transformation, but¬†she enters Las Vegas as a¬†topless dancer and leaves as a topless avenger.¬†¬†Her dreams of being a star are traded for self-actualization.¬† Ali sets out to be a star and attains her goal with barely anything¬†in between, and her growth as a character is negligible.
When it comes to Christina Aguilera, I like that Strokes mashup “A Stroke of Genie-us” and I think “Candyman” is pretty catchy.¬† There are undoubtedly people who went to see Burlesque just for the Christina Aguilera musical numbers (and maybe for Cher’s, too),¬†but I’m not one of them.¬† And, while Elizabeth Berkley and Christina Aguilera¬†both have backgrounds in dance, I am not qualified to judge their abilities.¬† Showgirls isn’t really about the musical performances in the same way Burlesque is, anyway,¬†so comparing the two movies in that regard¬†isn’t really important.¬† I will admit, though,¬†that when Aguilera has her first big singing¬†scene in Burlesque, I was kind of pumped.¬† That might be the best part in the whole movie.
Is Christina Aguilera an all right¬†actress, though?¬† Well, she is¬†all right¬†in much the same way that Burlesque as a movie¬†is¬†all right.¬† She is neither¬†forgettable or memorable, but she does what she needs to do.¬† While I cannot claim that Elizabeth Berkley is a good actress in Showgirls, she is definitely¬†an enthusiastic one.¬†¬†Much of her performance involves throwing mini-tantrums or gyrating, and she does these things with verve.¬† Aguilera’s role¬†is not demanding in any way (particularly the musical bits, considering that she’s a professional singer).¬† There aren’t really¬†any¬†acting¬†moments in the¬†film where she cuts loose and shows some gusto.¬†She does get lippy with Cher a few times, but¬†I’ve seen saucier displays of attitude in other movies.¬† Elizabeth Berkley lets it all hang out in Showgirls (in every sense) and she is hilarious.¬† Christina Aguilera is mostly amiable and cute.
I should¬†give credit to Cher and Stanley Tucci.¬† Even though the Tess character isn’t as imposing as she should be, Cher is still a¬†charismatic presence (despite the¬†criticisms of her plastic appearance that I’ve read in some reviews).¬† Her banter with Tucci has a warm,¬†genuine feel that makes Burlesque seem a little less mechanical.¬†¬†¬†But, Cristal Connors is the best character in either movie, and Gina Gershon gives the best performance.¬†¬†She portrays Cristal as cooly¬†impish rather than evil, and so she’s always likable¬†even when she’s pressing Nomi’s buttons.¬† Even if Kristen Bell was given a spicier role to work with, I doubt she could’ve been a¬†more enjoyably¬†sinister and seductive rival to Ali¬†than Gina Gershon was to Nomi.
(NOTE: By conventional standards, the overall acting in Showgirls might not be considered good.¬† Elizabeth Berkley’s over-dramatics are entertaining to me, but not everyone¬†may agree.¬† And I can’t say for sure if how I feel about Kyle MacLachlan as a performer in general.¬† Also, some people likely consider Aquilera’s singing¬†to be an important factor.¬† So, out of fairness, I will declare this round a draw.¬† Oh, but I do want to give some praise to Gina Ravera for her work as Molly in Showgirls.¬† Molly is awesome.¬† She got a raw deal.)
Paul Verhoeven has been making movies in a variety of genres for forty years, showing a particular knack for sex and violence.¬† Steve Antin has spent most of his career as an actor, and has very little¬†experience in the director’s chair (though he was executive producer¬†on the “Pussycat¬†Dolls Presents” TV series).
Judging just¬†by¬†other¬†films Verhoeven has directed (such as Basic Instinct and Starship Troopers), it’s clear that he’s¬†comfortable with¬†lurid, over-the-top subject matter.¬† Showgirls hardly seems like much of¬†a deviation from his other work in that respect¬†(even the more restrained and artistically respectable¬†Black Book is full of nudity).¬† However, the NC-17 rating did¬†open up a lot more room to pile on the sleaze, which¬†may¬†run afoul with many a¬†viewer’s comfort zone.¬† And not everyone finds campy acting and dialogue¬†enjoyable.¬† But, it’s hard to imagine that a filmmaker with Verhoeven’s experience would unintentionally create such a nutty movie.¬† Casting Elizabeth Berkley was no fluke.¬†¬†Also, Showgirls is a well-shot film, particularly with its use of color.¬† I don’t¬†think that anyone can deny¬†that Showgirls is anything but professionaly put together, at least on a technical level.¬† Calling Showgirls “bad” isn’t really accurate.¬† Maybe¬†some of the movie¬†is a tad gauche, but¬†it is about Vegas, afterall.
Steve Antin wrote and directed Burlesque, so I can only assume he knew what he was doing.¬† What I don’t understand is why he would¬†make a¬†movie like this so bland.¬† I’m no expert, but the musical numbers aren’t anything special¬†compared to¬†other song and dance flicks I’ve seen.¬†¬†I don’t recall any scenes in the film that were shot with notable pizzazz or imagination.¬† The story was presented in a straightforward manner, for the most part.¬† So… ¬†Did he figure that having a couple of divas in the movie was enough? Because neither Cher nor Christina Aguilera do anything that remarkable.¬†¬†What was the point?¬† There is nothing about Burlesque that indicates¬†Antin was trying to¬†accomplish anything new or different with the showbiz or musical¬†genre.¬† In fact, he¬†hardly exceeds the bare minimum.¬† (A good example of Antin just going through the motions is when Cher¬†performs “You Haven’t Seen The Last Of Me”.¬† It’s supposed to be one of those musical moments when a character suffers a setback and defiantly sings about not giving up.¬† But, because Burlesque lacks dramatic tension, the scene comes across as a dull music video with no context.)
After 15 years, people are still discussing Showgirls.¬† Why?¬† Because there’s nothing else like it, and there’s more to the movie than people give it credit for.¬† Paul Verhoeven had a vision, and he followed it.¬† Steve Antin apparently had no vision at all.
I was listening to the John Waters DVD commentary for the movie Mommie Dearest a few years ago, when I realized the appeal of movies like Showgirls.¬† For those of you who aren’t familiar with Mommie Dearest, it’s a cult film¬†based on actress Joan Crawford‘s abusive relationship with her adopted daughter.¬† I found Joan Crawford to be a (humorously)¬†terrifying character in the movie, and I felt bad for¬†the kid.¬† John Waters, though,¬†was actually rooting for Joan Crawford.¬† That’s when I fully¬†understood that some movies are just so over the top and absurd that applying normal standards of human decency or artistic merit to them is futile.¬†¬†Tackiness and excess¬†can be fun, if done properly.¬† Burlesque seems to be patterned after movies like Showgirls and Valley of the Dolls, but it¬†fails to effectively utilize¬†the showbiz drama¬†formula.¬† Instead, Steve Antin¬†packs every¬†clich√© that¬†he can¬†into two hours without¬†adding enough of the sassiness or trashiness that make the genre¬†entertaining.
Showgirls isn’t a bad movie, and¬†it’s the right movie¬†to win¬†this matchup.