Reel Rumbles #28 – “Burlesque” vs. “Showgirls”
In This Corner…
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?
Round One: Story
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.
Round Two: Script
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.
Round Three: Performances
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.)
Round Four: Direction
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.
And the Winner Is…
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 cliché 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.
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