Sale of Two Titties 

Showgirls' biggest boobs are offscreen

For mature sexuality, the period from the late 1970s to the early 1980s was a golden age in American movies. By 1978, the shattering of cinematic taboos that began in the underground films of the 1960s had carried over into mainstream movies, and the display of nude bodies and naked emotions were as much a part of the moviegoing experience as raw language or gritty violence. Sure, there was the predictable slew of tittery drive-in movies (or mainstream derivations like Porky’s) that exploited the new frankness. But there were also serious dramas like Kramer vs. Kramer and Coming Home, along with cheerfully raunchy comedies like and Slap Shot, that presented open sexuality and enjoyment of life’s visceral pleasures as a healthy part of adulthood. For a time, an R rating on a movie was a small affirmation of the “mature” lives of moviegoers.

Those public affirmations came to an end in the mid-1980s with the rise of the VCR and cable television, both of which allowed the average citizen to stay home and receive in private the kind of cheap thrills that the cinema used to provide. While violence and profanity soared to new heights, sex on the screen became consigned to clichéd love scenes; and when nudity and sex did play a larger role in a movie, it was usually in kinky peep shows like , Crimes of Passion. The honest exploration of sexuality as a normal part of the rhythm of life died in Hollywood. According to recent mainstream American movies, our sex lives revolve mainly around hookers and cutlery.

Nobody understands this unimaginative world of cinemalust better than screenwriter Joe Eszterhas and director Paul Verhoeven, whose collaboration on produced arguably the ultimate degradation of human sexuality—a muddleheaded mystery story juiced up with vulgar dialogue, violent copulation, and human bodies observed with a pornophile’s indifferent leer. Some of ’s critic-apologists excused Verhoeven (the skilled satirist who made The 4th Man and Robocop), claiming that the Dutch director’s riffs on Hitchcockian hyperbole were high camp. But not even camp enthusiasts could explain away Eszterhas’ unnecessarily ridiculous script, with its imbecilic lapses in logic and infantile sexism.

I wonder if those same critic-apologists will defend Showgirls, the latest Verhoeven-Eszterhas collaboration. Once again, Eszterhas takes a lazy, exploitative look at sex—he uses 1995 nudity and coarseness to spice up a dreary 1935 backstage melodrama—and once again Verhoeven aims for campy black comedy. But Showgirls isn’t a well suited vehicle for Verhoeven’s acidic temperament. He swipes the innocuous clichés of old musicals and sours them with his bile. Dance sequences and misanthropy, in this case, don’t mix.

Showgirls stars Elizabeth Berkley (from TV’s Saved By the Bell) as Nomi, a drifter with a shady past who becomes a stripper when she is stranded in Las Vegas. Through her kindly roommate, she meets Cristal Connors (played by Gina Gershon), the well-known star of a big-time topless revue. Soon, Nomi is working as a chorus girl in Cristal’s aerobics-in-hell extravaganza, where she sets her eye on both the diva’s starring role and her wheeler-dealer boyfriend (Kyle MacLachlan). Nomi has talent (as far as we know—people keep telling her “you can dance,” although all we see her do is bump and grind vigorously), but her ambition and apparent naïveté thrust her toward the catty, back-stabbing side of show business. But no matter how far her character sinks, and how many times she writhes around unclothed onstage, she’s shocked—by what producers and businessmen ask her to do.

As Nomi, Berkley gets ample opportunities to take off her clothes and to execute her one acting move—a sort of petulant head jerk followed closely by a rush out of the room. Both Eszterhas and Verhoeven treat Berkley cruelly, exploiting her inexperience as a film actress. Eszterhas writes Nomi as an impulsive bubblehead, and Verhoeven encourages Berkley to play her with a grating brattiness, as if she were still on television in a very special Saved By the Bell. Her journey through the underbelly of showbiz is repetitive, and her responses are consistently annoying. The combination of an unlikable character in a predictable scenario creates a discomfort that no amount of nudity or over-the-top style can bury.

The fault for Showgirls’ overwhelming ordinariness can be laid at the pen of Joe Eszterhas, whose knack for spinning tawdry inanities into gold dates back to Flashdance. The film could’ve explored some interesting areas. Strip clubs have become a small phenomenon in American popular culture, providing a communal experience of open sexuality with a cruel edge of cold mercantilism. The transactory nature and fake friendliness of the strip-club environment has to affect the customers and the performers, particularly in Las Vegas, where entertainment itself has been distilled to its essence—instant gratification and relentless glitz.

Unfortunately, Eszterhas hasn’t the insight or the gift to explore this in depth. His script is relentless glitz personified. Every scene revolves around grudges and manipulation, in a heartless world where women take off their clothes as a way of staving off the inevitable lure of prostitution.

Paul Verhoeven picks up on this misogynist vibe and runs with it, flooding the screen with a stylistic combination of Douglas Sirk’s garment-rending bathos and Russ Meyer’s pulpy luridness. At times, it actually works—Nomi and Cristal’s lunchtime conversation about dog food has a surreal kick, and Nomi’s topless karate scene toward the end of the film is truly remarkable. But Showgirls is really too brutal to be any fun. A bloody gang rape at the climax of the film is particularly hard to shake off, especially in a story so shallow and meaningless.

Worst of all, Verhoeven seems to think that this whole mess is a scathing indictment of America’s obsession with fame. If nothing else, Showgirls demonstrates the director’s full-on hatred of mankind. His everything-sucks perspective has a certain integrity, however grotesque, but there’s nowhere it can go. Once you’ve come to the conclusion that show business is ugly and humanity is twisted, what’s next? The best Verhoeven can do is end his film with a shot of a road sign stating the mileage from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. Hardly a startling intuitive leap, that L.A. is linked to moral decay.

Showgirls is a lousy film of the Natural Born Killers variety—it’s a technically accomplished work by a clever director who insults his audience by giving them what they want and then mocks them for wanting it. If you want proof, just look at the portrayal of the showgirls’ audiences, our onscreen representatives, who are portrayed to a man as a menagerie of leering rubes, potential rapists and slimy half-wits. Verhoeven and Eszterhas hard-sell sex and nudity, and then tell us how pathetic we are for buying; they’re carnival barkers who sucker-punch you once you step inside the tent.

There’s a long tradition in film—dating back to biblical epics of the silent era and the traveling sex-ed pictures of the 1930s—of titillation swaddled in moral indignation. In Showgirls, Verhoeven tries a slightly different tactic, taking Eszterhas’ trashy script and making a film that supposedly turns on the philistines while tickling the funny bones of those who think his wretched excesses are a put-on.

What he doesn’t understand, though, is that the philistines aren’t as stupid as he thinks: They’re willing to put up with his sophomoric ironies in order to see some naked women—and their intentions are far more noble than his. America’s cinematic diet of adult sexuality is so paltry that film can be hyped as “revealing” and “uninhibited” and an audience will show up.

Verhoeven and Eszterhas have been forgiven in the past because they at least pretended to stand aloof from the effluvia they created. This time, though, they just wallow in their own cesspool. This time, literally, the emperor has no clothes. —

Black, White & Blue

Devil in a Blue Dress is a watched pot of a movie that’s just as engaging on simmer as it is at full boil. The director, Carl Franklin, first attracted attention for his 1992 crime-drama One False Move, a quiet and extraordinarily reflective thriller that gathered hurricane force as it unfolded, and he brings the same virtues to his adaptation of Walter Mosley’s fine 1990 detective novel. Like his coproducer and fellow Roger Corman graduate Jonathan Demme, Franklin doesn’t wave at us from behind the camera. Instead, he does his best to make us forget he’s there, concentrating on his actors and accumulating nuances of narrative and psychological detail. In Devil in a Blue Dress, the stealth of Franklin’s approach again pays off.

Mosley delivers solid hard-boiled thrills and social commentary through his private-eye hero Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, a black World War II vet looking to keep his head above the murky racial and political sump of 1948 Los Angeles. In Devil in a Blue Dress, the first in Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series, Easy accepts a seemingly simple task from a shadowy racketeer: find a mysterious white woman named Daphne Monet, who frequents the city’s black jazz clubs and gin mills. No sooner does he accept than Easy gets sucked into a vortex of police corruption, blackmail and political skullduggery that threatens to topple City Hall.

Franklin’s script, with its familial revelations, municipal villainy and portrait of Southern California on the brink of social and industrial upheaval, resembles Chinatown, still the most fascinating and ambitious of film-noir homages. Like Roman Polanski in the earlier film, Franklin resists the obvious trappings of the genre—dark, wet streets, hot neon—for something more subtle. (As photographed by Tak Fujimoto, the smoky jazz clubs look like Gary Kelley’s lovingly blurred “Columbia Jazz Masterpieces” illustrations sprung to life.) For a black man trying to hang on to a house and steady employment in the white-run City of Angels, daylight is no more comforting than darkness: The police hound Easy furiously, the banks salivate over his little tract home, and Easy warily avoids crossing any kind of color line. In Franklin’s vision, as in Mosley’s, the sun-blanched L.A. streets exude just as much menace as the hazy dives Easy searches, if not more—the movie’s most hair-raising action scene takes place in the warm glow of afternoon. And when violence comes, Franklin handles it in a matter-of-fact way as jarring as it is appropriate.

As Easy Rawlins, Denzel Washington gives the most interesting of his matinee-idol performances, as opposed to his more substantial roles in Malcolm X and . He takes his cue from Easy’s name: His Easy just wants to get along, and he’s determined not to step on anyone’s toes. (As in Malcolm X, Washington expertly modulates his voice and inflections depending on the setting: With his black friends Easy’s accent rolls and thickens, but around the white cops he enunciates stiffly.) At first, he’s frustratingly passive—we worry he’s going to spend the whole movie letting people jerk him around. But as the threats and petty indignities pile up, Washington shows us flickers of anger and resentment underneath Easy’s outward calm, and when he hauls off and shoves a cop we suddenly see where Washington and Franklin have been heading. When Easy stops pulling his punches, we realize how much he’s been holding back, and a jolt of energy surges through the entire movie.

That jolt coincides with the arrival of Don Cheadle as Easy’s friend Mouse, a great character who triggers echoes of Danny Glover’s chicken-fried trickster demon in To Sleep with Anger. Like the Glover character, Mouse represents a violent, volatile heritage that Easy would just as soon distance himself from: He’s a sawed-off Staggerlee with a gold tooth, a snappy derby, and an absurdly large gun that whips out from beneath his coat in a heartbeat. The uneasy friendship between Easy and Mouse supplies the movie’s best moments, and Cheadle (who’s best known as the buttoned-down D.A. on TV’s Picket Fences) makes such a smashing entrance that the audience gets tickled every time he shows up.

If Devil in a Blue Dress has any problem, it’s that the mystery requires a metric ton of exposition, and Franklin takes his sweet time setting it up. But that’s Carl Franklin’s style, and the large preview audience was riveted by the many rich supporting performances, the knowing evocation of race and class distinctions circa 1948, and the terrific period detail. (I haven’t seen an audience enjoy a movie this much since Forrest Gump: The peals of laughter that greeted Don Cheadle’s every appearance drowned out much of his dialogue.) Driven by the rolling rhythms of an excellent jump-blues soundtrack, featuring cuts by Bullmoose Jackson, T-Bone Walker and Amos Milburn, Devil in a Blue Dress is an unusually intelligent and involving pop entertainment—and the work of a director to watch. —Jim Ridley

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