Seattle-based journalist, raconteur, playwright and cultural theorist David Schmader has impeccable credentials in the worlds of literature and art. But for more than a decade now, he's been closely linked to the most quintessentially American of films maudit, Paul Verhoeven's 1995 camptastrophe Showgirls.
Schmader's evolving interactive lecture/commentary on the film has taken him around the world to get at the textual and subtextual heart of the journey of Nomi Malone (Saved by the Bell's Elizabeth Berkley), a tough girl from "lots of places" who just wants to be a star. Showgirls is the story of her rise and fall from lapdance specialist to backup dancer to Vegas star to kickboxing avenger, and it remains a singular cinematic experience.
But Showgirls is also an astounding gathering of talent (director Paul Verhoeven, actress Gina Gershon, dueling sleazeballs Robert Davi and Alan Rachins, the glorious Rena Riffel) and madness (screenwriter Joe Eszterhas; actor Kyle MacLachlan, who looks like he's suffering from quaalusions of grandeur). There's nothing else in movie history like its toxic brew of backstage melodrama, catfight theatrics, lowbrow tawdriness and lofty contempt. When MGM decided to do up an ultra-glam DVD box set back in the early Aughts, the studio bypassed Verhoeven, Berkley, Gershon and others on the scene for the commentary — because they knew it was all there already, in David Schmader's show.
His commentary track, "The Greatest Movie Ever Made," is an essential part of the Showgirls home video experience. But his live performances with the film have built an international following, and he brings that live show to The Belcourt 9 p.m. Thursday for one show only. The Scene had the immense pleasure to talk with Schmader, a columnist for Seattle's awesome alt-weekly The Stranger, about Showgirls and his relation to it.
Have you reached the point in your life with Showgirls that you still find new things when you watch it, or have you reached the point of satiation?
There are no new discoveries for me. I know the movie inside-out now, but there is still something that is only revealed in a crowd situation. I am always delighted to watch it hit a crowd; it's a delightful comedy on your own, but if there's a whole audience of people that you can enjoy it with and wonder, "Did I just see that?" it's much better.
They're all witnesses — you can depend on other people to back up that you did in fact just see that.
Yeah, it wasn't an acid flashback! I don't think that I have watched the movie on my own in over 15 years. I save it for times that I am in public; I know it really well, but I love watching it land on other people with a little bit of guidance.
Are there days where you feel like, "I just can't do it anymore?"
I've never had to do a really long run, the most that I have ever had to do was two shows in the night or two shows in two days, but other than that, they are kind of big and spread out. It would be terrible to dread Showgirls. That is not its point: The point is to bring joy.
Who is your favorite character in the film?
The receptionist in the hot pink who lets Nomi into her job interview and then gets shoved when Nomi is furious going to confront Zach — she does some real good acting. As for the major cast, Molly (Gina Ravera) is just a saint. She's like, “Punch my car, move into my house, throw up on me, have some fries, I’ll make you a dress, and then leave town the one time in my life that I actually need you.” Apparently they also share a day bed and rotate sleeping.
I tweeted earlier and said that I was going to be talking to the world’s foremost expert on Showgirls and asked if anyone had any questions. My friend Neil who does clothing design wants to know if you have managed to acquire any of the beads that are used in Annie's (played by Ungela Brockman) unfortunate leg-breaking sequence.
No, the closest thing that I have to a souvenir is a kind of low-rent version of Cristal’s chainmail top that my dude bought for me. I would wear it over a normal shirt but I always forget; other than that, I don’t have anything from the movie.
I am intrigued by that outfit myself. And I love the fact that for two movies you wonder what Paul Verhoeven is going to do to make Ungela hurt. She gets her leg broken in Showgirls and then in Starship Troopers she gets her arm melted off by the acid-spitting bug. But I don’t think that any of that really bothered her, because before she did Showgirls she was one of the backup dancers on Madonna’s Girlie Show Tour, so she walked into the audition with no fear at all. I picture her smoking a cigarette and saying, “Bring it.” She was also one of the vampire dancers in From Dusk Till Dawn, so you know she’s got stories.
I didn’t know about the Girlie Show thing. That is amazing.
She is so great in Showgirls because there is never a single moment of tenderness or decency in that character. I love the rage in the last scene before she gets taken out. You would think in a film like Showgirls that Nomi was going to be the apotheosis of being completely unable to control your dark, vengeful side, but no: Annie’s got that locked up. I adore her, she is one of my favorite characters, it seems like every awful thing that she does is just more and more delicious.
She should be the one in the sequel.
Yeah, everyone should, every one of the dancers who was allowed the slightest bit of personality should have their own Showgirls sequel. I would love to see that. What do you think of the edited-for-VH1 version of the film?
I love it. Have you seen it?
So the two big things are the hover bras, where they cover all of the boobs with what looks like dry-erase stuff — like you could almost scrape it off with a quarter, like a scratch-off ticket. They're drawn right on the frame and they hover right over the breast, and the movie changes from what it really is to this vaguely sci-fi thing about women controlled by their hover bras.
What always struck me as weird was the fact that it's almost like you aren't even viewing the shape of a bra, but rather a bra-shaped hole in the fabric of space and time that peers into the planet leopard.
Yup! And there were some parts that they had to cut some harsher language and they ended up with better lines, like, "Dancing ain't faking," which has some poetry to it.
Well yeah, that is almost the soul of the film right there.
"Dancing ain't faking" is the edited line since they can't say "fucking," but that is a far better line. You can't pretend to be a dancer, you have to do it; whereas "dancing ain't fucking" means nothing except that Joe Eszterhas is a terrible screenwriter.
It is fascinating to me to just look at the different visions behind this film, because Basic Instinct remains gloriously sleazy, and it feels like they (Verhoeven and Eszterhas) were working in sync, and with Showgirls it just seems like they were coming from completely different angles on the material.
Do you think that it has to do with the actors? That sleaze was pinned on Michael Douglas as a pro and Sharon Stone who was a rare old-school Hollywood star being born before our eyes. I think that they may have gotten away with murder because of the skill and vague class that those two brought to the proceedings.
I think that's absolutely true. With Basic Instinct you've got very Hitchcockian forms that are being played with. You have Dorothy Malone and George Dzundza, who are classy people popping up wherever you look, and you just can't say that about Showgirls.
There is Kyle MacLachlan, and you mostly just feel bad for him.
Honestly I see it as karma for torpedoing so much of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me; I think that Kyle is reaping what he sowed with that one.
He was just here for Seattle International Film Festival and he was the guest of honor, I did an interview with him and decided to take it easy on the Showgirls stuff, but he brought it up. I asked him if there was any pleasure in knowing that he was in something that will live forever even if it isn’t something that he wanted? He said, “I hate what I did — my hairstyle looked bad, but my butt looked good.”
He basically confirmed that they all thought that they were making a serious, serious drama; I have heard that from Patrick Bristow too. It wasn’t until they got to the big premiere screening, and after about three minutes they started to realize that things were not going well. They thought that it was going to be something else, they saw all the money being spent on the sets and they were riding on faith that was not rewarded.
Have you gotten a chance to talk to any of the cast or crew besides McLachlan and Bristow?
Rena Riffel (Hope/Penny, and also the writer/director/star of the semi-sequel Showgirls 2: Penny's From Heaven) and I are kind of chummy and have talked a couple times, but other than that, no. I have an agent friend who talked to Elizabeth Berkley about it once but he said that he would never tell me what she said because I work in the media — so I get to think about that forever.
You have to find out what is going on with that. I follow her on Twitter and I love that she is an inspirational speaker for young girls, I am so for that. I genuinely adore her because she took on a world of shit and she came out and was like, “I am me and I’m doing my thing!” I have so much respect for her — not quite as much as I have for Gina Gershon, but still I have respect for her.
My god, Gina Gershon is great. After Killer Joe last year I thought, people are going to remember her from Showgirls and it’s going to keep her from getting award traction from this performance. But she is amazing and fearless, and I adore her. She would understand that no one would come to anything involving Showgirls to mock her. It is more like bowing at her feet and bringing her champagne and drinks and having her regale us with tales of behind the scenes mayhem.
Do you have Saved by the Bell feelings too?
It's weird, I never watched it when it was originally on. When Showgirls came out, though, Saved by the Bell was on TBS four times a day. And because of Showgirls, I started watching it, and it is so weird because she is so goody-goody on that show, except when she becomes addicted to caffeine pills — and I swear Verhoeven’s kids are actually the right age to have had that episode on rotation in their house at some point. I can just envision him seeing that caffeinated freakout and saying “This is the girl!” with her flailing about beyond the control of humanity.
There is a made-for-TV movie finale that they did in Vegas for Saved by the Bell around 1995 where a bunch of them get married and Jessie runs in and she looks like Nomi running into the wedding in a little red dress. She definitely took the plunge from Jessie to Nomi.
Is she wearing (sic) Versayce?
Yeah, it looks like it, but I couldn’t see a label!
I love that this film is still out there and it is something that people still refer back too, it is a touchstone of the postmodern experience. I don’t think that there will ever be anything quite like it again.
There are a lot of people trying to capture the spirit, and of course the money, but there was this idea that Burlesque and Penny's From Heaven were going to be the new Showgirls. Miracles like Showgirls are just so few and far between. Lighting doesn't strike the same place twice, and if there is ever another show that is going to have the Showgirls magic it is going to be about a race for vaccines, not about strippers. It's not the subject matter, it's the collision of intent, budget and delusion — in this case, it just happened to be about boobs. People questioned if Magic Mike was going to be the next Showgirls because of the flesh in it. But no, flesh did not make Showgirls.
Has your ongoing Showgirls experience led you into spreading the word of other films?
After I started doing Showgirls, people said, “Do more movies.” So I did a series of sub-Showgirls bad movies, and it was fun but it kind of drove home that few of them are entertaining. The closest one that was entertaining all the way through was Can’t Stop the Music, but that didn’t quite have the hubris level that a Paul Verhoeven film has. The series was called From Bad to Worse, and it had Battlefield Earth, Leonard Part 6, Gigli, and Road House, which was like the boys' Showgirls. Showgirls has nails and women, and Road House has boys with knifes.
They were fun, and doing the series required me to break down the five miracle points that Showgirls hits. I think that the runner up hit three or four of those points, but no one had the full Yahtzee. I also did a series of all the Madonna films called "Almost Human: Madonna on Film." For me, what was exciting was that her videos are some of the high watermarks of American culture and her video performances are incredible, and then she opens her mouth and shatters her whole game. Why is she so brilliant at representing herself in this medium and then so lousy at it in another one?
I think Truth or Dare is the only film that she has done that is at all watchable, but it's also the last time that she was any fun.
Have you seen Who’s That Girl? There is something about the character that is like a sunny-side up version of Nomi. She's another sociopath that everyone wants to help all the time. She's much more cutesy about it and doesn’t kick things, she just kind of giggles and sets things on fire ... There are some weird overlaps.
Dare we dream of the original dream cast of Showgirls, with Madonna as Cristal and Drew Barrymore as Nomi?
Now that would have been a movie.
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