One of those movies which you might not want to admit that you really enjoyed, 1995’s Showgirls is one of the most notorious flops in cinema history. Former Saved by the Bell actress Elizabeth Berkley stars as Nomi Malone, a street smart girl who travels to Las Vegas and begins to climb the seedy ladder as a dancer.
Controversial for its excessive adult content and critically reviled for its absurd plot, dialogue and characterisations, Showgirls is, for better a worse, a unique viewing experience, and here are some facts you might not have known about the infamous melodrama.
20. The movie’s director and screenwriter interviewed over 200 exotic dancers as research
Director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas had enjoyed massive success with their first collaboration, 1993’s Basic Instinct. With this in mind, everyone was confident they could enjoy similar blockbuster success with another heavily sexual movie, so they set out on making the biggest movie ever about exotic dancers.
As research, Verhoeven and Esterhas interviewed over 200 real life Las Vegas dancers. The pair used these testimonies to inform the script, often directly quoting the women in the screenplay. For this reason, Verhoeven refused to allow the actresses to ad lib or change any lines, with only a few minor exceptions (one of which was changing ‘she’s ginchy’ to ‘she’s no butterfly’).
19. The script made Joe Eszterhas the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood history
Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas’ original idea for Showgirls came to him whilst on holiday at his home in Hawaii. He quickly jotted down the concept on a napkin during a meeting in a restaurant. He was paid a startling $2 million in advance, to ensure he would follow through on the project.
When the script was subsequently turned into a movie, Eszterhas also made a further $1.7 million. Alongside his previous scripts for Basic Instinct (which was also directed by Paul Verhoeven) and Sliver, this made him the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood history. This record was later broken when screenwriter Shane Black earned $4 million for The Long Kiss Goodnight.
18. Drew Barrymore, Angelina Jolie and Charlize Theron all turned the lead role down before Elizabeth Berkley was cast
Before Elizabeth Berkley signed on to play Nomi Malone, a very long list of actresses turned the role down. Some of the more prominent names to decline the part included Drew Barrymore, Angelina Jolie, Pamela Anderson, Charlize Theron and Denise Richards.
Many of the women turned down the role as they felt uncomfortable with the amount of nudity required. This included Drew Barrymore, who was actually offered the part, but declined as she considered the film ‘sexist”. Denise Richards would later appear in Verhoeven’s next film, Starship Troopers, although she would also refuse to do a nude scene in that film.
17. Madonna and Sharon Stone were both considered for Gina Gershon’s role
A number of actresses were also considered for the role of Cristal Connors, including Madonna, Sharon Stone and Sean Young. Madonna was a favourite amongst producers, but she had concerns over the film’s portrayal of women. Finola Hughes (Staying Alive) was also in the running, but she too deemed the script sexist.
Gina Gershon was thought to be favourite for the role right from the start, and was offered it as soon as she became available. Gershon (whose other 90s films include Face/Off and Bound) would later defend the film against the public’s backlash, stating that in her opinion, audiences took it ‘too seriously’.
16. Extra staff were sent to cinemas to ensure that underage viewers didn’t sneak into screenings
Showgirls had a unique sales pitch: the filmmakers deliberately sought out an NC-17 rating, and planned to have the first blockbuster to carry this extra-restrictive rating. Films rated NC-17 typically make less money at the US box office as many cinemas refuse to screen them, and there are also restrictions placed on the marketing of films carrying the rating.
In an attempt to ease the controversy that surrounded it, the movie’s distributor United Artists sent hundreds of extra staff members to cinemas all over the US to ensure that under-17s couldn’t sneak into screenings illegally. However, the film’s writer, Joe Eszterhas, would later cause controversy by calling on younger viewers to use fake IDs to get in.
15. Many of the cast and crew have since admitted they don’t think the film is any good
A number of the movie’s cast and crew have since been quoted as saying that they do not like it, with screenwriter Joe Eszterhas being one of them. The screenwriter laments, “musically it was eminently forgettable. And in casting mistakes were made… Clearly we made mistakes. Clearly it was one of the biggest failures of our time. It failed commercially, critically, it failed on videotape, it failed internationally.”
Kyle MacLachlan was not a fan of the movie either. The actor remarked years later, “We all went into it with absolute conviction. Had we gone into it thinking we were making a camp classic we’d have ruined the camp element. It had to be taken seriously as we were filming it. Only when it was assembled and I saw it for the first time, I thought, ‘Oh boy, this isn’t going to be pretty.’”
14. It received a record seven Golden Raspberry Awards
Showgirls was a big ‘winner’ at the Golden Raspberry Awards, the notorious anti-Oscars. The film ‘won’ seven Razzies including Worst Picture, Worst Director for Paul Verhoeven and Worst Screenplay for Joe Eszterhas. This was a record haul at the time which has since been beaten by 2011’s Jack and Jill, which won 10 Razzies.
Showgirls also represented a major turning point for the Razzies, as Paul Verhoeven showed up to collect his award in person: the first time any nominee had done so. Years later, Tom Green, Halle Berry, Sandra Bullock J. David Shapiro (screenwriter of Battlefield Earth) would also attend the ceremony to accept their awards.
13. It bombed at the box office but was an unprecedented success on video
Showgirl’s adult rating, alongside the bashing it took from critics, meant that it became a box office bomb. This was disappointing for the producers, as the film was predicted to be a huge box office hit, following in the footsteps of movies such as Robocop and Basic Instinct.
In fact, the film made only $37 million out of a budget of $45 million, resulting in an initial loss. However, it enjoyed massive success on the home video market, making more than $100 million from rentals alone. This meant that the movie eventually made a profit, and also became one of MGM’s all time top 20 VHS best sellers.
12. Some critics now consider it to be a brilliant satire
Showgirls was completely panned by critics on its initial release, and it often features on lists of the worst movies of all time. In more recent years, however, some critics have re-evaluated the movie, with some even declaring that it is actually a brilliant satire that should be praised.
In 2001, French filmmaker and critic Jacques Rivette declared Showgirls “one of the great American films of the last few years. It’s Verhoeven’s best American film and his most personal… It’s the American film that’s closest to his Dutch work. It has great sincerity, and the script is very honest, guileless.”
11. There was a straight-to-video sequel in 2011
Did you know that Showgirls spawned an unofficial follow-up that focused on Rena Riffel’s supporting character Penny? Called Showgirls 2: Penny’s from Heaven, the very low budget sequel was also written, produced, directed and edited by Riffel. It was released straight to video with very little aplomb in 2011.
However, this wasn’t the first time a sequel had been in the works. Paul Verhoeven had also planned to make a follow on movie, tentatively entitled ‘Nomi Does Hollywood’. Of course, these plans were scuppered once the film proved a spectacular critical and commercial failure, after which no one was prepared to invest in the idea.
10. The film ruined Elizabeth Berkley’s career
Elizabeth Berkley had enjoyed success when she become a much-loved public figure after playing Jessie Spano in Saved by the Bell. However, this success was short lived. The film received poor reviews, and Berkley proved to be the focal point of the critical vitriol. Director Verhoeven defended Berkley, arguing that she had played the character exactly as she had been written, and therefore the blame should lie solely with him.
Although she became a Hollywood pariah, Berkley would eventually get her career back on track, side-stepping from film and television into theatre acting. She proved an unexpected success on stage; one Broadway performance prompted the New York Times to issue a public apology to Berkley for their earlier mockery of the actress.
9. Writer Joe Eszterhas argued it was a feminist movie which was mis-represented by the studio
After the film tanked on its opening weekend, writer Joe Eszterhas decided to try some unusual tactics in an attempt to save the day. He actually took out an ad in Variety magazine, imploring female audiences to go and watch Showgirls, arguing it was a feminist movie.
Eszterhas declared that the film was an expose on the exploitation Las Vegas dancers are subjected to, and criticised the studio for its underhand marketing techniques, saying their chosen tagline ‘leave your inhibitions at the door’ conveyed the wrong message. Female audiences at the time weren’t convinced, although some feminist critics have since embraced the film.
8. Elizabeth Berkley spoke out against criticism over her performance
It may have taken over twenty years, but it seems Berkley has made peace with the film, and the outrage it provoked. She explained that, at the time, it was humiliating for critics to bash her performance so publicly and so harshly, particularly given how personal the comments got.
Berkley reflects, “It wasn’t easy to be the person that was personally ridiculed.” Her greatest objection was “the way some journalists, including women, critiqued my body… I felt safe on set with the team, but when it was released, I was shocked to see how journalists were allowed to humiliate a young woman and dissect my body parts instead of reviewing my work.”
7. Paul Verhoeven only made Showgirls because his Crusades film with Arnold Schwarzenegger fell through
Originally, Paul Verhoeven had no interest in making Showgirls. After the success of Basic Instinct, the director was poised to reunite with his Total Recall leading man Arnold Schwarzenegger on historical epic The Crusades. However, this large scale film was abruptly cancelled due to the collapse of studio Carolco.
Verhoeven reflects, “they suddenly canceled “Crusades” and everyone was in disarray, so we decided to this other script that was Mario Kassar — the head of Carolco — had laying there, which he had paid for. So we said, OK, we’ll do that. There wasn’t much time to reflect on it; we just did it.”
6. The filmmakers regretted including the assault scene
Paul Verhoeven still argues that Showgirls holds up as a film, but there is one scene he’s expressed regret about: the sexual assault of Gina Ravera’s Molly. The director reflects, “Nearly every character in the movie is a bad person except for one girl, Molly… (she) is the only really genuinely supportive person and she is punished.”
“The reason I did this was to show that Vegas is not a nice place and that is basically what the movie is all about.” However, the director feels this harsh scene “took the fun” out of the movie. Joe Eszterhas also regrets the scene, calling it “a god-awful mistake.”
5. The film was banned in Ireland
Showgirls didn’t only ruffle feathers in its native US. The film prompted huge controversy in many different territories around the world, and particularly offended the Irish Film Classification Office, who opted to ban Showgirls from cinema and home video distribution.
Ireland’s chief film censor of the time, Sheamus Smith, did not give any explanation as to why the film was banned, but we can probably hazard a guess. The ban would ultimately be lifted in 2002, seven years after the film was originally released.
4. Elizabeth Berkley barely made any money from the film
Verhoeven was so sure that the film would be a success that he actually offered to defer 70% of his fee in exchange for total creative freedom. Of course, as we know, the film was not a success, and Verhoeven would end up earning just $1.8 million; a handsome sum, but small change for blockbuster filmmakers.
Lead actress Elizabeth Berkley fared considerably worse, earning a mere $100,000 for her performance; a very small fee for the lead in a major motion picture, especially considering the film had a $45 million budget. In 2004, Berkley was asked to be interviewed on the Special Edition box set, for which she requested a fee of $2,500. This was subsequently denied, and she did not appear on the DVD.
3. Elizabeth Berkley and Gina Gershon argued on set
Showgirls is memorable for the increasingly bitter rivalry between Elizabeth Berkley’s up-and-comer Nomi and Gina Gershon’s seasoned star Cristal – and apparently this dynamic was also present off-camera. Reports suggest that there was genuine tension between Berkley and Gershon during the shoot.
You might assume that fellow cast members and crew would attempt to ease the tension but, alas, this was not the case. In fact, director Paul Verhoeven actively encouraged the pair’s squabbling. He felt that this would help add to their on-screen dynamic, and make their onscreen feud all the more authentic.
2. The studio attempted to ‘rebrand’ the film as a cult classic
After the film made its spectacular flop at the box office, the studio attempted to re-market it as a ‘Midnight Cult Flick’, in the same vein as movies such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show. They printed a new ad, complete with a leopard print background, and prominently mentioning the film’s seven Razzie ‘wins’.
The ad ran in in several LA newspapers, and promoted the midnight showings in West Hollywood in the spring of 1996. Although this marketing ploy was well-intentioned, it was ultimately deemed unsuccessful. In the years since, though, Showgirls did indeed gain a cult following, and audiences would turn up to screenings dressed in full ‘Showgirls’ attire.
1. It’s since inspired an off-Broadway musical and a documentary
Over time, Showgirls has gone from being reviled to being adored, if only from a selective cult audience. The film has become a particular favourite of LGBT audiences, and this inspired 2013’s Showgirls! The Musical!, an unofficial parody which played for two months off-Broadway in New York.
Later, 2019 documentary film You Don’t Nomi explored the complex legacy of Showgirls, with particular emphasis on its rediscovery as a cult classic. Directed by Jeffrey McHale, You Don’t Nomi screened at a number of film festivals and was generally well-received.