“Showgirls,” and Some History of Sex in Cinema

Elizabeth Berkley playing Nomi in "Showgirls"

We saw You Don’t Nomi the other day, a thoughtful, well-made, wildly entertaining documentary about the movie Showgirls; its flamingly negative critical reception; and its later reclamation by fans as high camp. It got me thinking about the movie in some new ways — and it got me thinking about the history of explicit sex in movies.

Showgirls was released in 1995, at a cultural moment when it seemed to pie-eyed optimists* that maybe — just maybe — sexually explicit movies might become mainstream, or at least mainstream-ish. The NC-17 rating was created in 1990 to distinguish explicit art films from X-rated smut (a questionable distinction, but whatever). But many theaters wouldn’t show NC-17 movies; many newspapers wouldn’t run ads for them; and Blockbuster Video wouldn’t carry them. So an NC-17 rating wound up killing any movie’s chances at commercial success.

Showgirls was the first big-budget movie to test this. Director Paul Verhoeven and writer Joe Eszterhas set out to make it an NC-17 movie, with serious (no, really) intent to make a drama/social satire. So even though Verhoeven and Eszterhas (Basic Instinct) were something of a nightmare team, there was some hope** that Showgirls might successfully break this ground and open those doors for other filmmakers.

Showgirls of course, was a monumental failure. Critics heaped it with all the venom we had, and then ran to our venom vaults to get more. Audiences stayed away in droves. (Note: If you’re producing a cinematic exploration of female sexual power and the corruption of that power, maybe don’t have it written and directed by a couple of straight guys. Especially straight guys with Issues.) And with the movie’s failure, the door slammed shut on the NC-17 experiment.

There have been other attempts to make high-quality sexually-explicit cinema, both before Showgirls and since: Last Tango in Paris in 1972, Caligula in 1979, Crash (the Cronenberg one) in 1996; Secretary in 2002, Nine Songs in 2004, Shortbus in 2006, The Girlfriend Experience in 2009. These movies had varying degrees of critical and commercial success, but none of them broke the latex ceiling and made way for a Golden Age of Serious, Sexually Explicit Film.

But here’s the thing. Continue reading ““Showgirls,” and Some History of Sex in Cinema”

“Showgirls,” and Some History of Sex in Cinema
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