Between 1987 and 1992, Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven’s three directorial efforts RoboCop (1987), Total Recall (1990), and Basic instinct (1992) earned a combined $650 million-plus in worldwide box-office sales and titillated audiences of all tastes. In other words, he was on one hell of a Hollywood hot streak. That, however, would soon come to a crashing halt, thanks to Verhoeven’s next release: 1995’s Showgirls, a lurid, nudity-filled erotic drama about a young drifter named Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) who travels to Las Vegas to make it big as a dancer.
The $40 million film — which also starred Gina Gershon and Kyle MacLachlan, was written by Basic Instinct scribe Joe Eszterhas (who was on his own Hollywood streak, selling scripts left and right for millions), and earned the rare NC-17 from the MPAA — bombed at the box office, grossing only $20 million domestically. And it just got worse from there: The widespread hatred that greeted the film upon its release all but destroyed Berkley’s big-screen career, exiled Verhoeven into a self-described “Hollywood prison,” and assured Showgirls a place alongside such other notorious debacles as Heaven’s Gate and Plan 9 From Outer Space on more than a few “worst film of all time” lists.
But as often is the case with creative efforts that are initially derided, the passing years have been kinder to Showgirls. The film —now affectionately considered a cult classic — became one of MGM’s all-time top selling videos and earned a legion of fans, including Betty Buckley, Quentin Tarantino, and John Waters, who dubbed the film, “funny, stupid, dirty, and filled with cinematic clichés; in other words, perfect.”
To celebrate the movie’s 20th anniversary, Playboy.com recently spoke with Verhoeven about the making of Showgirls, its aftermath, and how he perceives it now.
How did you first get involved with Showgirls?
Joe Eszterhas and I had big problems with Basic Instinct. He didn’t want to talk to me until after he saw the movie. And then he apologized. So, after the success of that film, we were so-called good friends again. We had lunch and he came up with several ideas: One, I think, was about Moby Dick. I felt that would be very difficult, had already been done, and would be extremely expensive. There was another idea, which could have been about Marilyn Monroe — perhaps that came later, I’m not sure. And the third idea he presented to me as a kind of modern musical set in Vegas, which I thought was interesting. Several people competed to finance the script and finally, producer Charles Evans, Robert Evans’s brother, gave Joe $2 million to write it.
Did you and Joe spend a lot of time researching the world of Las Vegas showgirls?
For weeks and weeks, we went back and forth to Vegas several times. We must have lap dancing. Joe based a lot of the storyline on elements that he had heard during these interviews. In fact, strangely enough, Showgirls is the most realistic movie I have ever done in the United States.
What was your reaction to Joe’s first draft of the script?
I felt it was like a revamping/reboot/repeating/copying/plagiarizing, or whatever, of Flashdance [which was cowritten by Eszterhas]. It was exactly the same. And I protested against that and said, “I’m not too sure I want to make that because it’s so cliché.” And then I said, “perhaps you can do it like All About Eve,” which was maybe another cliché. And so we used some elements [from that film]. The introduction of the character of Molly (played by Gina Ravera) in Showgirls, was taken from All About Eve.
How did the film’s subject matter affect casting?
Acting, dancing, and nudity — finding all that in one person is difficult, isn’t it? A lot of people were interested in doing the film, but when they realized how it would be — full out, breasts all over the place; which I told them, of course — they backed off.
But then came Elizabeth Berkley, who was known for starring in the teen sitcom, Saved by the Bell. Were you familiar with that show?
No, I had never seen it. She came to an audition and my assistant at that time told me, “Finally, we found a girl that can dance.” And she seemed to have no problem with all the nudity and sexuality.
Was there ever a moment when Elizabeth or any of the actors had an issue with something they were asked to do?
Certainly not Elizabeth. But when I insisted that in one of the beginning scenes, Gina Gershon sit half-naked in front of a mirror in her dressing room, she got really irritated and threw a chair at me.
Did it hit you?
No. I stepped back. It was a very heavy makeup chair, so Gina couldn’t throw it too far. We became very good friends, in fact.
From the behind-the-scenes footage I’ve seen, it looked like everyone was having a very good time during production.
We had a good time because we thought we were making something really good. And honestly, when we were shooting, we never thought that it would have such an extremely negative impact.
At what point did you begin to realize that the film could have that reaction?
Before the movie was finished, and I saw that it was, let’s say, an uninterrupted stream of naked breasts, I started to wonder if I would need guards for my house. The thought did come up that people might be very angry.
Elizabeth, in particular, got bombarded with negative attention after the film came out; She was even dropped by her talent agency.
We all knew that we were doing something extremely provocative. I mean, I foresaw that they would attack her. When we were editing the film, I told her [that if people don’t like it], they’ll never tell you that they were shocked by the fact that you show everything, including pubic hair and whatever. Instead, they are going to say that you can’t act or dance. And that is exactly what happened. But what we didn’t realize was that Elizabeth would be the main target, more than Joe or I; that she would be attacked in an attempt to destroy her. I think she was punished. It was horrible.
Is there one particular review of the film that you still recall that was especially harsh?
I forgot who it was, but there was one journalist that said he had to get up during a screening to go to the restroom to throw up.
Did that bother you?
Of course, you get upset when basically everybody turns against you. I did a movie in Holland called Spetters that turned critics against me in a major, major way. There were anti-Spetters committees and stuff like that — it was even worse than with Showgirls in the United States. But in that case the audience came, so you can say, “Who cares about the critics?” because the public supports the movie.
But wtth Showgirls, that support never arrived in the way you had expected.
No, no. Perhaps it was just not a good movie. [Laughs] Who knows?
Do you think it is a good movie?
Yes. I think it’s an extremely well-executed, elegant, and visually artistic movie. It’s one of the few of mine that I have no problem looking at again. But if I had to redo it, the only thing I would change, and I came up with the idea years later, would be to make the film a murder mystery. It would be all the same but there would be a murder inside that group of people. I think it would have been easier for the audience to accept it, because they would have been interested in seeing who did it.
In 1995, Showgirls was nominated for a record 13 Razzies, which recognize the year’s worst cinematic achievements, and won seven — also a record. You actually attended the awards presentation in Hollywood; what possessed you to show up?
That was me following what Jesus said, about when they slap you on the right side, show them the left. I thought, “Okay, let’s see if Jesus was right.” And ultimately my going turned out to be a political/strategic move. It made some of the bad stuff more acceptable. And the fact that I had to walk forward to get every Razzie (including Worst Picture and Worst Director) made it seem at the end like a standing ovation. That was the really the most wonderful proof that Jesus was right.
What are some of the most common things people say to you about the movie?
They mostly talk now about its resurrection. I think everybody is happy that they can say something positive to me about Showgirls. It makes me feel better. It’s a bit of vindication.
Twenty years later, how do you feel about the whole experience?
I recently had lunch with a friend who asked me that question, and I answered, “Because of the success of RoboCop, Total Recall, and Basic Instinct, I was living in a state of hubris and thought that I could do anything and it would be fine.” Which turned out not to be true.
So do you have any regrets about making Showgirls?
No. No. But let’s put it this way: If I could have foreseen the results of the film [and its effect] on my career for seven or eight years after it came out, then basically I would have been a fool to do it. It was difficult. But I’m glad that I did it. I’m glad that I dared to do it.