Joe Eszterhas and ‘Showgirls’ keep resurfacing, teasingly

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Simon Abrams

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Last week, Joe Eszterhas publicly condemned actor/director Mel Gibson in a scathing rant which unsurprisingly accuses Mad Mel of being antisemitic.

Gibson and Eszterhas were supposed to collaborate on a film about famous Jewish leader Judah Maccabee. But according to Eszterhas, Gibson was impossible to work with. Eszterhas has since backed up his claims with audio of Gibson demanding to see his script and cursing out his own ex-wife.

To be fair, Eszterhas has always been a great self-promoter, to put it politely. He penned the script for the cattily titled An Alan Smithee Film: Burn, Hollywood, Burn and wrote a memoir called Hollywood Animal about Ho'wood debauchery.

It's hard to imagine that Eszterhas, a screenwriter most famous for having written scripts for both Basic Instinct and Showgirls, would have an easy time working with Gibson. Gibson's rabid, arresting epics Apocalypto and Passion of the Christ are more or less diametrically opposed to Estzerhas's two infamous collaborations with director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Total Recall).

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The IFC Center screened Showgirls this weekend as part of their "Waverly Midnights" series. The notorious 1995 sexploitation epic is apparently so popular with IFC crowds (or maybe just programmers?) that it's become a staple of IFC's midnight program joining canonical fare like El Topo and Eraserhead.

Showgirls is a great example of what Eszterhas did when United Artists allowed him to put his id on the screen and mess around with their own preoccupations on a very big canvas. Verhoeven isn't the sole mad genius who turned the film into a bloated, campy version of All About Eve, as critic Odie Henderson once shrewdly put it. Showgirls' sarcastic tone is inherent in Eszterhas's script and he's said as much, too. "I never understood from the beginning how lines like, 'How does it feel not to have anybody coming on to you anymore?' weren't funny," Eszterhas once said. "I went to see [Showgirls] three or four months after the release date, and it was packed with audiences that really laughed. I laughed as well and I laughed when I wrote those lines."

Eszterhas is right to say that the film is attempt at mocking the formulaic rise-and-fall story arc of Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley), a wannabe starlet without a past. But like Verhoeven, whose films are often a conflicted mix of barbed humor and earnest devotion to the genres they tramp around in, Eszterhas is only semi-serious about poking fun of the noirish tropes that Showgirls' stock plot is culled together from. It's 131 minutes of cheese, as opposed to Basic Instinct, which is a much sleeker and tonally consistent film. Still, Showgirls is definitely the film to see if you want to get a handle on what Eszterhas is capable of when allowed to run wild.

Which isn't always a great thing, actually. Throughout the first three-quarters of Showgirls, Verhoeven and Eszterhas take too much time fleshing out Nomi's seedy world. She arrives in Las Vegas and immediately loses her luggage. But right after that, she shacks up with gal pal Annie (Ungela Brockman), who helps her get set up dancing at Cheetahs Topless Lounge, a place run by a guy who regularly threatens his dancers for sexual favors.

The film only really tonally evens out by its finally 30-40 minutes, during which time Verhoeven and Eszterhas's nasty streak really surfaces. By this time, Nomi gets fed up with the way everyone around her is trying to seduce her or use her "talent" (her grind-heavy dancing is rhythmically spastic, if such a thing is possible). This is especially true of pseudo-nice guy Zack Carey (Kyle McLachlan) and prima donna and self-styled "Goddess" Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon).

In fact, because this is the fall portion of Nomi's rise-and-fall arc, it's safe to say that in spite of many critics' comments about the film's "gratuitous" rape scene, that sequence is kind of a crucial indicator of Showgirls' gross nature. That scene, in which Annie is raped by rock star Andrew Carver (William Shockley) and his two bouncers, is indicative of the kind of movie Eszterhas and Verhoeven had been trying to make all along. Too bad they were so earnestly in love with the flagrant decadence of Nomi's story that they didn't focus enough to make Showgirls the uniformly mean piece of work it could have been.

Showgirls is ultimately not nearly as bad or as good as its reputation as both an object of cult worship and the nadir of American cinema in the '90s. Yes, Berkley's performance is often absurd and the story is proudly ridiculous, too. But that is what Eszterhas and Verhoeven were both trying for and it's also unfortunately all that the film has going for it. Unlike Basic Instinct, Showgirls is alienatingly nasty because it spends a lot of time joking about being sincere. It's a long put-on and a frequently tedious one. But Eszterhas's script and Verhoeven's direction is nothing if not deliberate.

One can't help but wonder what Eszterhas's career would have been like if he weren't blacklisted after Showgirls flopped. As Eszterhas boasts in Hollywood Animal, Time magazine once suggested he might be Hollywood's answer to Shakespeare. Showgirls is also tantalizing for what it might have been.