Calling it a guilty pleasure would imply a sense of shame.



In his classic trilogy The Americans, historian Daniel Boorstin quotes a poem on the conflicted public morals of the 1930s, the opening lines of which neatly resemble the shifting fortunes of director Paul Verhoeven's belatedly celebrated film Showgirls: "Prohibition is an awful flop. We like it."


America has always had a strange relationship with its own prurience. The sexual revolution and Jerry Springer notwithstanding, when Showgirls was released in 1995, a scarlet NC-17 taped across its ample breasts, critics howled. "Dirty, tasteless, dumb," they said. "What's left is simply an excuse to watch topless dancing." As if that were a bad thing.


Yet Showgirls has undergone a critical resurrection of late, praised by the likes of director Jacques Rivette, father of the French New Wave, as the most underrated American film of recent years, and even given the highbrow roundtable treatment in the spring 2003 edition of Film Quarterly.


Which is why the newly released Showgirls VIP Limited Edition DVD is so welcomeŚand unwelcome. To those with an intrinsic love of Showgirls, the growing faction of "so bad it's good" fans is no more insightful than those who dismissed the film as sleazy profiteering. Sadly, the DVD producers are solidly in the "camp" camp. Special features include a stripper commentary and a "Pin the Pasties on the Showgirl" game.


As an Amish public service announcement: Showgirls stars Elizabeth Berkley as Nomi Malone, a long-legged drifter hitching to Vegas to fulfill her dream of being a star. As a lap dancer at the disreputable Cheetahs, she wins the attention of Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon), headliner of the stage show Goddess, who gets her an audition at the Stardust. Nomi and Cristal swing from vicious rivalry to outright flirtation, and though Nomi comes out on top, the price of fame proves too high to pay.


Though regarded by some as a candy-coated homage to the backstage bitchiness of All About Eve or 42nd Street, Showgirls' melodramatic social criticism actually owes a great debt to the 1950s output of director Douglas Sirk (Written on the Wind, All That Heaven Allows). Like Sirk, Verhoeven (Starship Troopers) has the all-too-rare ability to exploit melodrama without condescending to it. Showgirls thus manages the feat of being both a celebration of pop culture and a condemnation of the American dream.


Showgirls nuanced? Yep. And just maybe, given time, like Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, those who would describe Showgirls as "so deliciously low, so horribly dirty" will genuinely fall in love with their object of condescension.


--Joshua Avram

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