Showgirls tells the story of switchblade-toting, orphan hitchhiker Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) and her commendable ambition to someday become a successful naked dancer on stage in the Las Vegas strip. Who hasn’t had such a wholesome, family friendly dream? She’s a six-mood-swing-a-minute type of girl, screaming like a defiant teenager one moment and making out with strange women the next. The eccentricities exhibited by her character make for a very entertaining, highly unpredictable motion picture.
The movie starts quite suddenly, with a rusty old truck stopping to pick up our Nomi, who is hitchhiking her way to Vegas with nothing but the clothes on her back and a suitcase. Who she is or how she ended up hitchhiking alone in the desert is not established or clarified for quite some time. The driver, who seems friendly enough, makes small talk with her until she turns on the crazy. This is the audience’s first clue that we’re in for a real treat with this film:
“I don’t like Garth Brooks!”
When they get to Vegas, the driver ditches her and steals her suitcase. Like Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, we never find out what was in that suitcase. However, unlike Pulp Fiction, in Showgirls we don’t care what was in the suitcase. Having lost her belongings, the enraged Nomi punches and kicks at the car nearest her, running out into the street where she’s almost killed. This woman is insanity incarnate, pure and simple. Nomi is pulled off the road by Molly (Gina Ravera), the owner of the car she was beating on moments earlier. After Nomi screams at the person who just saved her life, Molly takes pity on the poor girl and invites her to live with her until she can find a job. This is how she ends up staying with a complete stranger in a trailer park. The two girls quickly become best friends.
Molly works backstage at the Stardust hotel, doing wardrobe for the showgirls of a nude dance routine. She invites Nomi to come to the hotel one night, where Nomi becomes enamored with Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon), the star of the show. This is the kind of dancing she’s always dreamed of doing. Unfortunately, the only job she’s managed to find for herself is a dancing gig at club Cheetah, a strip club. Everything changes for her when she’s shocked to see Cristal enter the club with a producer of the show, her boyfriend Zack (Kyle MacLachlan). Cristal pays top dollar to have Nomi give Zack a lap dance while she watches, and she must have done well, because she gets an audition dancing in Cristal’s show soon after.
Nomi’s gonna be a… SUPERSTAR!
Around this time, Nomi picks up her hilarious stalker, James Smith (Glenn Plummer), who claims to be a dance teacher when he discovers her writhing on the dance floor in a club. Her eccentric, bizarre dance moves don’t seem to contain any pattern or rhythm, and when they dance together they both look like they’re asylum escapees off their meds. In another mood swing, Nomi pushes him away, starting a club-wide fight in the process. When she’s arrested for her violent behavior, James bails her out and begins to stalk her. She won’t even look at the guy, much less thank him, and yet he refuses to stop pursuing her. He even shows up at Molly’s door one day, though it’s impossible to tell how how he found out where she lives. He writes a dance number for her, and just won’t leave her be. Well, that is, until he discovers she gives lap dances at the club, because “everybody got aids and shit.” He disappears from the movie for a while, then puts on his show without her and it doesn’t go well. Then we don’t see his character again. James shouldn’t even be in the movie. He does not serve the narrative in any way.
“You don’t fool me. I see you. I see you hiding… from you.”
Once Nomi starts dancing in the show at the Stardust, Cristal instantly begins to dislike her. Other than a love of dancing, the only thing the two of them have in common is that they both enjoy eating dog food. The producers see a lot of potential in Nomi, and Cristal becomes concerned and jealous. Zack is especially drawn to her, spending less and less time with Cristal. Soon their relationship culminates when the two of them have sex in his pool in a very odd position, Nomi flopping around like a Magicarp. She’s rewarded soon after with a promotion to be Cristal’s understudy. Zack becomes Nomi’s protector after that, and defends her honour with some really powerful dialogue.
“If it happens again, to anybody, you’re going to jump to your conclusion. Without your golden parachute!”
It’s hard to trust anything Nomi says or does since we don’t get a proper backstory, at least, not until the final minutes of the movie. The opening of the film is just so jarring. Here’s Nomi: she can be happy one moment, feisty the next, followed by maniacally angry seconds later. Sometimes she’ll cycle through eight emotional states in one sentence. It’s impossible to understand this character and what her drives her. When she’s hired at the Stardust she claims to have no living family and no social security number. Nomi is guarded about her past throughout the picture, so it’s clear from the start that a dark history is bound to be revealed sooner or later. It just takes so damn long to get to it and once we finally find out her history, it’s almost disappointing that it wasn’t something more sinister.
Nomi also has an extremely bizarre sense of morality. She aspires to dance in Vegas, and she actually seems happy in early scenes at the Cheetah strip club. She enjoys the company of the girls she works with. I’d argue she smiles more during these scenes than at any other point in the film. She doesn’t seem to mind the way the men treat her. Later, she auditions at the Stardust, which isn’t so different from the Cheetah: In both places she’s required to dance naked in front of strangers all night. She gets offended during the audition when the producer asks her to ice her nipples to get them hard. We’ve seen this girl give private lap dances to complete strangers, but this request offends her. And even though she freaks out and throws ice in the producer’s face, she still lands the job.
Defiance… in an audition? Well, we’ve gotta’ hire her!
The encompassing theme of the film is the shallowness of show business. The way the producers treat the girls, and even the way the girls treat each other, is horrendous. Cristal and Nomi’s rivalry ends with Nomi pushing Cristal down a staircase, so she can take over as the new star of the show. The film should end there, with Nomi achieving her dreams at the cost of ruining someone else’s. The true nature of success is deceit. Molly, having witnessed the push, no longer trusts Nomi and it looks like she’s lost the only true friend she had. The point has been driven home by this point, and this would be the strongest beat to end on. Unfortunately, there’s still twenty unnecessary minutes left to this thing.
Molly just forgives Nomi, for some reason, and they travel to a house party together to meet a Andrew Carver (William Shockley), a musician Molly’s always had a huge crush on. They get in to the party using Nomi’s star power. Once inside, Andrew is quite taken with Molly and leads her private bedroom. Things take a dark turn when two of Andrew’s friends appear and rape her. If you didn’t hate show business yet, you should by now. This entire sequence doesn’t say anything that the movie hasn’t already established, and really takes things a little too far. Once Nomi avenges Molly by beating the shit out of Andrew, she just moves on, hitchhiking on to the next city. She achieved fame in Vegas and could live well for years, but instead leaves on foot. She leaves her friend, a victim of rape, alone in the hospital as if their time together meant nothing at all.
We come full circle when she’s picked up by the same driver from the beginning. And damn, does she ever want that suitcase back.
Showgirls is structured around a very complicated character who is impossible to relate to due to a lack of cohesive backstory. It’s hard to relate to Nomi and her sassy attitude. A big part of the fun of the movie is trying to understand her decisions in each and every social interaction she finds herself in. Trying to discern her sexuality is equally baffling, given the number of men and women she embraces. She treats the people who are kind to her terribly, often by screaming in their face moments after meeting them. She truly is an enigma, and her performance and attitude makes this incredible bad movie worth the watch.