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The origins of the tawdry camp classic from 1995 known as Showgirls are revealed in the latest episode of The Hollywood Reporter podcast It Happened In Hollywood.
“We spoke to 50 or so young women about their experiences,” screenwriter Joe Eszterhas tells hosts Seth Abramovitch and Chip Pope of his initial research trip to Las Vegas for the film. “It was really valuable, the interviews were valuable — their experiences were valuable and sometimes horrifying. Rape culture is overwhelming among strippers. Some of the stories were absolutely heartbreaking.”
Eszterhas then went off to write a script. With the help of potent Hawaiian weed, he says, he crafted a story about a gritty and ambitious woman who wants to become an A-list stripper. The logline sounded a bit ridiculous, but Eszterhas affirms that he truly imagined the film being gritty and grounded in the real-life experiences of the exotic dancers he’d met.
Producer Charles Evans first discovered Elizabeth Berkley, an actress whose only credit was Saved by the Bell, and asked her to audition for the lead role of Nomi Malone in his New York hotel room. After being blown away by her performance, he convinced director Paul Verhoeven to give Berkley a shot.
The team had already sent the script to Madonna, Drew Barrymore and Sharon Stone, having felt an A-lister would be the ideal choice for the role. Madonna, who had recently starred in Body of Evidence, was interested on the condition of a major script revision. The team wasn’t interested in changing anything, so — after Barrymore and Stone passed — they moved forward with newcomer Berkley.
Verhoeven pushed the material to its extremes. Its aggressive nudity and explicit sexual content warranted an NC-17 rating, which Eszterhas felt was a mistake. “I was insistent that it be an R-rated movie, because I felt if it was NC-17, there would be such a gigantic glare on it, that it would obscure everything else. And I think I was right, in retrospect.”
After a wide release in roughly 1,200 theaters, it was clear to studio MGM that the film was not going to be taken seriously. It did meager box office, earning back just $20 million of its $45 million budget. Critically, the film was eviscerated for its portrayal of women — though THR‘s critic at the time thought it had commercial potential — while audiences just laughed it off.
Instead of accepting the critiques, Eszterhas stood up for his work. “I put a full-page ad in Variety that I paid for myself,” he recalls. “It was addressed from Joe Eszterhas, to women. It made the case that there was a real spiritual regeneration in this picture, because she turns her back on everything that happens. The movie itself had a bull’s-eye on it, but when I did that I put a gigantic bull’s-eye on myself.”
The film actually passes the Bechdel Test, an informal feminist benchmark that stipulates a movie should show two women talking about something other than a man, among other guidelines. According to Eszterhas, many of these odd conversations — including an infamous one about eating dog food —came from his research.
Berkley, who for years avoided talking about the film, has learned to embrace it. At a Hollywood Forever Cemetery screening in 2015, the actress gave a moving speech to thousands of Showgirls fans.
“In 1995, it was such a different time, where taking risks like that were not embraced, they were laughed at. They were shamed publicly,” she told the crowd. “To be a young girl in the center of that was something that was quite difficult, but I found my own resiliency and my power and my confidence, not only through what I had to find out but because of you guys.”
Eszterhas, who was known for riding motorcycles and bringing knives to meetings, has mellowed out in his golden years. The 74-year-old spends his time writing spec scripts, many of them with religious undertones.
But he will always loom in Hollywood as a larger-than-life screenwriter who spun pulpy material into box-office gold and stuck to his guns at all costs.
For more on the making of Showgirls, listen to the latest episode of It Happened in Hollywood, and be sure to subscribe.
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