How Elizabeth Berkley learned to love Showgirls

From box office flop to beloved cult movie star.

Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls
Cult classic Elizabeth Berkley in 1995's Showgirls. Image Picture MGM

In the mid-90s Elizabeth Berkley was an actress poised for superstardom.

A familiar face on TV thanks to Saved by the Bell, she held off competition from Charlize Theron to win the coveted role of stripper Nomi Malone in erotic drama Showgirls – Hollywood awaited a new star.

Showgirls was the latest NC-17 adult flick from Dutch director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, the duo who struck gold with Basic Instinct.

Elizabeth Berkley was supposed to be the new Sharon Stone, but things didn’t quite go to plan.

Showgirls was savaged by critics, won seven Golden Raspberry Awards and flopped at the box office. It was easy to see why; over the top acting, corny-as-hell-dialogue and a ridiculous storyline torpedoed the film from the off. After the film’s 1995 release, any movie that turned out to be a stinker was referred to as  “Showgirls bad”.

Not only that, but Berkley’s career quickly hit the skids. She’s been working steadily ever since, but stints on reality TV series Dancing with the Stars and CSI: Miami are a world away from headlining a major Hollywood drama.

“It was a bit of a difficult time for me personally, because a lot of doors were shut at that time. I had to find my strength and my confidence and go back out there again,” Berkley said in a 2013 interview with Variety.

She added of her decision to enter Dancing with the Stars: “I think that because [Showgirls] was so criticised, it was humiliating – doing anything that was connected to the film was not fun. So I think being able to find a relationship to my dancing, which is something I loved, has been healing.”

Showgirls director Verhoeven has been vocal about taking full responsibility for the cinematic disaster, saying he’s to blame for Berkley’s big break going south.

“People have, of course, criticised her for being over-the-top in her performance. Most of that comes from me. I pushed it in that direction,” he told Rolling Stone.

“Good or not good, I was the one who asked her to exaggerate everything – every move – because that was the element of style that I thought would work for the movie.”

Verhoeven even managed to give the movie a sex scene once named the worst of all time by Empire Magazine. Berkley and Twin Peaks star Kyle MacLachlan thrashed about in a swimming pool in a sequence that would’ve looked more at home in Jaws.

Musing on that ridiculous splash-around, Verhoeven later said: “The sexual elements of Showgirls are extremely limited; it’s more about the nudity.

“If you make a story about a lap-dancer who becomes a showgirl, I think nudity is obligatory. It followed the storyline. But I wouldn’t call that sexual. I would say Showgirls is more anti-erotic than erotic.”

In the 20 years since Showgirls first came out, the film has become a hit on home video and attained a so-bad-it’s-good cult status among fans of trash cinema.

Berkley has even forgiven it. Last year she appeared in person at a Hollywood Forever Cemetery screening in LA to introduce the movie.

“I really do want you to know this movie is something I love, but I love it because you love it too,” she told the assembled crowd.

“Whether this film has been your guilty pleasure, whether you have played ‘Pin the Pasties on the Showgirl’, or whether Nomi’s own plight and her fight and struggle has become your own anthem in your life, I hope that it’s brought you comfort.”

Time, it seems, really does heal all wounds.

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Loaded digital media manager Simon Reynolds has written about film and entertainment for various leading websites since 2008. Follow Simon at @simonreyn