Different Places! Real and Hyperreal Las Vegas in Showgirls

Figure 4. Showgirls. United States: MGM/UA, 1995.
William Smith analyzes how the film Showgirls engages with themes of the hyperreal in its portrayal of Las Vegas. The film makes a jarring break from typical representations of the city, peeling back the layers of Las Vegas to reveal its promises to be inaccessible, profit-driven myths.
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The defining characteristic of Las Vegas, Nevada is intention. The Hollywood film industry developed Las Vegas into the city it stands as today by producing films that advertised the glamour and allure of the city, and real estate options for the viewer to become a part of it. The commercial interest behind Las Vegas films has incentivized filmmakers to present the city through the cinematic lens of the “badaud,” advertising Las Vegas as a destination to escape the sphere of reality. Showgirls (Verhoeven, 1995) follows protagonist Nomi Malone during several months of her life in Las Vegas from entrance to exit. Verhoeven uses both the film’s plot and his audiences’ expectations to break down the mythical narrative of hyperreality and expose it as a damaging, capitalistic lie.

Las Vegas is a creation of Hollywood. The “symbiotic relationship” between the city of Las Vegas and the film industry is generally thought to have started in the 1960s with Ocean’s 11 (Milestone, 1960).1Marcelline Block, World Film Locations: Las Vegas (Bristol: Intellect, 2011), 104. However, the first “all-Vegas” film, Las Vegas Nights (Murphy, 1941) arrived approximately twenty years before this era officially began.2Block, 6. Between 1941 and 1960, Las Vegas films such as Meet Me in Las Vegas (Rowland, 1956) and The Las Vegas Story (Stevenson, 1952) steadily increased in production. In the case of The Las Vegas Story, the producer was Howard Hughes. As Marcelline Block explains, Hughes was “moving into Vegas real estate and made sure that parts of the movie resembled what would now be called an infomercial.”3Block, 6. These early commercially interested films worked effectively to advertise Las Vegas to what Juliet Flower MacCannell describes as “East Coast and Midwest ex-urbanites who, in droves, were fleeing their cities for suburbs and sunbelts.”4Juliet Flower MacCannell, “Las Vegas: The Post-Cinematic City,” Performance Research 6, no. 1 (2014): 48, doi:10.1080/13528165.2001.10871766. However, only once Las Vegas had a set of ambassadors in the form of Ocean’s 11’s ‘Rat Pack’ did the city begin to cultivate its global identity.5Block, World Film Locations, 104. As MacCannell points out, Las Vegas quickly became synonymous with “fast, loose-living, bright-lit nightlife, gaming, – and sex.”6MacCannell, 49. Audiences were captivated not only by the casino heist film, but also the ‘Rat Pack’ stars themselves. Juliet Flower MacCannell explains that “Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford […] began appearing regularly in Vegas as performers and as high-profile, high-stakes gamblers.”7MacCannell, 54. Together, these performers helped to mark Las Vegas as a globetrotting destination alongside Los Angeles and New York City. Although the stars appeared to begin to overshadow the commercial efforts within Las Vegas films, in truth they simply helped to obscure and integrate these efforts more effectively. Nowhere is this clearer than in Viva Las Vegas (Sidney, 1964) starring Elvis Presley. For MacCannell, the “sheer enjoyment” Presley and co-star Ann-Margret have in the city is said to be “infectious,” but nevertheless “fun was only a ‘hook’ for the film’s real-estate promotional side.”8MacCannell, 55. The film industry had come to recognize the power of lifestyle marketing. Focusing on the joy to be found in Las Vegas framed moving as a foregone conclusion. As Block argues, by rolling out Las Vegas films full of young, beautiful stars traipsing the strip, “Hollywood made Las Vegas portable and secured it a special place in the urban imaginary throughout the world.”9Block, World Film Locations, 104. The Las Vegas film craze has persisted at a steady production pace since its inception with commercial interest still at its core. In order to fulfill these commercial interests, Las Vegas cinema overwhelmingly presents itself through the cinematic lens of the badaud, or urban gawker.

The badaud is an urban type mostly commonly defined in opposition to the flâneur. For Giuliana Bruno, the flâneur is an “urban stroller” who weaves in and out of city crowds with mastery.10Giuliana Bruno, “Site-seeing: Architecture and the Moving Image,” Wide Angle 19, no. 4 (1997): 3, doi:10.1353/wan.1997.0017. Conversely, Nathan Holmes suggests, the badaud is “in thrall to the visuality of the city rather than a master of it.”11Nathan Holmes, Welcome to Fear City: Crime Film, Crisis, and the Urban Imagination (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2018), 102. As the badaud is enthralled by the sights of the city, Nancy Forgione writes, “the individuality of the badaud disappears. It is absorbed by the outside world, which intoxicates him to the point where he forgets himself.”12Nancy Forgione, “Everyday Life in Motion: The Art of Walking in Late-Nineteenth-Century Paris,” The Art Bulletin 87, no. 4 (2005): 680, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25067208. The most significant trait of the badaud is the dissolution of personal identity; the badaud embodies pure spectatorship and is “wholly dissolved by the world.”13Forgione, 680. The badaud is the perfect Las Vegas tourist and Las Vegas film audience member due to their innate insatiable consumption. As previously mentioned, commercial interests are the driving force behind Las Vegas films. Commercialism and the badaud are intrinsically linked, Forgione underlines, because “shopping’s rise is also considered a factor in eventually transforming the flâneur […] into a mere badaud.”14Forgione, 670.  As such, Las Vegas films have been intentionally cultivating their audiences to view the city, both in film and in life, through the lens of the badaud. Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls intentionally makes a jarring break from this point of view and holds it to a critical light by focusing on a badaud protagonist rather than catering to a badaud audience.

Showgirls was absolutely eviscerated upon release. The film was said to be “a concoction of sex, violence, nudity, nastiness, and craziness” and “an overexposed Vegas that left nothing to be desired. All artifice and shadow-free glossiness.”15Block, World Film Locations, 7; MacCannell, “The Post-Cinematic City,” 56. Audiences’ and critics’ overwhelmingly negative reactions can be understood as a result of Showgirls’s refusal to deliver the film through the cinematic lens of the badaud that viewers have become so accustomed to. This is not solely due to Showgirls being a Las Vegas film, though this is one factor that sets this expectation. Showgirls was explicitly marketed to cater to the badaud’s gaze. The trailer’s gritty voice-over declares: “last time they took you to the edge, this time they’re taking you all the way.” This promise is paired with a supercut of the film’s sex and nudity imagery devoid of context, culminating in a kiss between the two female leads as the voice-over instructs the audience to “leave [their] inhibitions at the door.” For Ann Fletchall, when catering to the gaze of the badaud, films present “a sanitized, idealized, fetishized version of nature, the past, the world” because “in our postmodern hyperreal condition, the fake is preferred to the real and the fake is far better.”16Ann Fletchall, “Making sense of the strip: the postmodern pastiche of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee,” Southeastern Geographer 53, no. 1 (2013): 104. Showgirls, in contrast, chooses to center the badaud narratively as opposed to serving a badaud audience. This choice effectively holds a mirror to the audience and, upon initial release, was only revealed once in the theatre. The subversion of audiences’ expectations can be understood to prime viewers for the film’s thesis as revealed through Nomi’s journey; Las Vegas’s plane of hyperreality is an illusion which sustains itself through the exploitation of workers who endure mistreatment in hope of escaping to the hyperreal sphere themselves.

Figure 1. Showgirls. United States: MGM/UA, 1995.

It is important to understand Las Vegas as a city of hyperreality. Hyperreality is intrinsically connected with postmodernism, and hyperreal locations can be understood as locations designed with the utmost intention to deliver on a preconceived idea of the identity of said place.17Fletchall, 104. Hyperreality is preferred by the architects of Las Vegas because it is much more malleable and perfectible, all in the service of being more commodifiable to the badaud masses than actual reality. Paul Verhoeven places a dogged personal narrative onto the glamorous, hyperreal streets of Las Vegas. This juxtaposition highlights that hyperreality is necessarily constructed from reality. The idea of the hyperreal necessarily being built upon and unable to detach from the real is strongly communicated by a wide shot of The Cheetah (Figure 1).

This wide shot features Nomi’s starting workplace, The Cheetah, and the workplace that she aspires to, The Stardust Resort and Casino. Not only does the Stardust tower over The Cheetah; it is also framed as if The Cheetah were its foundation. This reinforces the idea that hyperreality necessarily has to be built upon our existing reality and cannot exist completely separately. Specifically, this is representative of Nomi’s personal view of reality, The Cheetah, her place of employment, and hyperreality, The Stardust, which she has only visited as a guest. The scene followin this establishing shot features the arrival of Cristal Conners, the star of the Stardust’s dance revue “Goddess” at The Cheetah. Cristal and her boyfriend Zack, who serves as entertainment director at the Stardust, treat The Cheetah as a hyperreal playground of their own. The couple indulge in cocaine and utilize their unlimited supply of cash to influence Nomi’s boss into making her provide them a private lap dance, despite her resistance. The presence of Cristal at Nomi’s workplace highlights how The Cheetah and The Stardust each function as both a site of hyperreality for consumers and reality for workers.

Figure 2. Showgirls. United States: MGM/UA, 1995.

Cristal Conners represents the height of hyperreality to Nomi. This is visually represented the first time Nomi sees Cristal in “Goddess.” Nomi starts to echo Cristal’s choreography as she’s watching it being performed, signaling the dissolution of her identity in the face of spectacle. As a badaud, Nomi has every reason to aspire to the seemingly hyperreal life of a showgirl. Zukin et al argue that “Showgirls are abstract images of women” who appear “untouchable” to the audience.18Sharon Zukin, Robert Baskerville, Miriam Greenberg, Courtney Guthreau, Jean Halley, Mark Halling, Kristin Lawler, et al, “From Coney Island to Las Vegas in the Urban Imaginary: Discursive Practices of Growth and Decline,” Urban Affairs Review 33, no. 5 (May 1998): 647 Up until this point, Nomi’s life circumstances have pushed her into a reality of crime and commercial sex, both of which she wishes to escape. In Nomi’s eyes, Cristal has been able to transcend that reality completely. “Goddess” is a showcase of the glamour and dance that Nomi loves, seemingly without any of the drawbacks she faces at the Cheetah where her autonomy is dictated through tips. As a badaud, she intends to fully immerse herself in this new, perfect world. Nomi’s actions from this point are wholly dedicated to the pursuit of entering the world of hyperreality. This is highlighted in a brief scene in which Nomi is taken by a Versace dress that she sees in a store window (Figures 2 and 3).

Figure 3. Showgirls. United States: MGM/UA, 1995.

Nomi’s roommate, Molly, offers to take her to a fabric store so they can recreate the dress at a more realistic price, but Nomi insists on buying the dress instead. When questioned why, Nomi responds, “I don’t know, I just do. I never had a dress like that,” which can be understood to mean that she wants to be the kind of person who owns such a dress. Nomi makes the purchase and is thoroughly elated until she remembers her upcoming shift at the Cheetah, bringing her back down to reality. However, this does not last for long; Nomi is able to secure a position in the ensemble at the Stardust and quickly begins to climb the ladder. As an ensemble member, she is still subject to degradation by the showrunners and Cristal, so she continues to aspire to Cristal’s untouchable status. This culminates in Nomi forcefully pushing Cristal down a flight of stairs in order to take her place in the show. This violent act can signify Nomi’s desperation to enter the true world of hyperreality. When Nomi makes her debut in Cristal’s role, she repeats Cristal’s actions seen in the beginning of the film, shot for shot and line for line. This exact repetition highlights the planned nature of the hyperreal environment which strongly consists of roles to be filled. Nomi has become the “abstract image” of a woman that she aspired to, made literal by her presence on a billboard as seen in figure 4.19Zukin et al, 647.

Figure 4. Showgirls. United States: MGM/UA, 1995.

Nomi celebrates her debut in Cristal’s role with an after-party. At this party, Molly is brutally raped by Andrew Carver, a famous musician soon to be headlining at the Stardust as well. While Molly is recovering in the hospital, Zack reveals to Nomi that he has discovered her criminal record and personal history. This brings us to the aforementioned central thesis of the film. The illusion of hyperreality is shattered for Nomi at this moment. Not only must she reconcile with her past self, more importantly she must reconcile with Zack continuing to berate and attempt to control her after she has achieved the ultimate level of success. Zack attempts to use Nomi’s past to blackmail her into not reporting Molly’s assault. Nomi has allegedly ascended to the height of hyperreality, yet she is still being asked to compromise herself for higher, wealthier powers. Furthermore, the events of the party show that even when one is able to believe that they have entered hyperreality, this is most often at the expense of other individuals who are being actively harmed in order to feed this delusion. Nomi realizes this and decides to leave her new starring role and the city of Las Vegas entirely. As Nomi is leaving the city, her driver asks her if she gambled and if she won, to which she nods in confirmation. This affirmative answer tells the audience that Nomi’s journey was not derailed due to her actions; rather, she succeeded perfectly and this was the inevitable result. By showing us the real side of the height of the hyperreal, Verhoeven exposes Las Vegas’s promise of hyperreality as an unfulfillable cycle of exploitation for profit.

The hyperreal city of Las Vegas is an illusion that has been “helped by a synergy with Hollywood movie studios, professional sports, and television, as well as by a well-greased publicity machine,” as Zukin et al put it20Zukin et al, 635.. These concerted efforts have made Las Vegas appear as “a symbol of upward social mobility, yet democratically available to all.”21Zukin et al, 635. This narrative encourages the pursuit of hyperreality to the masses. The illusion of hyperreality is consequently sustained through the labor of those attempting to enter hyperreality themselves. In Showgirls, Paul Verhoeven peels back the layers of Las Vegas to reveal the hyperreal dimension to be an inaccessible and profit-driven myth at its core.


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