By critical consensus, Showgirls is the worst movie of the year. By Hollywood’s near consensus, it’s also the worst thing that ever happened to its star, Elizabeth Berkley, who has gone from red-hot hype to ice-cold chill faster than a $5 lap dance. United Artists’ $40 million sex-travaganza was designed to be Hollywood’s first big-budget, wide-release NC-17 blockbuster, and to do for Berkley — a 22-year-old who had never acted in films — what Basic Instinct did for Sharon Stone. But Showgirls tanked. Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas and director Paul Verhoeven have taken their critical lumps and moved on, careers intact, but Berkley is being held by moviegoers and moguls alike as almost singlehandedly responsible for its failure.
In the five weeks since the NC-17 Vegas breast-fest opened and inched to an embarrassing $20 million at the box office, Berkley has been dropped by Creative Artists Agency; rejected as a potential client by William Morris and ICM; linked romantically with her Showgirls director, Paul Verhoeven; harshly dismissed by Hollywood as a no-talent bimbo; and left without a definite follow-up feature role. New representation by United Talent Agency — which piloted the rocket-ship careers of Jim Carrey and Sandra Bullock — may reverse Berkley’s nosedive, but for now the actress is left with the worst film credit since Heaven’s Gate on her resume.
And at least some of the fault might lie in the star.
Berkley, who appeared on NBC’s Saved by the Bell from 1989 to 1993, first attached herself to Showgirls in 1994, when she phoned producer Charles Evans and gave her name as ”Nomi.” Evans, not recognizing that as the name of his Showgirls lead, initially refused to take the call. But the actress persisted, and when they met later that day Berkley introduced herself by saying ”Mr. Evans, I am Nomi Malone.” She then went on to prove it. The dialogue that followed, recounted by Evans, could have been lifted from Showgirls itself. ”I’m a great dancer,” Berkley told Evans. ”Can you act?” he asked her. ”Fair,” she said. ”How do you feel about being photographed nude?” asked Evans. ”I have a nice body,” Berkley said. ”Yes,” Evans agreed, ”you do.” Verhoeven, similarly impressed, cast the former sitcom actress in the lead role at a reported $100,000 salary. Even at a bargain price, a star was apparently born.
Shortly after Berkley landed the lead in Showgirls, CAA’s Michael Menchel — who three years earlier had declined to represent Berkley — took her on as a client. By August, as Showgirls neared release, every agency in town was angling to steal her away from CAA. Yet the prized client wasn’t landing any roles. Her costar Gina Gershon was lining up post-Showgirls projects (including another Eszterhas script, Original Sin), and Verhoeven signed to direct Starship Troopers. But Berkley? Nada.
Why? The agency’s relations with the actress began to sour as she was finishing work on Showgirls. A source close to CAA says that Berkley didn’t return phone calls from agents assisting Menchel, and that, in one instance, she refused to take a second meeting with a director who wanted her for a role. ”I don’t need to go back,” the source reports Berkley saying. ”He should just give me the part.” Concludes the source, ”This is a young lady captured by the bright lights and the bulls – -.” By the time Showgirls was released, Berkley wanted another agent, but by then no other CAA agent would have her.
Unfortunately, William Morris and ICM were feeling the same way. They’d been wooing Berkley for many months, as Showgirls jiggled its way to the big screen. By the time they had seen the movie, though, and heard the CAA stories, they’d changed their minds.
Showgirls screenwriter Eszterhas, director Verhoeven, and producer Evans protest that Berkley has been unfairly blamed for their shared failure—which Eszterhas calls, with a rueful laugh, “the kind of belly flop that empties all the water out of the pool.” Insists Evans, “This is the script Joe wrote and the movie Paul directed, and she is the girl Paul wanted. She’s getting a bum rap.”
Asked about rumors that he and Berkley were more to each other than director and star, Verhoeven says, “I reject them.” The actress burst into tears several times during difficult dance numbers on the set, Verhoeven says, and he comforted her. And, of course, she was naked at the time. And so people drew their own conclusions. Verhoeven—who has been married for nearly 30 years and has two daughters Berkley’s age—maintains that sleeping with your leading lady is a bad idea anyway. “I have a very emotional relationship with all my leading actresses,” he says. “But you want that emotion on the screen, not in the bed.”
Berkley won’t field questions about the rumored affair or her CAA difficulties other than to state: “As far as I’m concerned, I left Mike on the most amicable terms, and I continue to have respect for him and everyone at CAA. Anything to the contrary simply isn’t true.” What she will discuss, midway through a world publicity tour for Showgirls, is the movie: “I’m really proud of this performance and of this movie, and I have the utmost respect for Paul.” She describes her mood as “great,” and her reaction to the rough reviews, which she insists she doesn’t read, is “We’ve all been hit equally badly.” Berkley hints that she has “so many exciting new prospects,” but won’t say what they are. “Let’s just say I’m not going to play a nun.”
For his part, Verhoeven says he predicted Berkley’s plight. “I told her six months ago, ‘If people don’t like the movie because of the society it portrays, they won’t write about that. They’ll write that you can’t act, and you can’t dance.’ I told her that.”