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Is T&A DOA?

''Showgirls'' loses its lustre — Theories behind the lack of public interest in erotic films

Sex sells. At least that's what the age-old marketing mantra always promised. But with the less-than-steamy receptions given to this fall's NC-17-carrying Showgirls ($21 million) and the atmospheric Jade ($9 million), a more fitting catchphrase in Hollywood these days might be sex stalls. In fact, somewhere between the time Sharon Stone seductively crossed and uncrossed her legs in 1992's Basic Instinct — which raked in nearly $118 million — and the current crop of skin-on-parade Instinct wannabes, on-screen sizzle has become synonymous with box office fizzle.

Consider the performance of these erotic thrillers: Drew Barrymore's Poison Ivy (1992, $1.8 million), Stone's Instinct follow-up, Sliver (1993, $35.5 million), Linda Fiorentino's The Last Seduction (1994, $5.8 million), and Bruce Willis' flop Color of Night (1994, $19.7 million). Like Showgirls and Jade, these films enticed ticket buyers with the come-on of sex and nudity only to get dressed down later by those same audiences, who walked away more bothered than hot. Why the cold shower? A few theories:

It's just bad timing ''Jade and Showgirls are out of synch with what's happening in the country,'' offers feminist author Camille Paglia, who likens moviegoers' lack of interest to the Republican upsurge. ''The country has been moving to the right — even liberals are feeling more serious. These movies are not speaking to the moment.''

Jade producer Robert Evans agrees. ''I suppose somewhere between New York and Los Angeles there is such a thing as Bob Dole country,'' he says, referring to the senator whose stinging speech last spring denounced the industry's graphic portrayals of sex and violence. ''When he condemned American films,'' adds Evans, ''his polls went up.'' In hindsight, even Showgirls director Paul Verhoeven isn't surprised that his movie bombed. ''We miscalculated the interest of the audience,'' he says. ''I realize that mainstream Americans are not willing to see it.''

Maybe it's just the venue, but conservatives shouldn't start that pop-cultural victory lap dance just yet. Voyeurs may be steering clear of the multiplex, but that doesn't mean their minds aren't still in the gutter. The very same erotic thrillers that flop in theaters have consistently become video hits (often in even steamier, unrated versions). Even the abysmal Color of Night, which on video included nude scenes of Willis and costar Jane March cut from the theatrical release, was a top-five renter. Insiders chalk up the discrepancy to a rental video's being a cheaper thrill and, more important, a private one. ''People are simply embarrassed to see [sexy movies] in theaters,'' says Gregory Hippolyte, director of such hugely popular straight-to-video erotic thrillers as Mirror Images and Animal Instincts. ''At home, they're not as embarrassed. It's like looking at Playboy. You wouldn't read that in public.'' Leading pop psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers offers an additional spin. ''We've gotten to the point of saturation with exploitative sex,'' she says. ''You see so much of it on cable, people are not willing to pay extra just to see sex.'' But Brothers thinks there are still some things fans will pay for. ''People will probably see [Demi Moore in] Striptease,'' she says, ''because it's a star's breasts, and that we're not used to seeing.''

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