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Film: Showgirls' Sister

Who to blame -- or thank -- for today's scantily clad heroines? Look no farther than Paul Verhoeven's 1995 camp classic Showgirls

By Jessica C. Adams · November 17th, 2004 · Movies
A girl and her pole: Nomi Mallone (Elizabeth Berkley) rises to the top of the Las Vegas exotic dancing world in the 1995 drama Showgirls.
A girl and her pole: Nomi Mallone (Elizabeth Berkley) rises to the top of the Las Vegas exotic dancing world in the 1995 drama Showgirls.

When I handed him my stack of five Angelina Jolie films over the video store counter, the frat boy clerk said with a smirk, "Having an Angelina Jolie marathon?"

The truth is less titillating. I've been thinking about female action heroes a lot lately, although, I've also asked myself if it's OK for a twentysomething female to want to watch a big stack of Angelina Jolie movies. Are her puffy lips and bombshell curves only for guys? The core criteria for a modern-day female action hero are to be young and possess a great body. Being a tomb raider, martial arts expert or, say, zombie slayer by profession also helps.

Leaders of the femme action pack include: Angelina Jolie (Tomb Raider and last month's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), Milla Jovovich (Resident Evil), and Halle Berry (Catwoman).

Granted, their wardrobe is typically scantily clad but even a self-professed feminist like myself can enjoy their sense of equal-opportunity ass kicking.

But watching a leather-clad Angelina lead a squadron of male pilots in the retro adventure, Sky Captain, begs a key question: Who inspired this current trend of sexpot heroines? The answer heads to an even more scantily clad source.

In 1995, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven released what he considered to be his "MGM musical" -- Showgirls, the tale of Nomi Mallone (Elizabeth Berkley) and her rise to the top of the Vegas exotic dancing world.

Despite its initial setbacks, Showgirls has become something of a cult hit, leading to its recent release on DVD in a VIP edition, complete with party games, shot glasses and a lap dance tutorial special feature. Midnight showings have sprung up in cities across the U.S., and an "interactive screening" style road show hosted by writer/performer David Schmader (whose commentary track on the DVD are the one genuinely entertaining and re-watchable aspect of the VIP release). As Nomi, Berkley gives a shocking, stupefying and often hilarious performance. Like Schmader says on his commentary track, "She has two emotions: staring and kicking."

Now I'm willing to give Jolie credit for more than simply "staring and kicking" in most of her films, and her turn in Sky Captain is charming, funny and as bold as her brief screen time would allow. On the other hand, Jolie's turn as Tomb Raider heroine Lara Croft falls into the "staring and kicking" category.

Watch Jovovich in both Resident Evil films, and this phrase is an even more apparent descriptor. The action in all these films is fast-paced and revolves around the reaction shots of our heroines (i.e., staring) and the action that follows (generally kicking), although shooting, jumping and occasional punching are also possibilities.

What's so appealing about all of these roles -- Showgirls' Nomi included -- is the sense that the actress is going all out to display her idea of female power and strength. Male ideals of female sexuality inevitably determine their looks. A certain level of camp is required for them to get the job done. But these female protagonists -- Showgirls' sisters one and all -- claim a clear display of Y chromosome strength.

Alice (Jovovich) is shown in Resident Evil: Apocalypse as maternal, and the film plays up her ability to relate to children (and her willingness to give her life for them). She also is fierce and unstoppable in combat, with highly specialized knowledge about the zombie enemies the characters in the film must face. The archaeological career of Jolie's Lara Croft requires her to head into potential dig sites with guns blazing and her fast-paced puzzle-solving abilities intact.

Both women aren't afraid to fling themselves in the middle of dangerous situations, and that's an obvious argument (along with their ability to take out the enemy and save the day) for the strength of their characters.

Back at the Las Vegas pole dancing halls in Showgirls, Nomi's power is more blatantly sexual, and the only character who truly wins anything in the film is Nomi herself. But she's done it her way and through the sheer force of her will. And she's happy, in the end, with what she's accomplished.

Characters like Lara Croft and Alice are, in many respects, in a kind of sisterhood with Nomi. Their campy sexuality and fearless displays of power, as well as their willingness to use their skills to get ahead, win the day and even save lives are visions of female power that might have a decidedly guy-oriented flair, but that can be entertaining even to feminists ... provided that they enjoy a healthy dose of camp. ©



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