The Favourite: Lanthimos’ showgirls?

- Pádraig Nolan

The Favourite  (2018) dir. Yorgos Lanthimos

The Favourite (2018) dir. Yorgos Lanthimos

Showgirls is a rare film which has reached a kind of mythological status as transcendently bad; it’s become an epithet reserved for the description of a certain type of schlocky, exploitative, offensive work. Panned by critics, it performed disastrously at the box office. In her review Dorothy Parvaz gleefully stated that ‘each and every person involved in making this movie […] is making the worst possible decision at every possible moment’. Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas and director Paul Verhoeven maintain to this day that Showgirls was a satire, and that audiences just didn't get the joke.

But what exactly is Showgirls satirising? What commentary can be offered by a car-wreck so characterised by bizarre acting and direction and infamous dialogue that registers as totally alien from human speech? Can a film as misogynistic as Showgirls say anything incisive about female exploitation? And what does it have in common with The Favourite, an Oscars favourite masterfully helmed by celebrated avant-garde director Yorgos Lanthimos, featuring breathtaking performances by Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone?

The opening scene of Showgirls sees protagonist Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkeley), a drifter with a past, hitching a ride to Vegas; when her driver asks her if she’s going to gamble, she confidently replies “No. I’m gonna win”. Nomi’s arc throughout the film is contained within these opening minutes; she arrives in Vegas, she gambles a quarter, and she wins big, only to realise that she has been duped by her driver, who has stolen all of her possessions. Nomi works her way up the greasy showbiz pole throughout the film, moving from stripper to dancer to star of The Stardust’s topless revue Goddess, but she doesn’t win. Nomi gets conned.

Showgirls  (1995) dir. Paul Verhoeven

Showgirls (1995) dir. Paul Verhoeven

Both Showgirls and The Favourite have been compared to Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950) in their retelling of an archetypal story about the destructive female ambition in pursuit of status. All About Eve sees Anne Baxter’s scheming ingenue push fiery veteran Bette Davis out of the spotlight through talent and duplicity, codifying one of Hollywood’s favourite myths about itself. Though ostensibly an incisive deflation of the ‘star-is-born’ narrative, Eve remains ultimately a celebration of Hollywood and the star system. The film condemns the clay feet of the star, rather than the system which creates the star, or even the concept of celebrity itself. Where Eve allows itself to become enraptured by fame, both The Favourite and Showgirls consistently condemn power systems, be they the early-modern English court or the Vegas entertainment industry, where women are objectified, commodified and sexualised, played against each other to battle over crumbs while men ultimately rule. Fame, like favour, is the illusion of victory, safety and power, the consolation prizes of a rigged game.

As a retelling of All About Eve, the decision to have Nomi’s rise from obscurity play out in Las Vegas is significant, because in Vegas, in the words of entertainment director Zach Carey (Kyle MacLachan), “The house always wins”. If Mankiewicz’s theatre is presented to us as something of a meritocracy, the Las Vegas of Showgirls is unmistakably the rigged casino of the patriarchy. Nomi’s ascent from destitution to celebrity is totally illusory because her role remains functionally the same. Her audition for Goddess is a striptease, her promotion to understudy achieved by seducing Zach, her starring role secured by sabotaging her rival, Gina Gershon’s Cristal Connors. Fame and wealth do not bring Nomi security; when her roommate Molly is sexually assaulted by her celebrity crush and Nomi demands his residency at the Stardust be cancelled, Zach silences her by threatening to reveal her past as a sex worker. “You’re gonna make a lot of people a lot of money,” he tells her, “You’re gonna be a big star”. Thus, Nomi’s fantasy of freedom from a life ruled by men and their desires in celebrity is shattered, along with Molly’s fantasy of mutual sex and love. Nomi’s decision to avenge Molly’s rape disqualifies her from this rigged game by breaking its rules of submission to male dominance and represents her departure from the prescribed actions of the ingenue in this iteration of the star-is-born myth. This departure illustrates the main thesis of Showgirls; that women cannot ‘win’ power games devised by men.

Our collective consciousness has been inundated by the myth of the plucky nobody making it in show-business since early years of talking pictures. We have been trained by a century of Hollywood film, informed by American exceptionalism, to expect victory. Part of why we hate Showgirls so much is because we still expect Nomi to somehow win this rigged game, and it could be argued the film anticipates this. Nomi is a total cypher, devoid of interiority, history or motivation beyond desire for fame and security; with an emotional range of kicking to screaming, her impersonality feels deliberate because everything in Showgirls, for better or worse, is unmistakably intentional. Nomi is a blank canvas for our projected desire that she succeed, the archetypal star we expect to be born; her rejection of our desires, our expectations, enrages us.

The Favourite  (2019) dir. Yorgos Lanthimos

The Favourite (2019) dir. Yorgos Lanthimos

The Favourite follows essentially the same beats as Showgirls. Like Nomi, Abigail Hill (Stone) arrives at the palace of Queen Anne (Coleman) as a nobody, working her way up from scullery maid to baroness and Keeper of the Privy Purse by seducing Samuel Marsham (Joe Alwyn) and replacing Sarah Churchill (Weisz) as the Queen’s lover. Abigail, like Nomi, uses the tools of her exploitation, her body, to climb court hierarchy, only to realise at its summit that she too has been duped; though she holds a winning hand at the climax of the film, she, and the other women at court vying for power and status, are in fact powerless. Her station may have changed, but the rules governing her life, the opportunities for, and methods of, ascent are de facto the same. The final scene sees Abigail kneeling before the Queen in sexual submission, a living possession as subject and dependent as Anne’s bunnies. True power resides not with the favourite, whose position depends on her sexual availability, nor even with the Queen. Both are essentially still ruled, directly or through manipulation, by men. Anne might be the monarch, but she remains a woman, a pawn in the parliamentary politics of men. Her only kingdom is her menagerie, inhabited by the powerless; women and rabbits. Her desire to be loved as a human being, her childlike petulance, loneliness and rage, are the products of her status as a star, an object of power to be wielded by men.

Nomi and Cristal, Abigail and Sarah, ingenue and star, are pacified by the false promise of ascent, devised to maintain their subject status within patriarchal power systems. However, shared DNA doesn’t mean that The Favourite and Showgirls are of comparable quality. In its magnetic performances, acerbic script, masterful, Kubrickian direction and power to totally engross, The Favourite is mesmeric, whereas Showgirls is clunky, inane and vulgar. Yet they share a similar barely-repressed fury, voicing a scream that demands autonomy muffled by decades of narratives which lead us to expect the ingenue to succeed at any cost. They reveal that we as an audience, as a culture, still expect the maid and the showgirl to win the rigged game, and beat the house.

DISCLAIMER: This article is not a defence of Showgirls, which is indefensible for a myriad of reasons, nor is it a denigration of The Favourite, which is, for want of a better term, a better film.