The year 1995 was big for Las Vegas. The Hard Rock Hotel and Fremont Street Experience opened, the Landmark blew up and the Bellagio broke ground. We were in the middle of a decadelong boom that would see the construction of 12 new hotel-casinos and the arrival of nearly 270 million visitors.
That year, three movies came out that were uniquely Las Vegas. Showgirls, a hugely hyped, boundary-pushing drama that became a camp benchmark; Casino, an epic rendering of Vegas history with respected actors and a revered director; and Leaving Las Vegas, a low-budget journey through existential despair that won a shelf-load of awards.
First out of the gate was Showgirls. Director Paul Verhoeven and writer Joe Eszterhas were coming off of the megahit Basic Instinct. What could be a surer thing than another sexy, controversial movie with an even bigger budget and even more hot chicks and Vegas, baby! Showgirls’ plot is standard backstage melodrama: Hungry young wannabe hits town, latches onto glamorous star, takes star’s place by any means necessary, be it a fabulous manicure, a nude lap dance or a shove down the stairs.
The ambitious ex-crack whore/aspiring dancer Nomi was played by Saved by the Bell’s Elizabeth Berkley, who figured a role that involved switchblades and G-strings would be a good image change. As reigning Strip headliner Cristal, Gina Gershon was the only one whose career didn’t suffer, because she realized from the start what no one else did: Showgirls is pure camp and she gave the sly, drag queen-y performance it deserved.
Showgirls’ Las Vegas is a place of Champagne toasts, nightclub brawls and epileptic hot-tub sex under neon palm trees. It resembles our real city as much as the Venetian does Venice. But the movie is devoted to its demented vision—all of the bizarre plot twists, ludicrous dialogue and alternately rabid and somnolent performances are free of irony or parody. With all of the truth of a Disney movie or Playboy spread, Showgirls may not be art, but it sure is entertainment.
Casino likewise told a glamorous Sin City tale, though this one was largely true. The saga of how the mob took over the casinos, the two men who made it happen, the woman they fought over and why the whole glittering edifice crumbled in a barrage of bullets and subpoenas. Like Casino, Scorsese’s Goodfellas starred Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci and was based on a book by Nicholas Pileggi. The literary Casino was still unfinished when Scorsese ran with the movie, which positively affected the book. Pileggi was having trouble getting many of the era’s survivors to speak—until the magic words “Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro” opened the vault of long-lost mob memories.
De Niro’s casino mogul, Ace, has the mind of a computer, the heart of a robot and the wardrobe of Superfly. Pesci’s Nicky is a violent psychopath perpetually set on “overreact.” Sharon Stone’s Ginger is the star around which they orbit, a charismatic beauty with a destructive streak wide enough to wipe out half the Strip.
The movie’s Las Vegas is mythological—the lush opening sequence by Elaine and Saul Bass scored to Bach’s The Passion of St. Matthew transforms neon signs into the gates of paradise and the fires of hell. Similarly, mob machinations become classical tragedy. Ace wants Ginger so desperately he’ll accept that she doesn’t love him; Ginger wants security so much she’ll sell herself to the highest bidder; Nicky wants power so badly he’ll defy the edicts of his bosses. Each character makes open-eyed deals, only to become as blind as King Lear about having traded away what they value most—Ace’s trust, Ginger’s freedom, Nicky’s respect.
Leaving Las Vegas is the most realistic rendition of our unreal city: Sex work isn’t a brief stop on the way to stardom and one man’s downfall doesn’t upend an entire industry. The movie also had a fraction of the budget and hype of the other two—no meticulously scouted locations, no armies of extras, no sprawling steadicam set pieces. Director and screenwriter Mike Figgis shot on 16mm film rather than the standard 35mm and frequently had to work “guerilla style” sans permits, meaning that they wound up shooting scenes at 4 a.m. on Las Vegas Boulevard—in one take before the cops ran them off.
Leaving Las Vegas hinges on its characters: Hollywood hotshot Ben (Nicolas Cage) has drank his career away and heads to Las Vegas to drink his life away, where he meets Sera (Elizabeth Shue), the jaded yet curiously hopeful prostitute, and the two form a strong, if twisted, bond. He doesn’t judge what she does for a living; she doesn’t judge how he’s chosen to die. Figgis’ characters live in the present—neither Ben nor Sera seem to have a future, and there are no tidy backstories of how they arrived at this bottom. We watch Ben turn suddenly from charming gentleman at the blackjack table to howling, fist-swinging maniac. We see Sera talk to her shrink coldly about hooking and warmly about Ben, but there is no explanation as to how a bright, beautiful woman winds up blowing conventioneers. In Leaving Las Vegas, there is no looking back.
Showgirls, Casino, Leaving Las Vegas: Each dramatizes one of our city’s chief myths. The over-the-top capital of sexy, sleazy good times; the exciting, mysterious city of bright lights and dark history; the terminal island of vice where addicts of all kinds throw their lives away with one final fling.
The characters also embody Vegas archetypes. Ginger and Ben are the once-glamorous and glorious, now fallen into debauchery and depravity. Cristal and Ace are the cold-hearted smooth operators who will always land on their feet, even when no one else does. Nomi and Nicky are loose cannons, ready to wreak havoc to get what they want. They all came to Las Vegas seeking something the city imagined out of shiny coins and dreamed out of glittering lights.
So did Verhoeven, Scorsese and Figgis. Even as Las Vegas ceaselessly changes, these movies—and the visions of our city they created—endure.
Showgirls: Evolution of a Cult Movie
People grow and change over time; movies don’t. Unless, of course, that movie is Showgirls. In the 20 years since its release, it has gone from massively hyped blockbuster to career-destroying flop to ardently beloved—and highly profitable—camp classic.