Showgirls is an easy movie to laugh at but a hard one to spoof. Elizabeth Berkley played the lead role with such vulgarity that it parodied itself; to outdo her requires an inventory of something deeper and more manic. April Kidwell has that in her. She’s a fiery comedian, Kristen Wiig–like in her eye-bulging energy and weirdly Berkley-like in appearance, and she’s currently starring in a musical theater spoof called Showgirls! The Musical!, which runs through June 15 in Manhattan—and which has become an unlikely form of personal redemption for her.
You remember the original Showgirls: It’s a drama in which almost every woman is topless and nobody can act. Berkley’s character is Nomi Malone, an unhinged Las Vegas stripper who licks the pole she dances on. But she has larger ambitions—joining a flashy hotel show, then replacing its big star. Toward the end, her old strip-club boss shows up to compliment her: “Must be weird not having anyone cum on you,” he says without irony. It seems to be a story about empowerment but comes off as tone-deaf and ugly.
Once considered 1995’s greatest cinematic bomb, the film is enjoying an unexpected second life as a useful piece of art. Initially derided by Roger Ebert as “a waste of a perfectly good NC-17 rating,” it’s become the gay community’s new Rocky Horror Picture Show. Even Elizabeth Berkley, whose career was nearly destroyed by the film, now sees it as a source of strength. “My character’s name in the movie was Nomi, which over time came to symbolize to me how through this experience I came to ‘know me,’ ” she writes in Ask Elizabeth, a 2011 book that grew out of her “Ask Elizabeth” project, a series of talks she gives schoolgirls about self-esteem and overcoming adversity.
Now there’s Kidwell’s musical parody version, in which pole-licking gives way to a song about all the STDs she could pick up. “By saving it, by reading it in new ways, by finding a message of empowerment in it, women are rescuing the film from a tendency to dismiss women's culture and concerns,” says New York University film-studies professor Dana Polan. Academically speaking, this is a familiar turn, and not just for movies about women. Self-serious, wildly off-the-mark films have been revived this way for decades, at least as far back as the 1936 morality tale Reefer Madness, which portrayed marijuana as a whirlpool of destruction and resurfaced as a 1970s college-campus favorite. “Performing Showgirls as camp offers safety through nostalgia,” says Joshua Louis Moss, who teaches film at University of California–Santa Barbara. “This allows someone feeling marginalized to find the codes to express that marginalization.”
But for Kidwell, Showgirls has become more than just a means of expression. Last January, when she was 27, a guy at a bar slipped something into her drink and then took her home; she remembers only flashes of him raping her while she screamed. She had no money for counseling, and the government social worker didn’t help, so Showgirls!, as ridiculous as it is, has become the culmination of years of self-therapy. “Nomi sees herself as a victim,” Kidwell explains. “She’s so untrusting of everyone. She’s like a feral cat. There’s no doubt in my mind that that character was molested and raped. ... So for my role, for my job, I get to go to this place of victimhood and aggression and anger and fear and see that it’s not helpful. I wake up the next morning after every performance and it’s like Disney cartoon hummingbirds. I’m so thankful and grateful for trees and plants and sunshine.”
Kidwell moved to New York after a lifetime of bouncing around. Her parents were in the military and transplanted her 16 times during her childhood; she then spent three years singing on a cruise ship and tried out an unsatisfying stint in Los Angeles. She was a free-spirited Burning Man type trying to jump-start an acting career. But after the rape, she says, “It’s like somebody strikes lightening in your brain and you are completely separated from yourself and you forget everything you ever knew about yourself.” She withdrew. She had panic attacks. She needed to hear from someone she trusted, and, at a loss for anyone else, she chose herself: She spoke supportive thoughts into a camera, then watched the videos back as if she were the audience.
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