Showgirls, which arrives in Britain this Friday, may not be the most ridiculous film ever made, but one can only assume its makers were trying their damnedest to achieve that distinction. These men, after all, are scarcely amateurs. Paul Verhoeven, the director, made a heady string of erotico-political dramas in his native Holland before blasting his way on to American screens in the late 1980s with the raucously entertaining RoboCop, Total Recall and so on. And Joe Eszterhas is notorious for being, with Shane (Lethal Weapon) Black, the most highly paid screenwriter in the world: he was given a record-breaking $3m (pounds 2m) for his previous collaboration with Verhoeven, Basic Instinct.
Before it opened in the States to a flood of indifference, Showgirls was touted as the most shocking, sexually explicit film ever made by a major studio. (In fact, there is more potent eroticism in a single Bogart- Bacall exchange from The Big Sleep than in Showgirls' acres of perky nipples.) Thereafter, it became clear that, as was widely observed about Basic Instinct, the only shocking thing about the film was that Eszterhas can obtain such gorgeous sums of money for writing what amount to minor variations on the same script. If you wanted to be respectful of Eszterhas, you could say that his recurrent theme is betrayal: a compromised protagonist (in Showgirls, a young dancing girl) discovers that something or someone (in Showgirls, various Las Vegas sleaze balls) in which they have placed their trust is not as it seems. If you want to be less respectful, you summarise.
Hence Jagged Edge, in which a lawyer (Glenn Close) becomes too closely involved with a man (Jeff Bridges) who may or may not have murdered his wife; Basic Instinct, in which a cop (Michael Douglas) becomes too closely involved with a bisexual novelist (Sharon Stone) who may or may not be an ice-pick murderer; Betrayed, in which an FBI agent (Debra Winger) becomes too closely involved with a farmer (Tom Berenger) who may or may not be a right-wing terrorist; Music Box, in which a lawyer (Jessica Lange) is already dangerously involved with her father (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who may or may not be a Nazi war criminal; Jade, in which. . . well, you get the picture. The cardinal rule: TANATS (Things Are Not As They Seem). Surely it's harder, though, to write an Eszterhas story than such brusque summary implies? Perhaps so; but for anyone who is interested in following the Eszterhas path to screenwriting millions, here is a breakdown of his formula's key elements, which I have tried to illustrate with my own plot.
CHOOSE A TITLE:
Before getting cracking on the story outline proper, it would be a good idea to have an appropriately lurid title. Sometimes Eszterhas goes for the obscure/ poetic angle (Music Box, Jade), sometimes for the prosaic, if enticing (Betrayed, Showgirls). But he has never come up with anything quite so good as the slobbering phrase Basic Instinct, which leered at you insolently from the poster like Sharon Stone's feral eyes. No matter that it didn't have much literal connection with the plot (what was the instinct in question? To kill during acts of bondage? To adopt the identity of one's classmate? To wear V-necked sweaters to a discotheque?): it was a means of titillating the audience's lowest impulses. The ideal Eszterhasian title would combine sex and death with some kind of multiple meaning; but we won't reveal it until after our first sequence, which is as follows.
Such as Bloody Murder, Preferably with an Eccentric Implement, during Sex. (In Basic Instinct it was an ice-pick, in Jade an antique hatchet.) So: our film begins in a bedroom, with a naked man - he will prove to be a diplomat from an Islamic state on the brink of attaining nuclear status thrashing his way towards climax. The face of his partner is hidden behind long hair. As his excitement mounts, a whirring noise begins. …