Monday, October 29, 2007

Mighty Joe Eszterhas

I'd not seen Flashdance since it first came out, but watching it on DVD this weekend was revelatory: It really is the yang to Showgirls' yin, both of them hatched by one of my favorite Hollywood animals—screenwriter Joe Eszterhas.

The similarities between the two movies—which should be shown on double bills—are stunning:

• Both are about young dancers (Jennifer Beals' Alex and Elizabeth Berkley's Nomi) who are unschooled but have a raw, explosive talent that doubles up as an expression of exuberant sexuality.

• The two women are prone to fits of petulant rage that seem to come out of nowhere (Nomi's classic fast-food freakout is just one of many such instances in Showgirls, while a pissed-off Alex gets out of a car in the middle of a tunnel).

• Each woman has a best friend who turns out be unlucky in love or career (Sunny Johnson in Flashdance, Gina Ravera in Showgirls), only to be helped/comforted by the lead.

• Each woman is desperately trying to integrate her idea of the establishment: the Pittsburgh Conservatory of Dance and Repertory for Alex, the Goddess show at the Stardust for Nomi.

• Both Alex and Nomi develop affairs with older men (Michael Nouri in Flashdance, Kyle McLachlan in Showgirls) who secretly give them breaks in their careers.

• Both have the support of much older women who represent exactly where they do not want to end up (a forgotten Follies/ballet dancer in Flashdance; bawdy comedian Henrietta Bazoom in Showgirls).

Eszterhas is also a lot more clever about class than most of his peers: This issue ties the movies together, and both offer telling scenes where the women betray their backgrounds in "uppity" environments—Nomi famously pronounces Versace so it rhymes with "face" while Alex pigs out on lobster in a fancy restaurant. Taken as a whole, Flashdance and Showgirls make up a study of art and ambition as thorough and uncompromising as any of the more "respectable" films Hollywood has cranked out over the years. For better or for worse, these movies embody their respective decades and are iconic signifiers of the threat of upwardly mobile "trashy" women against aging, stuck-in-their-ways establishments. Switch the gender, and you have the Joe Eszterhas story.

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