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Career Arc: Paul Verhoeven

The twisted genius behind ‘RoboCop,’ ‘Total Recall,’ and — yes — ‘Showgirls’

A remake of the 1987 sci-fi movie RoboCop opens this week, nearly a decade after it was first announced. The director is the talented Brazilian action auteur José Padilha, who made the Elite Squad films; Joel Kinnaman from The Killing plays the cop who gets robo’d. (Spoiler alert, I guess, but come on.) The early reviews have been grudgingly positive, which is kind of the best thing a profoundly unnecessary movie like this can hope for. Obviously, that the new RoboCop isn’t terrible won’t change the minds of the many people who’ve opposed the remake on general principle from the beginning. But to a movie studio with a portfolio of intellectual properties and an obligation to exploit them, those people don’t matter. And neither does Paul Verhoeven.

In the ’80s and ’90s, Verhoeven directed a string of megahits that really earned their R ratings, including the original 1987 RoboCop, 1990’s Total Recall, and 1992’s Basic Instinct. He worked in all the great disreputable genres, making sci-fi movies, erotic thrillers, and a horror film in which Kevin Bacon becomes a murderous sex criminal after turning himself invisible for science. That was 2000’s Hollow Man, which ended up being his last American film to date. Since then, he’s made two movies in his native Netherlands — the underrated World War II spy drama Black Book, from 2006, and Tricked, an experiment in “crowdsourced screenwriting” that played at the Tribeca Film Festival last year. He also wrote a scholarly nonfiction book about the life of Jesus of Nazareth in 2008, containing priceless passages like “Don’t forget that Jesus and his disciples led an itinerant existence, subsisting on whatever food came their way, so they probably had gastrointestinal problems. Jesus’ companions must have heard him snore, snuffle, and fart.”1

Once-hot directors go cold all the time, for all kinds of reasons, but in Verhoeven’s case what happened was pretty clear. In 1995, he made a movie called Showgirls, allegedly based on a cocktail-napkin idea from the obscenely well-compensated screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, which Carolco Pictures paid $2 million for, sight unseen. Showgirls has its defenders (partly because it’s worth defending, but we’ll get to that). Quentin Tarantino praised it as the first true exploitation film released by a major studio since Mandingo, and said that “no one else but Paul Verhoeven would have the balls to shoot that the way it should be shot.” But critics firebombed it when it was first released, the film tanked, and Verhoeven went to movie jail for a while.

Except it was more of a movie work-release program: He’s said that after Showgirls, the only projects studios would trust him with were sci-fi movies like the ones he’d made before, but that after Hollow Man — a movie that played, to Verhoeven, like anonymous hackwork — he lost interest in genre. So his split with Hollywood was as mutual as these things ever are.

Making micro-budget wiki-movies in the Netherlands is about as far off the mainstream movie business’s radar as you can get without leaving the planet. But in a weird way, even in his absence, Verhoeven is more present than ever. Or his titles are, anyway. Len Wiseman’s remake of Total Recall, with Colin Farrell replacing Arnold Schwarzenegger as the man in the mind-fuckery chair, came and went quickly in 2012. And there’s a remake of 1997’s Starship Troopers in the works, with a script (by the writer of Thor) that’s been described, somewhat curiously, as “more faithful” to Robert A. Heinlein’s original 1959 novel, famously one of the most foamy-lipped, xenophobic, and right-wing SF books of its era.2

Verhoeven has had no creative role in any of these projects, and when asked how he felt about them in a 2012 interview with GQ, his answer was characteristically blunt. “I feel completely depressed,” he said. “It’s depressing in the way that you feel you’re already dead and buried. Basically, you are transported out of the window.”

In the age of the carefully hedged PG-13 action movie (and of the action director as fan-servicing trademark-stooge), there’s probably no room for the 75-year-old Verhoeven in the summer-movie arena he once dominated. But that he’s been behind the camera only twice in the 21st century is a galling injustice. (Even a doof like Renny Harlin still gets paid to make movies, and nobody’s rushing to reboot Cliffhanger or Cutthroat Island.) If the lifelessness of the remakes proves anything, it’s that Verhoeven was more than just a technician who could competently execute high concepts. He was an artist whose chosen medium happened to be the tits-and-gore action extravaganza, and he injected every film he made with his own unique Dutch madness. The movies still need him, whether they know it or not.

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It’s neither the beginning of his career nor the peak, but if we’re going to talk about Verhoeven as a historically shortchanged auteur, we have to talk about Starship Troopers, from 1997. It’s a movie whose critical reputation has shifted pretty radically since it was first released, and in a lot of ways that shift mirrors a broader change in the critical consensus around Verhoeven’s whole filmography. Troopers critiques the red-meat militarism of Heinlein’s book in a kind of Stephen Colbert way, by pumping it up until it short-circuits. With its wooden but eugenically perfect cast, its comic depiction of a futuristic society’s cheerful and media-stoked march to war, and its over-the-top visual nods to Triumph of the Will, Troopers is more obviously a satire than any other Verhoeven film. But it’s also the Verhoeven movie that was most widely misperceived as something else when it first came out.3

This might have been a matter of timing. If the film had been released in 2004, it might have been reviewed as a broad but audacious send-up of American let’s-rollism, or unfavorably compared to Team America: World Police. In 1997, most critics were either unprepared or unwilling to see satire, trenchant or otherwise, in a space-infantry movie from the director who’d just brought them Showgirls.

“It’s spiritually Nazi, psychologically Nazi,” wrote Stephen Hunter. “It comes directly out of the Nazi imagination, and is set in the Nazi universe.” In the New York Times, Janet Maslin connected both Heinlein and Verhoeven to one of history’s other greatest monsters: “Mr. Heinlein, whose ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ was supposedly such a favorite of the Manson family, does undoubtedly find the excitement in such material, and Mr. Verhoeven sees it too.” And in the Washington Post, Rita Kempley one-upped Hunter’s Nazi-sympathizer argument by comparing the director to actual vermin: “Verhoeven’s tone, which varies from camp to cynical, is so inconsistent that it’s impossible to decide whether he’s sending up the Third Reich or in love with it,” she wrote. “On the other hand, maybe this is just his misguided idea of a big old scary bug movie. In any case, he’d be right at home in a roach motel.”

Since then, younger critics have reclaimed Starship Troopers as a misunderstood masterpiece — the good kind, not the so-bad-it’s-good kind, although there’s a vocal bug-army of online cultists who love to love it that way, too. The idea that it’s a subversive film disguised as a popcorn action movie is now conventional wisdom, and somehow that reappraisal seems to have rippled outward to reshape our whole idea of Verhoeven. Which isn’t surprising: If you think of him as having been a satirist all along, or at least from the moment he started making movies in English, it explains away a lot of what’s troublesome about his films, from the brutality of Total Recall to the unexamined misogyny of Basic Instinct and Showgirls.4 Verhoeven hasn’t discouraged this interpretation. When Showgirls won the Razzie for Worst Movie of 1995, Verhoeven showed up to collect the award in person. He was the first director ever to do so. Decide for yourself if that’s proof he was in on the joke, or just evidence of a Shatnerian survival instinct kicking in.

What I love about Verhoeven’s films, though, is that they don’t let you off the hook that easily. Even once you make up your mind to extend that benefit of the doubt and view him as some kind of postmodern prankster using the medium of the blockbuster against itself, the movies don’t suddenly begin to sit still and reward that reading. You can decide the sex and violence aren’t just there to lure an audience of teenage boys, that they constitute (let’s say) a critique of America’s hypocrisy about sex and violence. But you still have to contend with the other aspect of Verhoeven that’s always present in the work — the part of him that’s still a teenage boy and enjoys sex and violence because they’re sexy and violent. Hollow Man opens with Kevin Bacon poking at chains of polypeptides on a computer screen, struggling to prevent a phenomenon called “reversion” from occurring so he can finish his invisibility formula; Verhoeven always reverts. His movies are unstable; even when you know what you’re in for, they find ways of lunging at you out of the dark.

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Three stories, from Rob van Scheers’s excellent 1997 biography Paul Verhoeven, that seem pertinent to any conversation about Verhoeven’s sensibility:

In the first one, it’s March 1945, and Verhoeven is 6 years old, watching from a distance as a squadron of British bombers — dispatched to take out V-2 rocket launch sites, but operating on faulty coordinates — turns his neighborhood in the Hague into an inferno. As far as Verhoeven knows, his parents are somewhere in that fire; they’d gone back to retrieve some of the family’s belongings when the bombing began. They’ll return unharmed, having taken shelter under a viaduct. Later, Verhoeven will tell van Scheers that his dreams of the war are usually happy ones. “It’s always bombs, fire, broken glass, bodies and chaos, but everything goes all right. I see myself running around with a short carbine, hopefully on the side of the good guys, and firing at the enemy. Streets collapse behind me and houses explode, but I effortlessly jump on and off a train. Nothing can touch me. I realize, of course, that it’s all because my parents returned unscathed from those smoke clouds.”

(At night in his old neighborhood, he told van Scheers, “you could see the enormous beams of the searchlights above Rotterdam and hear the noise of anti-aircraft guns. Sometimes a plane would be hit and disappear behind the horizon, burning. And yet these images did not fill me with fear; instead, they were exciting — the ultimate special effect. You couldn’t wish for anything better really.” He’s said things like this in interview after interview, seemingly unconcerned about sounding like exactly the kind of cold-ass psychopath his detractors assume he must be.)

In the second one, it’s the early ’60s. Verhoeven graduates from college — where he studied math and physics while dabbling in filmmaking, surrealist painting, and black magic — and gets drafted into the Dutch Air Force. They want him to work on calculating rocket trajectories.5 Instead, he finagles a transfer to the Navy’s film unit and spends his two-year hitch bringing an unsurprising-in-retrospect level of excitement and spectacle to projects like 1965’s Het Korps Mariniers, a documentary commemorating the tricentennial of the Dutch marine corps. “To give a good impression of the activities of the marines,” van Scheers writes, “Verhoeven felt it necessary to ask the army command for rubber speedboats, amphibious vehicles, divers, helicopters, and even the aircraft carrier Karel Doorman, as well as a number of marine divisions.” In Verhoeven’s movie, Scheers says, “the Dutch army shows a readiness for battle which it was never credited with in real life.”

And in the third story, it’s 1966, and Verhoeven is out of the Navy and struggling to get a foot in the door of the sleepy Dutch film industry. Then his girlfriend gets pregnant. Verhoeven is facing the end of a film career he’s barely started; in a moment of panicked soul-searching, he accepts a religious pamphlet from a woman on the street and winds up at a Pentecostal church in the Hague, where the parishioners speak in tongues. “The weird thing,” he says, “was that you could physically feel — because that was what it was all about — the Holy Ghost descending, as if a laser beam was cutting through my head and my heart was on fire.” Later, after Verhoeven and his girlfriend manage to arrange an abortion, they go to see the original 1933 King Kong, and Kong appears to Verhoeven as “an avenging angel from the Old Testament.”

Verhoeven rejects the religious component of the vision, but comes away from the whole experience convinced of the fragility of his psyche and his need to “close the doors of perception” to avoid ending up like Friedrich Nietzsche, mad in the streets of Turin, hugging a whipped horse. Afterward, he tells van Scheers, “as an antidote, I started to film in a hyper-realistic way. My work became my anchor in reality. Hence the need to show everything so explicitly: the fucking and the pricks and the shit and the drugs and the violence. In the Netherlands people always got enormously worked up about that, and of course there was an element of provocation in it — but the background to it was my always wanting to have both feet firmly on the ground. Fear, it was fear that I might slip away mentally. This is why my films have always been firmly anchored in reality instead of ideas.”

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Even fans of Verhoeven’s work might take issue with that “always.” Maybe it’s more accurate to say that in all of Verhoeven’s films, an instinct to show things as they really are fights it out with an equally powerful impulse to shove people’s faces in those same truths, often in an indulgent or sensationalist way.

What his movies don’t do is judge. His first feature, released in 1971, was a slight, goofy sex comedy called Wat zien ik (Business Is Business), with Ronnie Bierman and Sylvia de Leur as Laverne & Shirley–ish prostitutes doing outcall work in Amsterdam. Bierman’s character, Blonde Greet, is portrayed as a confident modern career woman — Jane Fonda in Klute, minus the neuroses and the shadow of death — and even the boyfriend who abuses and almost kills de Leur is kind of a sympathetic character. It’s not much of a movie, but it’s an early example of Verhoeven’s interest in stories about pragmatic-survivor female protagonists, including Nomi Malone and Rachel Stein, the heroine of Black Book.

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Except for the 1880s period piece Keetje Tippel (prostitute marries a banker; kind of a slog), all of Verhoeven’s Dutch films are interesting in their own right, but they’re particularly fascinating in light of what he’d go on to do. His second movie, 1973’s Turks Fruit (Turkish Delight) is basically a Dutch Love Story, which means full-frontal views of young Rutger Hauer’s netherlands and people saying lines like, “Only beautiful things can come from your poopy-hole” (oddly romantic, in context), and, “I fuck better than God” (no context necessary). The story is about a swaggering sculptor (Hauer) who meets his match in an equally free-spirited woman played by Monique van de Ven. Aside from its graphic depiction of sex and other bodily functions, it’s a fairly standard melodrama, but there’s a genuine, matter-of-fact intimacy to the love scenes. And the movie struck a chord: More than 3 million people saw it, or about 27 percent of the Dutch population. It’s still the top-grossing Dutch movie of all time, and its 1974 Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film brought Verhoeven the closest he’s ever come to winning a nontechnical Oscar, although the award eventually went to Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night.

Verhoeven was on top for the rest of the decade, until 1980, when he made Spetters, about three aspiring motocross racers chasing chicks and dreams. For a while, it almost feels like the great lost coming-of-age film of the ’80s — Verhoeven’s answer to Breaking Away or Saturday Night Fever, or even a Dutch Mean Streets. There are some kinetic racing sequences, a disco dance-off set to Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” and plenty of frank nudity and sex, including a penis-measuring contest6 among the three male leads. Then comes the homosexual gang rape, the bike accident, and the character in the wheelchair who commits suicide by train. Verhoeven’s previous film was the 1977 historical epic Soldier of Orange, which followed six college buddies through the turmoil of World War II. In some ways Spetters plays like a bleak postscript to that story; this, Verhoeven seemed to be saying, is what happens to Dutch youth without a war to give them purpose.

As with Basic Instinct 12 years later, gay groups protested the film’s benighted portrayal of homosexuality, while advocates for the disabled objected to the suicide. The movie’s pessimistic depiction of Dutch society actually prompted the formation of a group called the Nederlandse Anti-Spetters Actie, or NASA, which presumably sought to have Verhoeven banished to the moon. He went to America instead, partly because he’d lost the support of the national film office that cofinanced most Dutch features. But the movie also cost him what could have been his highest-profile directing gig ever. According to van Scheers’s book, Steven Spielberg saw Turks Fruit and Soldier of Orange, and — after double-checking that they were really the work of the same director — called Verhoeven personally and urged him to come work in Hollywood. There was even a rumor that Spielberg thought about suggesting Verhoeven to George Lucas as a potential director for Return of the Jedi — then saw Spetters and changed his mind.

“I suppose,” Verhoeven said, “he was scared that the Jedi would immediately start fucking.”

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“Celebrity!” scoffs Gerard Reve, the bisexual novelist/solipsist/sociopath played by Jeroen Krabbé in Verhoeven’s last Dutch movie, 1983’s The Fourth Man. “That doesn’t buy you a square meal in Holland.”

Verhoeven was clearly on his way out; his first English-language film, the medieval-action schlockboiler Flesh+Blood, would be in theaters within two years. The Fourth Man is his first overt genre movie, an impressively intemperate Hitchcock pastiche/parody juiced up with blasphemous Catholic imagery that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Madonna video — although even Madonna would probably have thought twice about the sequence where Krabbé dreams of (almost) blowing the crucified Christ. The movie has a great early-MTV/Michael Mann look to it — lots of neon pink and green. (Cinematographer Jan de Bont shot six movies for Verhoeven before making his directorial debut with Speed in 1994.)

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It’s the first Verhoeven film where you can see him finding a way to translate the terror of his Pentecostal laser-beam experience — his fear of his own mind — into B-movie language, and the effect is powerful. Traveling on business, Reve starts experiencing premonitions of his own death. When he takes up with a mysterious woman with a movie camera (played by Renée Soutendijk, the sexy fry-truck cook from Spetters), the dream starts to bleed into reality. Like Basic Instinct, it’s a film about the question of whether the fact that writers are the worst people alive makes them capable of murder. To say it flies off the rails by the end implies unfairly that it’s on rails to begin with.

Over the years, Verhoeven’s talked about wanting to direct a Jesus movie and a Conan sequel. Neither project seems likely to materialize,7 but in a sense, 1985’s Flesh+Blood is both. Rutger Hauer, resplendently codpieced, is a 16th-century barbarian mercenary who develops a sense of divine mission after he and his band of outlaws — stand-ins for the Apostles — are double-crossed by an Italian nobleman. Hauer was a 24-year-old unknown when Verhoeven cast him in Floris, the 12-episode medieval-adventure series he and Gerard Soeteman had created for children’s television in 1969. Flesh+Blood is essentially an adult Floris; Hauer saves distressed damsel Jennifer Jason Leigh from being raped, only to rape her himself, and before the film’s over, we’ve seen plenty of memorable carnage, including a sequence involving hunks of plague-ridden dog meat being launched over castle walls from a catapult.

The movie cost $6.5 million, which was more than Verhoeven had ever spent on a film. You can see the budget on the screen, but you can also see it running out; the siege sequence that opens the film feels a whole lot grander than the one that closes it. The shoot — Spain doubling for Italy, with a squabbling Dutch/Spanish/British/American crew — was chaotic, and led to a permanent rift between Hauer and Verhoeven, who’d once described the actor as his onscreen alter ego. Verhoeven has admitted the finished film isn’t quite the medieval Wild Bunch he set out to make. The central conflict between Hauer’s superstitious Martin and the Italian lord’s enlightened, da Vinci–ish son Steven doesn’t work because Steven, played by Tom Burlinson, seems like such a dweeb; the movie inadvertently stacks the deck in favor of Team Barbarism because only Team Barbarism has Rutger Hauer. And yet you can still see why Verhoeven’s career didn’t end here; despite everything that’s wrong with it, Flesh+Blood is still a credible dirty-realist take on knights in armor, and its thoroughly modern vision of the medieval makes it a clear precursor to the chivalry-less world of Game of Thrones.

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Starship Troopers may be the only out-and-out satire in Verhoeven’s oeuvre, but RoboCop, his first U.S. hit, comes pretty close. It’s an extrapolation of Dirty Harry — the policeman as literal killing machine — that feels closer in tone to Repo Man than it does to anything in the Schwarzenegger/Stallone catalogues. It’s almost as quotable as Repo Man, too: Madam, you have suffered an emotional shock. Bitches, leave. We’ll even throw in a Blaupunkt! As in Troopers, chipper and demented news-break segments flesh out the world we’ve been dropped into; also as in Troopers, there’s a coed shower scene at the police station, because in every Paul Verhoeven future-world, the equality of the sexes is always symbolized by no-big-deal toplessness in the workplace. This is usually cited as an example of Verhoeven being a grody old Dutch perv, but I refuse to buy that (for a dollar). Verhoeven likes the locker room because he likes depicting communities of people doing a job, how they’re brought together by adversity or a sense of mission and pulled apart by corruption — it’s in this movie, it’s there in the scenes with the mercenaries in Flesh+Blood, and it’s even there in the dressing-room scenes in Showgirls.

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You can see why Hollywood felt like 2014 was the right moment to remake a movie about an apocalyptic Detroit and the police as a glorified corporate-security force. We’ve yet to build a drone fighter with as much personality as Phil Tippett’s uncannily fake-looking ED-209, which kicks and screams like a giant angry baby when it tips over in the stairwell, but I’m sure it’s coming. But RoboCop works for reasons that have nothing to do with the weirdly prophetic aspects of the story. The placid face of Peter Weller. A script by Michael Miner and Edward Neumier that doesn’t a waste a single note. The superb cast, made up mostly of actors who didn’t normally do this sort of thing,8 from Kurtwood Smith as the cop-killer Clarence Boddicker to the balefully bedroom-eyed Ray Wise — Laura Palmer’s dad from Twin Peaks — as one of his goons. The little smirk on Felton Perry’s face when Ronny Cox goes out the window — because seriously, fuck that guy.

The boldest thing about RoboCop from a contemporary perspective might be the way it ends. It just ends. No epilogue, no teaser for a sequel. (Presumably, the idea that there wouldn’t be a RoboCop 2 was inconceivable.) Verhoeven’s involvement with the sequel was minimal; by 1988, he’d signed on to direct Total Recall, based — verrrrrry loosely — on Philip K. Dick’s story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.” Bruce Beresford had almost made the film for Dino De Laurentiis, with Patrick Swayze as Quaid; when De Laurentiis’s company went bankrupt, Arnold Schwarzenegger convinced Carolco Pictures to acquire it as a vehicle for him. Verhoeven reportedly petitioned the studio to let him cast Harrison Ford instead, but over the years he’s acknowledged it was probably the ludicrousness of Arnold that helped put this ludicrous movie across.

For a movie that came into his hands the way it did, it’s oddly personal, with a plot that mirrors Verhoeven’s own fear of psychotic breaks. Quaid can’t trust his mind, so he becomes a human jackhammer, punching his way through illusions to discover the ugly truth about Mars. Our memories can be manipulated; fists, guns, and drills are irreducible. Verhoeven’s realist impulse manifests itself, especially in his American films, as an obsession with the corporeal. In RoboCop and Hollow Man, losing your body literally or symbolically costs you your soul, the part of you that feels; in Showgirls and Basic Instinct, all human interaction boils down to the brute binary of sex and violence. Fuck or fight, the lap dance or the icepick.

Basic Instinct, released in 1992 to widespread outrage and brisk business, is the lesser of the two films Verhoeven made from Joe Eszterhas scripts — it’s a reconfigured Fourth Man minus the nuttiness, undone by its fealty to the Hitchcock playbook. Every on-set light source seems to be coming through blinds or a conveniently placed grate; the supporting-cast cops are perpetually scratching their heads when confronted with concepts like “suspension of disbelief” and “fiction” and “psychology,” as if they’ve just been transferred here from the police station in Rebel Without a Cause. There are some eye-catching visuals — that first pan down from the stained-glass window to novelist Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone as Kim Novak as a praying mantis) in bed with her aging-rocker boyfriend, the deep-focus glimpses of the ballet dancers in the building across from Jeanne Tripplehorn’s apartment — but they don’t add up to much.

For maximum Vertigo resonance, the film was shot in San Francisco, and during production people outraged by the story’s rumored homophobic content picketed the set. Really, the fact that every single female character in the movie is criminally insane as well as bisexual seems more like misogyny than homophobia; Stone’s rapacious Catherine isn’t presented as a representative of the gay community any more than the shark in Jaws was a representative of the “ocean community.” And anyway, it’s Michael Douglas’s Nick who’s portrayed as the real freak — a repressed ex-cokehead cop who throws ethics and judgment out the window at the first sight of Stone’s bush. As Douglas’s partner puts it, “She got that magna cum laude pussy on her that done fried up your brain.” Take a bow, Joe Eszterhas.

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Douglas was nearly 50 when the film was shot, and looks it; there’s a more interesting movie lurking just off-camera in this one, about a fading lothario who’s disgusted and titillated by lesbians because they confirm every fear he’s ever had about his creeping irrelevance. In what may be the film’s best moment, Douglas gives Stone his best pitch for their future together. “We fuck like minks. We raise rug rats. We live happily ever after,” he says, and that’s when she reaches for her icepick. Despite the controversy, Basic Instinct made $117 million in the U.S. alone. After three hits in a row, Verhoeven was riding high, second only to James Cameron among action auteurs. During the filming of True Lies, when Arnold Schwarzenegger showed up late to the set, a furious Cameron is said to have gotten up in his face and screamed, “Do you want Paul Verhoeven to finish this motherfucker?”

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And then he lost it all in Vegas. Showgirls was released in September 1995.9 It cost $45 million to make and grossed less than half that. It has made more than $100 million on home video, although even a decade-plus of ironic reappraisal hasn’t bumped its Rotten Tomatoes rating past 17 percent. But allow me to defend Showgirls in the language of Showgirls: It doesn’t suck. I don’t mean that in a “so bad it’s good” kind of way, either — people tend to reach for that idea when a movie seems to be doing nothing correctly but still gives off a radiance anyway, refusing to be ignored. That’s Showgirls. It’s a workplace movie about professionals with no time for propriety — “They’re going to see a smiling snatch if you don’t fix this G-string,” a dancer fumes during the first backstage sequence — born of the same casually anti-puritanical ethos as Business Is Business. It’s a movie about a small-town girl who becomes a supervillain and then an avenging angel, which is a fantastic B-movie arc. But it’s also a wicked parody of every Hollywood movie that’s ever portrayed stardom as an end in itself, a cleansing force, or a dream worth chasing. And sometimes it’s just a kaleidoscope full of brightly colored sequins, because sometimes that’s all a movie needs to be.10

Bayside High alum Elizabeth Berkley took the role of Nomi Malone after everyone from Angelina Jolie to Pamela Anderson turned it down. Berkley is actually a tragically unsexy dancer, but this makes her more relatable in the part; it’s like the movie is Showgirls fanfic and she’s a Mary Sue. Her acting isn’t actually terrible; it’s just TV acting, and that she’s so completely out of her depth perfectly suits the character. The stage shows are pretty unsexy, too, but I submit that they’re supposed to be, and that the disconnect you feel when Nomi first catches a glimpse of the Riviera’s dancers and gazes at their schlocky act like it’s Balanchine’s Swan Lake is intentional, and that even a crazy Dutchman would not undertake a Top Gun–style movie about the world’s greatest topless dancer without tongue firmly in cheek. It’s a movie that gets accused of failing at things it doesn’t attempt and that succeeds at things it doesn’t get credit for; it’s the work of a director at the peak of his powers, and nothing about it is inexcusable except Kyle MacLachlan’s weird skate-rat haircut. Sometimes my favorite shot is the one of Nomi eating a burger on the hood of her car while staring out at a sky painted purple by neon, because it looks like an image you might get airbrushed on a denim jacket; sometimes my favorite shot is Nomi watching the ambulance cart Cristal away, because when the light hits her smeary makeup, it makes her look eerily like Heath Ledger’s Joker.

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Even after the Showgirls debacle, he still got to make Starship Troopers, in which even the casting was part of the joke. Verhoeven later said he went “looking for chins and noses to match Leni Riefenstahl’s vision of the ideal soldier,” which led him to blandly sexy actors like Casper Van Dien11 (as “Johnny Rico”) and Denise Richards. They fight the bugs; a lot of people die. The other thing about bodies in Verhoeven is that they don’t just disappear, like the dead do in video games. In a movie as visually clean as this one, the lingering shots of dismembered human meat are shocking, which is the whole point. Verhoeven saw a lot of dead people during the war; once, he and his father were forced by the Germans to walk by the corpses of a group of resistance fighters. Starship Troopers ends with a bunch of bugs splattered on the windshield of empire and Neil Patrick Harris, as a psychic intelligence officer, mind-melding with the grotesquely vaginal brain-bug they’ve captured and announcing “It’s afraid!” while soldiers cheer. In the end, the heroes of the conflict we’ve just witnessed become commercial spokespeople for the next one. The film spawned three sequels, which Verhoeven had nothing to do with, and an animated series; Verhoeven said he was pleased the animators didn’t have to do much to turn his original cast into cartoons.

Verhoeven has described his last U.S. film, Hollow Man, as a movie that could have been made by anyone, which is selling it short. It’s not his most imaginative or daring work, but it’s still one of the best and purest Science Asshole movies ever made. It features a swell supporting cast, including Josh Brolin and Deadwood’s Kim Dickens, and an appealingly unsympathetic performance by Bacon. Unlike Seth Brundle — a decent if awkward guy turned monstrous by rogue insect DNA — Bacon’s Dr. Sebastian Caine is a complete dick from the beginning. (Exhibit A: His name is “Dr. Sebastian Caine.”)12 Plato said that if people were invisible, they’d do whatever God has forbidden, but because he’s both morally bankrupt and invisible, Bacon basically is God, with the power to do whatever he wants, although it helps that most of his female acquaintances sleep soundly and wear tight, Free People–ish sweaters with easy-to-open buttons. In James Whale’s The Invisible Man, from 1933, Claude Rains tried to take over the world; Bacon just wants to fuck everything that moves. In Verhoeven’s conception, invisibility is kind of the ultimate “erection lasting more than four hours.” It’s discount Cronenberg, but discount Cronenberg isn’t usually this honestly misanthropic.

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The last image of the film is your basic “It’s over — it’s really over” crane shot, which pulls back from the scene outside Bacon’s warehouse lab to reveal Army trucks, fire and rescue vehicles, and plenty of first responders busily responding to the disaster that’s taken place inside. If you squint, it looks a little like a big, complicated movie shoot, and as the camera rises and floats away, it feels almost like Verhoeven’s saying good-bye to that kind of filmmaking. He didn’t make another film for six years. Ironically, 2006’s Black Book, which he made in the Netherlands for $21 million — about a quarter of what Hollow Man cost — turned out to be his most traditionally Hollywoodish production in decades, and one of his best films. It’s based on ideas Verhoeven and Gerard Soeteman came up with while researching Soldier of Orange, but it has the scope and moral complexity of an Alan Furst novel. Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) is a Jewish singer who becomes a double agent for the resistance in the Hague during the war, eventually entering into a sexual relationship with the Nazi bureaucrat she’s spying on.

It’s both a briskly executed spy thriller and a sober reconsideration of history, probing both the anti-Semitism of the Dutch resistance and the brutal treatment Dutch collaborators received from their own countrymen after the war. But if you read anything about it when it was released, chances are you know about two scenes — the one where Van Houten dyes her pubic hair blonde to hide her Jewishness from her Nazi bosses, and the one where she’s doused with an enormous vat of feces after being mistakenly jailed for war crimes. These are examples of Verhoeven being characteristically and scandalously Verhoevenesque; the movie itself is proof that he’s capable of much more, just as he’s always been. Early on, Rachel explains how the war put an end to her music career by saying, “One day you’re singing, the next you’re silenced.” Reviewers couldn’t resist hearing the line as Verhoeven commenting on his own situation; hopefully, it won’t end up being his creative epitaph.

Filed Under: career arc, Showgirls, robocop, Total Recall, Movies, film

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Alex Pappademas is a staff writer for Grantland.

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