Showgirls‘ social and political themes don’t contradict its camp because camp, in its purest form, is a politically engaged sensibility. The whole critique of the entertainment industry and its products…rests on presenting actual phenomena in an exaggerated, stylized form that implicitly emphasizes their absurdity. Verhoeven’s Las Vegas plays up the city’s plastic and artificial qualities as a visual illustration of how the star-making system and capitalism in general create and sell their own mythology to consumers. It’s a microcosm of American culture at large, “a third world country in a Gucci belt,” one that projects an image of glamour and excellence to obscure the never-ending line of people sent through the meat grinder in the name of capital every single day.
Before production had even begun, both the Hollywood Production Code Administration and the film’s makeup artist Stuart Freeborn warned Lean against too closely replicating Dickens and Cruikshank’s Fagin. But Lean pressed on, faithfully replicating the novel’s antisemitic physiognomy. And so Alec Guinness sports a long, scraggly beard, prosthetic hooked nose, unkempt bushy eyebrows, and all the filth and grime in the United Kingdom. This not only brings life to a caricature that borders on Nazi propaganda but also obscures Guinness’ actual face. His expressions become harder to read, his demeanor more aloof and closed off. This Fagin is almost completely removed from any trace of humanity.
By the 1970s, the style of extravagant roadshow musicals that catapulted Streisand to international superstardom in the 1960s (besides Funny Girl, she also starred in Hello, Dolly! and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever) fell out of favor with audiences. This shift in cultural tastes seems like something that would spell career doom, but Streisand survived by emphasizing the modern elements of her persona — self-deprecating humor, zaniness, ordinariness and determination — over her musical abilities. This shift led to a string of politically engaged films in which Streisand aligned herself with women’s liberation, including Up the Sandbox, The Way We Were and The Owl and the Pussycat.
For Cruella‘s corporate camp, the United Kingdom’s 1970s punk movement provides the main aesthetic inspiration. The soundtrack’s almost wall-to-wall needle drops feature Blondie, The Clash, Suzi Quatro, Queen, and The Rolling Stones. Punk visibly influenced Jenny Beavan’s Oscar-nominated costume design, too, which is rife with contrasts and tensions. (The movie snagged an Oscar nod for hair and makeup, too.) But punk — like camp — uses aesthetics to make political statements, and this is where Cruella misses the mark. The aesthetic is there, but the meaning is gone.