Why Hollywood Won't Cast Elizabeth Berkley Anymore

Most of the original cast of Saved by the Bell has gone on to do other things — Tiffani-Amber Thiessen was on 90210 and did the Netflix sitcom Alex & Katie; Mark-Paul Gosselaar had NYPD Blue and Franklin & Bash; Mario Lopez has every hosting gig that Ryan Seacrest turns down; and Dustin Diamond did, well, let's just say whatever the exact opposite of Saturday morning kids programming is. But what happened to Elizabeth Berkley after Bayside High?

Well, when your very first feature film is Showgirls — the infamously lambasted NC-17 journey of a thousand lapdances — lots of doors that were once opened for you in Hollywood find themselves closing fast. "I see it as the beginning of my film career," Berkley told TV Guide in 2001. "At the time, there were obvious controversies and difficulties that arose, but it was a choice, and it set me on a path for a movie career that [has allowed me] to work with people at the highest level."

Hollywood was a cold place to the actress for a long time, but eventually Showgirls was rediscovered by less puritanical audiences, and Berkley found her voice and purpose. So let's grab a milkshake at The Max and discuss why Hollywood won't cast Elizabeth Berkley anymore and why that might change.

Showgirls. What else needs to be said?

We're going to go ahead and get this one out of the way because you already know it. Showgirls. The movie has done star Elizabeth Berkley absolutely zero favors since it's release in 1995. During a 2015 Rolling Stone retrospect on the film's 20th anniversary, director Paul Verhoeven said Berkley was cast for being the only actress they auditioned who could dance but was also "willing to show full-frontal throughout the film." 

Verhoeven had never seen Saved by the Bell prior to casting Berkley and admits that he should have. "It's probably true that casting her in a part so different from how American audiences knew her affected the box office," he wrote. "But I didn't know that series, and I had no idea what kind of character she played in it." Nobody really wanted to see Jessie Spano as a stripper. Combine that with an NC-17 rating, and those of you who may have wanted to see it weren't old enough to get in. When all the receipts poured in, Showgirls made $37 million off an estimated $40 million budget (via The Numbers).

The film has become one of those "it's so bad it's good" cult classics over the years, as you see Berkley introducing a screening of in 2015 above, and it even has a documentary, You Don't Know Nomi. The doc's director Jeffrey Mchale told Forbes, "Showgirls succeeds because of the unique nature of its failures, that's what makes it so special."

Showgirls was a critical flop

As you might have expected, Showgirls didn't set the critics on fire either. As of this writing, it holds a 20% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 16% Metascore. But classics are never appreciated in their time, right? Unfortunately, Berkley's acting seemed to be the singular target of many scathing reviews.

Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly wrote, "As an actress, Berkley is, to put it mildly, limited. She has exactly two emotions: hot and bothered." Jay Boyar of the Orlando Sentinel said the starlet "possesses no detectable acting talent. Berkley keeps glaring at the camera with a peculiar intensity that I can only assume is meant to suggest great depth. What it really looked like to me, however, was that she was trying to recall which foot is left and which is right." And there were many more, but there's no point revisiting the pile-on.

Plus, let's be honest here — everybody was bad in Showgirls. That's fine. Things happen. But since she was the one dancing on the dumpster fire, Berkley had to fall on the proverbial sword. Was that fair? Probably not. "I had the most extraordinary experience making the film. When a dream is happening, it's unlike anything you can ever imagine," Berkley said in 2015 (via EW), adding, "Which is why when the movie came out it was more painful than anything you can imagine."

Elizabeth Berkley was almost too good in Showgirls

Although critics hated her performance, everyone involved in creating the film says Elizabeth Berkley wasn't the problem. Director Verhoeven told the Los Angeles Times, "If somebody is to blame it's [screenwriter] Joe [Eszterhas] or me. I think she did exactly what we wanted and what we thought would be good. And apparently, we failed." 

He added that Berkley's performance was so good that the public couldn't separate her from Nomi Malone. "Her performance that everybody is so against is based on a character," Verhoeven said. "The hate towards her character—an edgy, nearly psychotic character—is actually a compliment to her performance." A source close to Berkeley told the paper, "She's been getting the blame for this movie and it's so unfair. She is an innocent. Paul Verhoeven said, 'Be this way.'"

Eszterhas concurred. "It would be unfair to write Elizabeth off in terms of this picture," the film's writer explained, adding, "I think people should be a little more compassionate." For her troubles? Two Razzies for Worst Actress and Worst New Star and a measley $100,000 salary for the role. "We had to do this; we had no more money," said Verhoeven, who collected a $2 million director's fee.

Surprise! Hollywood is sexist

In the words of Jessie Spano, Hollywood is full of sexist pigs. The world never really seemed to get over the fact that Berkley got naked in Showgirls, because this was back in the early '90s when a sex tape could crumble, not create, an empire. As the star of the film, Berkley bore the brunt of the consequences; not the male screenwriter, director, or producers, even though they admitted that the film's failures were mostly their own doing.

As director Paul Verhoeven explained to the Los Angeles Times, "I never thought this continuous bashing of the movie and of Elizabeth would happen. We're sitting with these ruins in front of us. I realized with the nudity and the fact that critics are essentially Puritan that there would be backlash and anger, but I never thought the movie wouldn't do well. So I never accounted that she would be put in such a bad position and I feel terrible about it."

Berkley addressed the backlash she and the film faced during an outdoor screening of Showgirls at Cinespia's Hollywood Forever Cemetery in 2015. "1995 was such a different time, where taking risks like that were not embraced. They were laughed at. They were shamed publicly," she explained (via EW), adding, "To be a young girl in the center of that was something that was quite difficult."

Elizabeth Berkley took to theater...and making calls

Since the big screen didn't exactly pan out for Berkley, she channeled her performance skills through a different medium: the stage. In 1999, Berkley co-starred with comedian Eddie Izzard in a London production of Lenny, a biographical play about controversial comic Lenny Bruce. Critics delivered mixed reviews on the play overall, but the Independent praised Berkley's performance as Bruce's stripper-wife Rusty as "impressive."

Though the production was only a limited engagement for a few months, the demands of a stage schedule, from actual productions to previews to rehearsals, is demanding enough to likely have prevented Berkley from working elsewhere, especially in Hollywood.

During Berkley's 2005 run in the revival of Larry Gelbart's Sly Fox on Broadway, the actress actually called then-Variety chief theater critic Charles Isherwood to get off her back after his bad review. In his review of the play, he referenced Showgirls. Berkley had enough. "With poise and politesse, Ms. Berkley explained that subsequent to that cinematic debacle, she had been rehabilitating her career by pursuing work with respected and talented artists," Isherwood wrote in The New York Times, adding that he "hung up feeling guilty and chastened." The critic then agreed that "bad movies happen to good actors all the time," but unlike other stars with bad movies in their credits, Berkley didn't have a "reputation to fall back on." He called her desire to move on from her past foibles "probably a more marketable commodity than talent."

Did this lawsuit involving Leonardo DiCaprio tank Elizabeth Berkley's career?

Two years after Titanic dropped, Elizabeth Berkley's boyfriend at the time sued Leonardo DiCaprio for $45 million. The New York Daily News reports that in 1998, Berkley dated actor and musician Roger Wilson, who claimed that DiCaprio ordered his entourage to physically attack him in a Manhattan hotel parking lot. Wilson alleges that DiCaprio knew Berkley was his girlfriend but kept asking her over for dinner anyway so he confronted him. He was then "surrounded by at least eight men as DiCaprio looked on."

Wilson claims he was "blindsided" by the attack and "suffered a broken larynx and other injuries." DiCaprio denied the attack and expected to be "vindicated in court," but that took a while. The lawsuit was dismissed six years later in 2004. "For Leonardo DiCaprio, it was an entirely frivolous lawsuit," said Paul Callan, the Inception star's attorney said (via E! News). "He was named because he is a prominent celebrity." DiCaprio's publicist hoped the lawsuit's dismissal would discourage others from attempting to make "money on false claims."

But by the time the lawsuit was dismissed, Berkley had long moved on from Wilson and was married to fashion designer Ralph Lauren's nephew, Greg Lauren. Did having her name attached to a lawsuit against a megastar close a lot of Hollywood doors for Berkley? We'll never know, but we assume it didn't help.

Elizabeth Berkley hasn't really had a starring role since Showgirls

Berkley has kept relatively busy with television roles for almost 20 years, thanks to brief stints on NYPD Blue, The L Word and CSI: Miami, as well single-episode guest spots on shows like New Girl, Melissa & Joey and Law & Order: Criminal Intent, among others.

She also starred in numerous TV movies, including Lucky Christmas, Becoming Dick, and the Lifetime classic Student Seduction. The problem is that none of these were starring roles on long-running series or theatrical movie releases. So, if viewers missed an episode or two of any of these shows, or just weren't home for a TV movie airing, she wouldn't have made a mark in their consciousness, even if her performances were fantastic.

Berkley's movie roles have been similarly small. Although she's had parts in films Roger Dodger, Any Given Sunday, and The First Wives Club, she really wasn't given too much opportunity to make that big of an impression on audiences. These projects, while absolutely respectable for any working actress, unfortunately failed to get Berkley the buzz she may have needed to get a blockbuster shot anytime soon.

She wrote a book

Elizabeth Berkley's breakout role was that of a teenage girl going through high school problems in Saved by the Bell, so naturally, she would write a book to help other high school girls get through those challenging years as well. That came in the form of Ask Elizabeth, a book "written in diary-style" according to People. And it was a big hit. "It just kept happening everywhere I'd go," Berkley said. "I'd be talking to five girls and it would turn into ten, twenty and it would end up being this kind of organic, shared dialogue."

"Everyone just talks about the problems our teenage girls are facing and what they're dealing with," Berkley explained. "But there was, to me, a void in how they were being served or helped. I thought, 'Wow, I'd love to create something.'" And she didn't stop with the book, she also had Ask Elizabeth two-hour workshops around the country. "It spread like wildfire. Schools and administrators and parents, completely word of mouth, totally grassroots, I didn't do any press on it for two years," she said. "It was just organic."

During her travels to high schools, Berkley spotted a pattern, explaining that the same "group of questions that got asked." She added, "I would track them and keep them in categories. There was a universal emotional journey that we all go through even though we might have a different story surrounding it."

Saved by the Bell rides again

What's old is always new again. Especially in Hollywood where they will eventually reboot everything that's ever been made at some point. In 2020, it was Save by the Bell's turn. On April 16th, the first trailer dropped the Save by the Bell set to air on NBC's streaming service, Peacock. Mario Lopez and Elizabeth Berkley returned as A.C. Slater and Jessie Spano, baby!

And wait until you get a load of this plot, per The Hollywood Reporter: "The single-camera comedy that explores what happens when California Gov. Zack Morris (Mark Gosselaar's role) gets into hot water for closing too many low-income high schools and proposes the affected students be sent to the highest-performing schools in the state — including Bayside High." Time out. You know what? Never mind. 

"I'M SO EXCITED.... here we gooooo!!! @mariolopez.... are you ready for grownup Jessie?!" Berkley wrote on Instagram. "Jessie and Slater are back for more fun. We are thrilled to have Emmy winning 30Rock writer @TraceyWigfield bring the sequel to life on NBC/Universal." Hopefully, this reboot series will allow Berkley to flex her acting chops to Hollywood casting directors everywhere. 

Showgirls will never die

Elizabeth Berkley will always be associated with Showgirls. And you know what? We think that's awesome. How bad can it be if Quentin Tarantino loves it? "The thing that's great about Showgirls, and I mean great with a capital great, is that only one other time in the last 20 years has a major studio made a full-on, gigantic, big-budget exploitation movie," the legendary director once said (via The Cult Film Reader).

On the 25th anniversary of its release, the so-called "masterpiece of sh*t" got the documentary treatment in 2020's You Don't Nomi. "The following, and the cult and queer fandom that it has, basically allowed space for it to be revisited and reevaluated," the doc's director Jeffrey McHale told Los Angeles Magazine. "People are tuning in and checking it out again. Maybe back in the day, it was harder to digest the satire that I think Verhoeven was aiming to achieve, but people can step away and look at it a little more objectively now." He added, "There's still interest and I don't think we're done with it."

In a 2001 interview with TV Guide, Berkley described Showgirls as "kind of like an ex-love that I don't even think about often anymore." But if your very first feature film goes on to become a cult classic, do you really have anything to be ashamed of? We think not.