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It’s easy to look at director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas’ notorious flop Showgirls through a so-bad-it’s-good prism, or — in terms of the Susan Sontag definition of camp cited in director Jeffrey McHale’s smartly analytical and entertaining reassessment — as failed seriousness. The 1995 MGM release was an obvious target for critics to savage, with review headlines like “Valley of the Dulls” and “Trashdance” competing for snarkiest wordplay.
Via clever, connect-the-dots montage of superbly chosen clips, and a full spectrum of opinions from both admirers and detractors, You Don’t Nomi makes a compelling case that the much-maligned pop-culture landmark can be judged as either tawdry rubbish or subversive comic triumph. The conclusion is that both points of view, and many in between, are equally valid in weighing up the tale of Nomi Malone, a starry-eyed striver who puts her soul in hock in order to erupt topless from a volcano in a tacky Las Vegas revue.
Right at the start of this impassioned reclamation, the point is made that people are still talking about Showgirls more than 20 years after the NC-17 release, because many are still reconciling their love for something so deeply flawed. Or even worthless, to take the hardline stance. It’s a fair point that while women were struggling to break glass ceilings, the depiction of a character so consumed by her hunger to excel as a high-end stripper was more than faintly off-putting.
Regardless, the imprint of Showgirls is evident in the fact that McHale’s is the first of two near-simultaneous documentary re-evaluations. The other, titled Goddess: The Fall and Rise of Showgirls, is due to mark next year’s 25th anniversary, from director Jeffrey Schwarz, a pop culture specialist whose films include I Am Divine, Tab Hunter Confidential and The Fabulous Alan Carr.
Via quick shots of theatrical-release print ads, McHale swiftly contextualizes Showgirls — which is basically All About Eve in body glitter and thongs — within the late-’80s and ’90s wave of Hollywood movies that sensationalized sex as something both titillating and dangerous, often inextricably linked with female covetousness, ambition and obsession.
The trend revved up with 9½ Weeks and Fatal Attraction and climaxed (sorry) with the Verhoeven-Eszterhas lesbian ice-pick killer sleazefest, Basic Instinct. The films ranged from intellectualized Euro-art (Damage) through satire (To Die For) to lurid exploitation (Jade), while Demi Moore had her own mini-monopoly on screen salaciousness with Indecent Proposal, Disclosure, The Scarlet Letter and Striptease.
Glenn Close’s bunny boiler with a triple-processed perm and Sharon Stone’s fancy legwork have ensured that Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct left a lasting mark, but the others are mostly forgotten, with good reason. However, Showgirls endures, possibly because it was the most critically reviled of them all. But more likely, as McHale and his commentators illustrate, because it was just so extreme there’s nothing else like it.
Many of us can still quote examples of its jaw-dropping dialogue, though I was sad to note that my personal favorite — Alan Rachins telling an auditioning Vegas dancer, “Come back when you’ve fucked some of this baby fat off” — is not included here. The more wistful “Must be weird not having anybody cum on you” makes the cut.
The film airs the often-conflicted feelings of a range of pundits in stimulating audio interviews. Among the most interesting commentators are Canadian critic Adam Nayman, author of the book It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls; poet Jeffery Conway, who published Showgirls: The Movie in Sestinas; drag performer Peaches Christ, whose Showgirls events regularly sold out San Francisco’s Castro Theatre (every large popcorn purchase came with a free lap dance!); and writer David Schmader, whose hosting of annotated Showgirls screenings led MGM to enlist him to record commentary for a 2004 DVD release.
Verhoeven, Eszterhas and Showgirls stars Elizabeth Berkley and Gina Gershon are heard from exclusively in interviews from release junkets or during the intervening years. Oddly, except in the case of Berkley, whose cruel, career-killing treatment injects a note of real pathos, the absence of updated perspective from those key players is not a significant liability.
The wittiest device is the insertion of Showgirls moments into clips from Verhoeven’s oeuvre, both films from his native Netherlands and his Hollywood heyday, as well as his return to European productions after 2000’s The Hollow Man put the nail in his studio coffin. This is sometimes as simple as reaction shots depicting laughter, derision, shock or revulsion. But often it’s much craftier.
We get Jeroen Krabbe in The 4th Man, for example, retrieving Showgirls reels from a locked cupboard and watching with increasingly unsettled fascination over a bottle of whiskey; Arnold Schwarzenegger looking at zero-star ratings and blistering capsule reviews on his digital homescreen while preparing a morning smoothie in Total Recall; corporate suits looking on gobsmacked in a RoboCop presentation; or an impassive Isabelle Huppert screening clips for her videogame company team in Elle.
This is not just a jokey visual trick, it’s actually a droll way of examining recurring motifs in Verhoeven’s work — from vomiting to champagne showers to sexual violence. Comparisons of both the rape and the rape-revenge scenes in Showgirls and Elle are particularly telling. And the complex responses of women who have experienced sexual assault are represented with moving candor by actress April Kidwell, whose fringe-theater successes are directly tied into Berkley’s career, first with Bayside! The Musical!, riffing on high school sitcom Saved by the Bell; and later with Showgirls! The Musical!
The case is made that Verhoeven began pushing the boundaries of tolerance from his early Dutch films and went so far in his scathing depiction of the Netherlands in 1980’s Spetters that he was effectively exiled to Hollywood. He then began to hold up a highly critical mirror to his adoptive home, targeting law enforcement, toxic masculinity and war in films from RoboCop to Starship Troopers, making the director’s contribution to the Hollywood blockbuster output of the 1980s and ’90s a unique chapter. Some argue that Showgirls shared that intent.
But even if Verhoeven has stood by the film by repositioning it as deliberate satire, McHale skillfully dismantles that attempted spin with excerpts from the Dutch director’s companion book to the release, discussing its themes with risible pretentiousness. Likewise, clips of high-concept pulpmeister Eszterhas talking with solemn self-importance about the movie’s examination of “moral values and spiritual choices, innocence and corruption.” By contrast, Berkley, many years after the release, tells Chelsea Handler in a TV interview that Showgirls was always intended to be “fun and over the top.”
The thread about the beating Berkley took for the film acquires additional resonance via the comparison with other child or teen actors that transitioned into adult work with provocative roles. There’s also some discussion of whether her performance as Nomi — a one-note assault of high-intensity abrasiveness — was the result of her limited range or Verhoeven’s characteristically heavy-handed manipulation of his female actors and characters.
More amusingly, McHale references underground cinema pioneer Jack Smith’s celebration of stock player Maria Montez’s dual role in the 1944 B-movie Cobra Woman as a comparable example of an actress so unrestrained in her commitment to an insane performance that it achieves a whole other level of greatness.
Whether or not you buy that, it’s affecting to watch Berkley on the set in full makeup and costume, or in TV interviews around the release, talking with conviction about the role as the culmination of all her preparation as an actor and dancer. Her performance, as one observer notes, is less a conventional character arc than a series of scenes consistent only in their over-caffeinated hysteria. By contrast, Gershon survived the movie relatively unscathed by playing her character, Cristal Connors, far more knowingly, as a drag queen Aphrodite who knows she’s in a piece of stylish garbage.
Berkley does get some sweet gratification when she’s greeted with a standing ovation at a 2015 Hollywood Forever Cemetery screening for 4,000 people. She introduces the movie with Nomi’s signature scissor-hands dance move, confessing the joy of being able to experience Showgirls for the first time with a crowd that fully embraces it.
McHale has been shrewd in declining to offer a definitive verdict on the movie, instead giving equal time to both negative and positive responses. There’s an implicit raised eyebrow about the moral indignation of many critics at the time of its release. But there’s even-handedness, for instance, in Barbara Shulgasser-Parker’s acknowledgment that while Showgirls is cliché-ridden, formulaic and insipid, Verhoeven remains a highly skilled filmmaker.
Considerations of specific shots and scenes back that up to some degree, alongside other breakdowns, both serious and sardonic, of classic moments like the Doggie Chow bonding scene between Nomi and Cristal, the switchblade-flashing “Chill!” warning; or Nomi’s thrashing pool sex with Kyle MacLachlan’s Zack, beneath a hideous dolphin fountain.
McHale touches on the queer narrative that speaks to gay men of a protagonist escaping her past and reinventing herself with her chosen family while deriving power from her sexuality. And Conway provides a lovely mini-dissertation on the movie’s place within the holy trinity of camp, preceded by Valley of the Dolls and Mommie Dearest, all three representing women fiercely climbing their way to the top of their respective showbiz fields only to find sourness and disappointment at the summit.
There’s also a melancholy suggestion that in the age of wink-wink irony — where phenomena like the Sharknado franchise, for example, aggressively aim for camp — the kind of comedy those movies represent, which can’t be made intentionally, no longer exists. How depressing that bad movies are now just bad.
Production companies: Different Places, in association with XYZ Films, Grade Five Films
With: Adam Nayman, April Kidwell, Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, David Schmader, Haley Mlotek, Jeffery Conway, Jeffrey Sconce, Matt Baume, Peaches Christ, Susan Wloszczyna
Director: Jeffrey McHale
Producers: Jeffrey McHale, Ariana Garfinkel, Suzanne Zionts
Executive producers: Nate Bolotin, Tamir Ardon, Jason Bailey, Chaya Ransen, Todd Emerson, Perian Salviola, Monte Zajicek, Nicole O’Connell
Music: Mark degli Antoni
Editor: Jeffrey McHale
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Midnight)
Sales: XYZ Films
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