After the enormous success of the 1992 erotic thriller Basic Instinct, director Paul Verhoeven had audiences waiting with bated breath to see what he would do next. Sharon Stone’s infamous interrogation scene had already firmly cemented itself in pop culture, surely Verhoeven couldn’t make another film that would leave such a mammoth impression on the film industry and audiences alike. No one was prepared for Showgirls.
Showgirls was a big-budget Vegas extravaganza, that promised audiences to be provocative and like nothing they had ever seen before. It delivered and then some, however, critics and audiences tore the film to shreds. Roger Ebert called Showgirls “unredeemably bad”, while the film’s male lead, Kyle MacLachlan, said the final cut was “just horrible.” Twenty-year-old, Elizabeth Berkley was a household name due to her role as Jessie Spano in the teen sitcom Saved by the Bell (1989-1992) and saw the film’s lead, Nomi Malone as the role she was born to play. However, it was the role that single-handedly destroyed her career.
As time passed, just like Nomi Malone herself, Showgirls rose from the ashes and was embraced by audiences, giving it the status of a “cult classic.” Selling out screenings to crowds of 4,000 people, becoming a staple in the drag scene for iconic performers such as Peaches Christ and Alaska Thunderfuck 5000, and making over $100 million in rentals in the US alone.
The story of Showgirls and its afterlife is just as entertaining and over the top as the film itself. Director Jeffery Schwarz and producer Lotti Pharriss Knowles, who were behind the wonderful documentaries Vito (2011), I Am Divine (2014) and The Fabulous Allan Carr (2017), think so too. Schwarz and Knowles’ upcoming documentary, Goddess: The Fall and Rise of Showgirls will focus on the films’ journey over the past 25 years, its legacy and the impact it had on the cast and crew. Paul Verhoeven has announced his involvement in the project, with more names yet to be come. Goddess: The Fall and Rise of Showgirls is shaping up to be the definitive story of Nomi and her rise to the top.
To make this documentary as glamorous as Nomi’s nails, the Goddess team are currently running a Kickstarter campaign which you can support and find out more about the project by visiting their campaign page.
Producer Lotti Pharriss Knowles has been kind enough to talk to Diabolique about Goddess: The Fall and Rise of Showgirls and of course, doggy chow!
Diabolique: I love the work that you and director Jeffery Schwarz have done together. You create such insightful, joyous documentaries. Why did you decide to focus on Showgirls for your next project?
Lotti Pharriss Knowles: Jeffrey chose the subject and brought it to me a couple years ago – it was a no-brainer for me because I’ve been obsessed with Showgirls since I first saw it. But I would say Jeffrey decided to do it because (a) he also loves the film, (b) it’s an LGBT icon just like Divine or many of his other human subjects, and (c) he loves an underdog-makes-good story. Showgirls may have not started as an underdog, with the Hollywood money and power it had behind it, but the vitriol it incurred immediately upon its release (and box office flop) gave it that status. The journey of the film is really fascinating at all stages, from the making of to its popularity 25 years later.
Diabolique: This will be the fourth documentary you and Jeffery Schwarz have collaborated on. How did you two first begin working with each other?
Lotti Pharriss Knowles: Jeffrey and I started off as friends and cheerleaders of each other’s work. We both admired each other’s aesthetic and work ethic, so I was very flattered when he approached me a decade ago to come on board our first collaboration, Vito. I didn’t know much about Vito Russo, but immediately fell in love with him when I started reading “The Celluloid Closet” and watching his interviews and speeches. Jeffrey and I worked well together, and the film was picked up by HBO and won an Emmy – so I definitely felt like hitching my wagon to his star was a good idea!
Diabolique: Showgirls has taken on a life of its own. To say that critics loathed the film is an understatement, but what I love about Showgirls is how it has now come full circle and is loved by so many. It really shows that audiences are in control of what ultimately becomes of a film. We’ve seen this time and time again with other beloved cult classics, such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show. What do you think it is about Showgirls that people love so much?
Lotti Pharriss Knowles: Exactly! From talking with a lot of people about it, they love Showgirls on a number of different levels. Some find it campy and over-the-top, and are of the “it’s so bad it’s good” opinion. Then there’s a growing camp of fans who genuinely believe it’s a great work of art and cinematic genius. For many it’s a combination of both. And then there are the people who still think it’s terrible – we may not change their minds with this documentary, but they still might find it interesting!
Diabolique: Elizabeth Berkley was 20 when she took on the role of Nomi Malone, audiences knew her as Jessie Spano from teen sitcom Saved by the Bell. Obviously taking on a role that is so focused on female sexuality was a huge change for her. When the film failed, Paul Verhoeven, Kyle MacLachlan and others’ careers continued as per normal. However, Berkley was crucified, her career suffered immensely. Her journey almost parallels Nomi’s. Can you talk about why you think the failure of Showgirls was seen as Berkley’s responsibility?
Lotti Pharriss Knowles: When I spoke with filmmaker Stephanie Paris recently, she said something so smart about this: “Anita Hill, Monica Lewinski, and Elizabeth Berkley were all Patient Zero for the #metoo movement.” And it’s true – here we had a very young woman whose biggest crime was wanting to stretch as an actor, and to portray unbridled female sexuality, and she was beaten up for it and pretty much drummed out of Hollywood. As drag performer Peaches Christ said in her interview for Goddess, “Some people can’t deal with the fierceness.” Men have been trying to suppress women’s sexual power since the dawn of time, but I think because of #metoo and #TimesUp we can see the injustice Berkley suffered much more clearly now. And that is absolutely part of the story we’re telling.
Diabolique: The NC-17 rating was introduced in America in 1990 after many filmmakers felt that X was an unfair rating as it was associated with porn. This new rating was initially intended to create freedom for filmmakers, where they didn’t have to censor themselves so much. One of the selling points in the lead up to Showgirls release was that the film was going to be rated NC-17 and was a film for adults. The initial failure of Showgirls had such a negative impact on the NC-17 rating, receiving an NC-17 meant almost certain death for a film. Do you think this impact from Showgirls is still felt when it comes to the rating system in America?
Lotti Pharriss Knowles: Yes, but I think the rating system is totally fucked up in this country anyway. The amount of violence we’re allowed to consume via PG-13 movies is astounding, especially when you think how up in arms people get if you see a penis or vulva on screen. The Puritans who founded this nation screwed us up from jump. If anyone hasn’t seen it, I highly recommend the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated for an entertaining (and infuriating) history lesson on the subject.
Diabolique: Crowdfunding was instrumental with I Am Divine. It was the first time I really became aware of crowdfunding and I remember thinking how cool it was that fans could contribute to a project they actually wanted to see. How has crowdfunding changed things for filmmakers and fans?
Lotti Pharriss Knowles: Very cool indeed! Crowdfunding for I Am Divine was a no-brainer just like it is for Goddess, because there’s already an audience of fans out there dying to see this content – and we want those fans to feel like they’re part of our team and have a vested interest in this documentary being made. It’s hard work and stressful and makes me lose a lot of sleep every time, but it’s absolutely worth it.
Diabolique: You have announced that Paul Verhoeven is taking part in Goddess, which is very exciting. What has been the overall response from other cast and crew members from Showgirls? Have the majority of them been willing to participate?
Lotti Pharriss Knowles: Yes, it was wonderful getting Paul’s blessing, and his interview is incredibly insightful. We do have a lot of cast and crew members who’ve participated and are also very supportive – we’re unveiling those folks on our social media during the campaign. And there may be a couple of exciting once we can’t announce yet – fingers crossed!
Diabolique: You had a role in Showgirls 2: Penny’s From Heaven and I recently read that you had a Showgirls themed wedding in Vegas! Fantastic! Can you tell me a little bit about your own love for the film?
Lotti Pharriss Knowles: Sure! The first time I saw the movie, it was like eating a delicious ice cream sundae laced with crack cocaine, in that I was immediately hooked and then needed to push it on everyone else. I dressed up as Nomi for the first time on Halloween 1996. Then when I met my husband in 2000, our first conversation included quoting lines from Showgirls to each other – which led to that wedding two years later (where I naturally dressed as Nomi again)! I still can’t stop watching it: alone, with friends, at midnight screenings, as drag or sock puppet re-creations… It’s a gift that keeps on giving.
Diabolique: And finally, what’s more delicious, brown rice and vegetables or doggy chow?
Lotti Pharriss Knowles: Doggy chow for sure! I just can’t with vegan.