The visionary Paul Verhoeven’s much-maligned $45m schlockbuster Showgirls, a sleazy rags-to-sequins story of potato chips and backstabbing dancers set amid the cum-slicked clubs of Las Vegas, was received with almost unanimous disgust upon its release in 1995. Elizabeth Berkley plays Nomi Malone, a drifter who swans into the City of Sin with a stiletto knife and a shitty attitude, and sets her sights on becoming its top performer. To do so, she must ascend the ranks of a grubby strip joint, ride Kyle MacLachlan’s Zack Carey like he’s a greased-up mechanical bull, and ultimately dethrone Gina Gershon’s radiant club queen Cristal Connors. It’s a sordid tale of bodices and goddesses hampered by dumbfounding dialogue and off-the-wall acting, not to mention its race issues and out-of-nowhere rape scene. Unsurprisingly, it failed to break even at the box office. These days, though, it’s harder to find a critic that doesn’t like the Dutch director’s big-budget tit parade than it is one who does.
Such has been the strength of Showgirls’ gradual reappraisal from trash fire to satire, galvanised in 2014 by author Adam Nayman’s rapturous re-examination It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls. It should come as no shock, then, that almost 25 years after its release, there are not one but two Showgirls documentaries vying for the spotlight: Goddess: The Fall and Rise of Showgirls, a traditional talking-heads film featuring new interviews with the cast and crew, directed by Jeffrey Schwarz and due in 2020; and the playfully titled You Don’t Nomi, a critically-led retrospective from first-time director Jeffrey McHale.
As much a celebration of fan culture and film criticism as it is of MGM’s big-screen sexploitation musical, McHale’s movie is less interested in the 1995 picture’s production than it is the way it slots into Verhoeven’s oeuvre and the ways it has been co-opted and kept alive by its believers. McHale chronicles the downs and ups of Showgirls through the voices of its detractors and disciples rather than its makers. Among others, contributions come courtesy of David Schmader, who helped kick off the trend of annotated Showgirls screenings, and Nayman, whose book, for better or worse, provides the spine of this doc. We also hear from critics Haley Mlotek and Susan Wloszczyna, as well as San Francisco’s grand dame of drag Peaches Christ, whose legendary Showgirls screenings (free lap-dances with every large popcorn!) were instrumental in elevating it to iconic status within the LGBTQ community.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about You Don’t Nomi is that each of its contributors is bang-on in their summations. It’s gratifying to hear Nayman et al point out subtle details but it’s difficult to disagree with the dissenting voices. It’s unfortunate, however, that we never see these fans and critics on screen — their disembodied voices can make the documentary tough to follow. But McHale makes up for this with what he does put on screen. We are treated not only to choice clips from Verhoeven’s coke-addled nudie-cutie, but also the auteur’s other works, including RoboCop and Basic Instinct, and lesser-known features Flesh and Blood and Turkish Delight, which serves to highlight recurring motifs (the V-man just loves to watch women vomit). McHale even draws lines between Berkely’s whip-smart Jessie Spano from Saved by the Bell and Showgirls’ Nomi Malone.
This connection, though, is best illustrated by April Kidwell, a comic actor who found her calling as a caricaturist of Berkley personas following an instance of real-world sexual violence. She was able to exorcise her traumas by inhabiting Berkley’s characters in Off Broadway shows “Bayside! The Musical!” and “Showgirls! The Musical!”. It’s a touching reminder that no matter how ridiculous a character may be, they can always prove valuable to someone.
McHale’s movie reckons well with Showgirls’ nastier facets too. As well as pointing out the misogyny present in its initial reception — Gene Siskel dismissed the picture for many reasons, a few of which were that Berkely was “hard around the face” and not “particularly appealing” — You Don’t Nomi calls attention to the misogyny inherent in its production. The 1995 flick may take a satirical swipe at the untouchable men that control the entertainment industry but that doesn’t discount the fact that its director, a successful white male, pushed Berkley to perform in a wildly over-the-top style and then sat back and let her take the fall for it (though he has in recent years claimed responsibility for her arm-flailing antics). It also deals tactfully with the shocking rape scene and its various justifications and condemnations. (Curiously, though, McHale doesn’t touch on how alarmingly similar screenwriter Joe Eszterhas and fictional rapist Andrew Carver look. Is this another instance of devilish casting from master-prankster Verhoeven?)
Fittingly, You Don’t Nomi ends with something of a redemption for Berkley, with footage of her appearance at a 4,000-strong public screening of Showgirls in Hollywood in 2015. McHale’s movie is by no means a definitive answer on whether Showgirls is a shitshow or a misunderstood satirical masterwork. How could it be? Verhoeven’s film is an erotic enigma, the beauty of the puzzle being that we can never really know its author’s intentions. But what McHale does do is assure his audience that Showgirls is easy to love and easy to hate — and that’s it’s perfectly okay to do both.