As I’ll note to anyone who will listen, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven was right about everything. I said it in this anniversary piece on Total Recall here, and I’ll say it now as we look at You Don’t Nomi, director Jeffrey McHale’s bold documentary that attempts – and generally succeeds – in rehabilitating the reputation of Verhoeven’s infamous 1995 erotic stinker, Showgirls.
Ah, Showgirls. Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas’ follow-up to their controversial but successful steamy thriller, Basic Instinct, Showgirls follows the fortunes of sexy drifter Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley, fresh off teen comedy series Saved by the Bell) as she tries to make it as a feature dancer in glittering Las Vegas, baby. Doubling down on the explicit sex of Basic Instinct, Showgirls really pushes the boundaries of onscreen nudity and sexual behaviour (it was the first and last NC-17 flick to get a wide release), apparently to a degree that mainstream audiences simply couldn’t accommodate. The film not only took a critical drubbing (something Verhoeven was not unfamiliar with), it was box office toxin, too. Berkley’s career never recovered, while critics competed over who could load their pen with the deadliest poison. When Showgirls cleaned up at the Razzie Awards, Verhoeven, a man with an unshakeable sense of self, was on hand to take a bow, the first director in history to collect the statue for Worst Film of the Year.
Yeah, kinda, but not really, which is the actual thesis of You Don’t Nomi. Yes, Showgirls is most certainly a bombastic, lurid, vulgar exploitation flick populated with acres of bare flesh and characters who act in ways that no actual human has ever acted (moment to moment, Nomi is absolutely unhinged). But it’s also an arch, merciless satire of the American dream of stardom and adulation, excessive wealth and conspicuous consumption, which contemporary critics couldn’t see behind all the tits. One commentator observes that while Verhoeven’s violent films were deemed high satire by the criterati, his sexy films were dismissed as merely lewd, which says more about American sexual morale than it does about pervy Paul V. It’s also a camp coming-of-age bildungsroman which has resonated with generations of LGBTQI+ viewers; Nomi’s journey to the big city to reinvent herself mirrors the formative experiences of many small town queers who fled to the bright lights to find themselves, and the glittering excess of the film’s Vegas Strip setting is icing on the campy cake.
Showgirls is vast; it contains multitudes. And isn’t that the mark of a great film? Controversy, after all, is interesting, while consensus opinion staid and listless. McHale assembles a number of commentators to make the case for Showgirls, including David Schmader, whose midnight movie revival screenings were critical in elevating the film to the status of queer classic; and Adam Nayman, whose book It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls makes no bones about his opinion of the film. Sadly, there are no new interviews with the major players in front of or behind the camera, which is a damn shame, although we get their thoughts on the film at the time of production via contemporary interviews (Joe Eszterhas’ assertion that the film is a moral drama is both hilarious and correct) and archival footage. Still, it would have been something to get their thoughts on the whole fracas a quarter century on, if for no other reason than to see if Kyle MacLachlan, easily the worst thing in the actual movie, is still convinced they were making a hard-hitting drama all along.
You Don’t Nomi is a wonderful piece of cinema in that it not only makes the case for reassessing its subject, (which I did for this piece, and I recommend it) it demonstrates how popular art doesn’t belong to its creators, but to its audience, who find their own uses for things. Showgirls was meant to be a tentpole blockbuster, not that season’s critical punchline. These days it may be derided, but a small but growing core of fans absolutely get it, have made it their own and raised it up high, and because of that it’ll have a longer cultural half-life than many of the loftier films that debuted the same year. Not bad, Nomi Malone; not bad at all.