Love to hate it, hate to love it, or just plain hate it, Showgirls is a movie that to those who have seen it, will never fade from memory. The tale of Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 NC-17 fame epic has gone down in film infamy as one of the biggest failures of all time, both critically and commercially. What could only be described in Layman’s terms as “A Star is Born but topless,” Showgirls was once pitched as a serious dramatic film from the director of Total Recall and Basic Instinct, with a potentially star-making performance from Saved By The Bell star Elizabeth Berkley. What transpired in cinemas in September 1995 was a disastrous show of campiness and a lack of self-awareness that led to the film being destroyed critically, but its said failures soon propelled Showgirls into being one of the biggest cult classics of camp filmmaking the world has ever known.
You Don’t Nomi, a documentary from filmmaker Jeffrey McHale, seeks to dive into the why of Showgirls, in both how a film like this was allowed to be made, and how the attributes of said film led it to being beloved the world over from camp film enthusiasts. The film takes interviews from those who have studied the film’s delayed success, as well as individuals who have found empowerment in their own lives as a result of the existence of Showgirls. It’s a very personal look at the effect that a film such as this has on audience members and how it can inspire art going forward.
What You Don’t Nomi has that perhaps Showgirls needed a bit of is self-awareness, as the documentary has no qualms in poking at the film’s incredibly over-the-top moments in good fun. It doesn’t lambast the film as a laughing stock of filmmaking, but rather acknowledges what is objectively onscreen while digging into the lasting impacts of these moments in pop culture history. There’s an extended segment of the film solely devoted to the very brief scene of Elizabeth Berkley’s Nomi Malone and Gina Gershon’s Cristal Connors discussing loving the taste of Doggy Chow over lunch. This is something that, to the uncultured viewer, would only exist as one of the thousands of “What the fuck?” moments throughout Showgirls, but the depth and passion that many of these scholars and fans put into the analysis of this one scene is genuinely almost enough to make you believe that Showgirls is some hidden masterpiece of filmmaking.
And that’s when You Don’t Nomi completely wins as a documentary. There is a passion behind every single one of the interviewees in the film who have truly had their lives changed by the immense presence of Showgirls as a piece of pop culture. From authors to critics to actresses who have used Nomi’s pain to channel their own trauma, to Peaches Christ, one of my favorite drag queens known for staging high-quality spoofs of cult classic films through drag, who started with Showgirls. You feel and believe every moment of their love and passion for the film and the ripples it made in the industry following its release. Does anyone unironically think it’s a masterpiece of the highest caliber? Absolutely not, but one could argue that a film doesn’t have to be that to make an impression on someone’s life. It’s a powerfully unique testament to the power that film can have on someone’s life, even when a film is considered a “failure.”
You Don’t Nomi isn’t afraid to criticize the film for moments that might be unsavory for audience members, both on and off-camera. Particular grief is levied at the film’s graphic rape scene of Molly, deemed “The only decent person in the film,” and how Nomi’s revenge against Molly’s rapists exists as a shallow male fantasy of what healing from sexual assault looks like. Not to mention both Paul Verhoeven’s and writer Joe Eszterhas’s history of female exploitation, particularly with the famous “Uncrossing of the legs” scene involving Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, which Stone was unaware of until the film’s release.
A strong focus, however, is placed on the effect that Showgirls had on the career of Elizabeth Berkley, and how much of the blame of Showgirls was placed on Berkley’s shoulders, as opposed to that of Verhoeven as a filmmaker, who went on to direct a multi-studio, $105 million sci-fi epic Starship Troopers just two years later, as well as winning the Golden Globe for “Best Foreign Language Film” for Elle in 2017 (Isabelle Huppert also won for “Best Actress in a Leading Role – Drama” for the same film that night). It leads to deep thought about how women are placed in the aim of blame when something doesn’t go right within a Hollywood production. It’s a legitimately depressing moment of the film where one has to wonder that if the lurid camp that everyone appreciates from Verhoeven as a filmmaker was afforded to Berkley as an actress, where would her career be today? It shows that Showgirls was always a touchy subject for Berkley, until she finally attended an outdoor showing of the film in Los Angeles in 2015, with over 4,000 in attendance, who gave her a massive standing ovation, bringing her story full-circle. I greatly appreciate that the film took the time to really flesh out the failings of the system towards Berkley and how without her, Showgirls would absolutely not be what it is today.
I also appreciate the film’s focus on how Showgirls would be nothing without the massive support from the gay community, who fawn over the film’s campy fun and lurid sexuality. On paper, Showgirls does not find itself within the Venn diagram of something that gay men would be interested in, but has since become a pillar of gay film history. Every once-closeted theatre or chorus kid saw themselves in Nomi Malone, and we carry that with us throughout our lives as a sort of morbid empowerment that also happens to be unintentionally hilarious.
My experience with Showgirls? Being perhaps one of the world’s gayest men, I have a massive soft spot for Showgirls, both as a camp classic, and as a film that I actually think got a smidge of a bad rap. Is the film good? Absolutely not. There is still much to appreciate with the film, though, including some truly attractive cinematography and equally moving score. On a technical level, Showgirls is a legitimately attractive film. From there, sure, I dabble in roasting the film, but I do it in the same way that I read my friends in good fun. It’s all based in love and respect, and despite my same issues with the film’s treatment of race and sexual assault, You Don’t Nomi perfectly captured the self-aware, but unionic love that so many people harbor for a film once considered the worst failure of studio filmmaking ever made. That’s not something that’s common, and it’s not something you can make intentionally. That love is all real.
Head to the official You Don’t Nomi website to find out how to access the documentary.
Available on VOD and digital June 9th, 2020.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.