Jeffrey McHale’s entertaining documentary You Don’t Nomi shows that the now 25 year old Showgirls is guilty of all charges. The young Elizabeth Berkley — wholesome ex-Saved By The Bell starlet — played Nomi Malone, an innocent yet angry filly who hitches a ride to the bright lights. Nourished on a brown rice and vegetable diet, Nomi works as a lap dancer, meets poor but honest showkids, faces betrayal and becomes the Goddess of Vegas. More than that, she learns success means nothing without someone you love to share it with.
Showgirls’ defenders — poets and teachers alike — have a point about the mystery: this 1995 film keeps getting watched and talked about, while its prestige contemporaries such as American Beauty and Forrest Gump are rarely disturbed by fans. Critic David Schmader is our entry point to this study of Showgirls. He became a rabid devotee and eventually was hired to do a commentary track on the DVD. Adam Nayman, author of It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls is rhapsodic; Haley Mlotek’s diplomatic rejection of Showgirls’ sexism is more measured.
The panning of Showgirls proves American movie critics always feel good about beating up on a film with sexual content. One voice here, former San Francisco Examiner critic Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, hasn’t reevaluated her stance; it’s not prudishness but the patheticness of Showgirls’ execution that kept her repelled. I happily joined the dogpile at the time, comparing Showgirls unfavorably to a forgotten movie that came out the same weekend: martyred filmmaker Theo van Gogh’s erotic 1-900 (06 in the original Dutch) which had some kinship to Nicholson Baker’s Vox.
Showgirls was a collaboration between Paul Verhoeven and the fabulously overpaid scriptwriter Joe Eszterhas. Their previous hit was the glossy and smelly Basic Instinct. A few years ago, a Film Comment study of the afterlife of Showgirls began with a quote by Spinal Tap’s David St. Hubbins: “There’s a thin line between stupid and clever.”
The problem with Showgirls is that it can never decide what side of the line it wants to be on. Verhoeven always considered it a musical, as full of glitter as the Vegas strip itself. Yet most musicals don’t have a detailed gang rape scene, far less a moment where a smiling nurse to the battered victim — “She’ll be OK!” — tries hopelessly to retrieve the film’s mood of lightness.
Eszterhas, who later found Jesus, considered this a moral tale that ripped the lid off of show business even as it ripped off the leads’ tops. Verhoeven sought something more metaphysical — something German expressionist, something that held up a mirror to the berserk US of A. It might be instructive to double-bill Showgirls and Cabaret. The hapless audiences, lured by the NC-17 rating, were in the position of someone trying to rub one out to a George Grosz painting.
Breasts by the bushel were spilled to strangely little effect. No one among the re-evaluators claim that Showgirls is an erotic film. “It’s like a 13 year old’s imagination of what adults do at night,” says Schmader. The focus on Berkley’s mammaries recalls George Burns’ memory of watching a topless movie — “After an hour and a half, I thought I saw one blink.”
Showgirl’s stiltedness even throws a layer of lacquer over the amazingly lewd Gina Gershon as the film’s bad girl, Cristal. The only thing that’s remotely sexual in Showgirls is Gershon’s prehensile lickerish tongue, flashing in a final too-little, too-late kiss with Nomi. Even the film’s partisans wonder over Showgirls’ fascination with fingernails, as fetishized as the stiletto heels. The fans ponder the unusual name “Nomi” — “you don’t know me” or “know me.” Why not, “Leave me Malone”?
Showgirls delights gay audiences — Gershon says she played Cristal as if she were a drag queen. San Francisco’s own Peaches Christ sometimes included cabaret versions of Showgirls with a screening at the Midnight Mass.“You either get it or you don’t,” says Christ. “For those who get it, it can become a religion.” McHale intercuts Nomi’s famous volcano dance with queen-of-camp Maria Montez’s snake ritual from Cobra Woman (1944)
Also convincing here is a study of the elements of Verhoeven’s style. Only someone watching Showgirls really closely would have connected the dots. Take the highly peculiar I-miss-the-hungry-years Spago scene where Nomi and Cristal are reminiscing about how much they loved to eat dog food. Is this inexplicable business auteurism, a reference to how the pouty Renee Soutendijk in Verhoeven’s Spetters (1980) made the pooch-food croquettes that she sold from her roach coach? A montage of barfing scenes through Verhoeven’s work makes me wonder if John Waters is still the Prince of Puke, or if he’s been dethroned.
How could such a bad movie happen to a good director? Verhoeven’s great gift for ghastly comedy is shown in excerpts from his best film, Robocop (1987), and his second best Total Recall (1990). (For that matter, why does Showgirls’ vicious rapist, played by William Shockley, look so weirdly like Eszterhas with his long hair and beard?).
The question of Showgirls’ intent is still open. A choreographer seen in a clip in You Don’t Nomi seems aware that Verhoeven is seeking an overblown style. But Kyle MacLachlan at the Seattle Film Festival insists that no one on the set thought of Showgirls as a comedy. This fearless interpreter of David Lynch’s dreams went with the flow, even unto the famous swimming pool sex scene, where Berkely’s splashing athleticism made it look like MacLachlan is bonking an outboard motor. Verhoeven’s own on-the-set book about Showgirls shows how serious he was. Yet, the Dutch director was in good humor about the rage Showgirls set off, appearing at the Razzies to accept their worst movie award. He was later willing to entertain the idea of Showgirls as a joke, instead of a tale of a soul contending between good and evil, in a story that happened to require more than 30 stunt persons.
The last third of You Don’t Nomi is the best, bypassing the slippery subject of whether Showgirls is a golden piece of crap or a justly dismissed work of sham erotica. Either way, it changed one life. There’s a lively and touching interview with April Kidwell, who played Nomi in a musical burlesque of Showgirls that toured the country.
Kidwel says her personal experience of abuse was helped by some art-therapy in the form of a song where her Nomi declares herself a “wharrier — whore and a warrior combined!” Too bad there wasn’t also room here for a quick clip of Pamela Gidley in the 1998 satire Mafia!; Gidley’s version of Nomi not only licked the brass pole, but took a chomp out of it.
After the fiasco, the actual Berkley kept a low profile. She was a guest on a cable show to talk about string art, and later admitted to Chelsea Handler “no one came to my defense” when Showgirls faced universal scorn. In 2015, she made an appearance at the outdoor cinema screening of Showgirls at the Hollywood Forever cemetery, to an audience of 4,000 sitting out on blankets. She’s gracious and gorgeous and in charge of herself, unlike the way she looked in the film that made her infamous.One can be a little persuaded by these devotees: Berkley shows great composure as she dines on a burger at dawn on a roof in front of a colossal pink neon sign in front of the Flamingo hotel, a snippet that makes Showgirls look like a seriously good movie.