Is Showgirls a bad movie? A good one? Both?
According to a new documentary, You Don’t Nomi, the 1995 box office flop is simultaneously a “piece of shit, a masterpiece, and a masterpiece of shit.” If you like messages in your movies to be singular and unambiguous, then this film isn’t for you. The original Showgirls is the tale of a volcanic face-off between aspiring dancer Nomi Malone (played by Elizabeth Berkley) and mega star Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon). You Don’t Nomi treats this story as a kind of Schrödinger’s cat fight whose artistic merit all depends on your perspective.
Riding high on his success with genre hits RoboCop, Total Recall, and Basic Instinct, director Paul Verhoeven turned to another style of film for his next project: the Hollywood musical. Teaming with screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, the mischievous director took a standard rags-to-riches tale and turned up the volume with his trademark blend of deadpan satire and extreme situations that stretch, and often break, the boundaries of good taste. In Showgirls the writing/directing team returned to the theme of unknowable or uncertain identity – a narrative thread that’s central to their work both individually and in collaboration. Verhoeven has written that because of his PhD in mathematics with a specialization in the theory of relativity, he doesn’t believe in any single, objective reality.
The title of producer, writer, editor, and director Jeffrey McHale’s documentary says it all. We don’t know or understand Nomi Malone. And we may not really know the movie Showgirls either. Audience reception theory says that each individual viewer creates their own meaning for a text. What the original writers, actors, technicians, and director intended doesn’t matter. Set loose into the world, Nomi and Showgirls now have many meanings for many different audiences.
Through archival footage, movie clips, and voice-over narration McHale takes us on an entertaining tour of these interpretations. He begins with the majority view among critics that Showgirls is a failed movie; a pathetic attempt to reimagine All About Eve by moving it from the theatre scene to Vegas strip clubs and floor shows. Commentator David Schmader, a true fan of the film, observes that some unfortunate lines of dialogue sound like they were written by a “brain dead Harold Pinter.” In its worst moments, Showgirls can be read as misogynist, sexist, and tacky.
But maybe it’s just misunderstood… McHale also gives us Showgirls defenders who argue that Verhoeven loves to provoke audiences, and this movie is one more example. In Showgirls he used explicit sex to skewer American culture, while in RoboCop he used graphic violence. (Showgirls was released with an NC-17 rating). Because Americans are more prudish about sexuality than violence, one movie was praised and the other damned. Film critic Haley Mlotek calls attention to the “out there” qualities in Verhoeven’s work. Excess is part of his visual and narrative style. Showgirls fits right in with its glowing colors and over the top performances. In his voice over narration Jeffrey Sconce, film professor at Northwestern University, points out the hyper stylization of its images, describing it as a kind of dream and not to be taken literally.
You Don’t Nomi ends with the hope that one day verdicts on Showgirls will rise above binary judgments of good or bad. We meet drag queen Peaches Christ, who resurrected the film as a midnight movie in San Francisco a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Or April Kidwell, star of Showgirls! The Musical, who explains how playing Nomi Malone on stage night after night was personally liberating and healing. Each of them appreciates the movie’s sleazy and sublime qualities, and they love it even more because of them.
You don’t need to have seen Showgirls to enjoy You Don’t Nomi. There’s enough fun material in this doc to satisfy the uninitiated. As someone who’s seen Showgirls a few times I enjoyed Nomi’s kaleidoscopic style. Like its opening shot of a rotating neon sign filled with stars, there’s no last word on Showgirls. The movie will continue to be appreciated, or reviled, in different ways through the years. You Don’t Nomi is a reminder to every moviegoer, no matter the genre, that before we leap to dismiss a film as worthless, we should keep in mind that it may also be someone’s favorite movie.
You Don’t Nomi will be available on streaming, “>blu-ray, and DVD from RLJE Films starting July 21st.
Nick has been a long-time contributor to Signal Horizon. He is a fan of horror, crime, sci-fi, and weird books, movies, tv shows, and music. He was on the board of the Zombie Scholars Academy where zombie tropes were used to teach middle and high school students about critical thinking, apocalyptic narratives, and survival skills.