Lurid and louche, instantly awful and the quintessence of filmed “camp,” “Showgirls” rode to screen infamy when it rolled into theaters in 1995, greeted with almost universal derision and disdain.
It blurred the line between overwrought acting and incompetent acting. It is a movie about misogyny by the cinema’s greatest misogynists. Its earliest label might have been the most apt — a “cocaine” musical, a cynical, delusional piece of NC-17 titillation wrapped in some idea of “feminism” shared by the pervy sexists who made it and the Hollywood that released it.
But then the gay community embraced it, drag queens started vamping out sequences as part of their act. Alternative publications looked at it through auteurist, feminist or queer eyes as midnight movie audiences and home video fans watched it over and over and over again.
If you didn’t see “You Don’t Nomi” coming, you should have. If Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” triggered obsessives around the world, leading to the fascinating “deep dive” documentary, “Room 237,” hell, if “Bronies” (“My Little Pony” cultists) can inspire musicals and a documentary about their devotion, then why not a wholesale reevaluation of “Showgirls” as not just a “s— film,” not just a “cult film,” not so much a “lost masterpiece” as a “masterpiece of s—?”
“You Don’t Nomi” takes its title from “Showgirls”‘ leading lady a small town dancer (Elizabeth Berkley) who leaves dreary, hypocritical Rural America for the bright lights, skin and lap-dancing of Vegas.
Filmmaker Jeffrey McHale doesn’t just find a new generation of critics to ridicule those of us who panned the picture when it came out. He interviews (all off-camera, heard in voice-over) people who have written books of poetry about it, staged drag shows based on “Showgirls,” who adapted “Saved by the Bell” (the tween-TV comedy Berkley was previously known for) and its aftermath (“Showgirls”) into a stage musical.
We hear — a LOT — from critics and others who have made this picture’s reevaluation a calling card. And McHale builds his documentary around their arguments, generously sampling from director Paul Verhoeven’s preceding career, and the greatly-diminished screen resume that followed “Showgirls.”
Yes, Verhoeven started laughing at himself very early in the backlash, accepting Razzies for the film’s disastrous reception. And yes, he’s embraced the various re-interpretations, the appreciations built on the long arc of his career, the motifs he returned to again and again, the “mirror” his mirror-filled glitterball in the abattoir “satire” was holding up to America and to world culture.
The film came out in post-Clarence Thomas/then-current Bill Clinton sex scandal America, “a pretty fraught moment.” The Dutch Verhoeven’s penchant for gymnastic, theatrical sex (“Basic Instinct”), graphic violence (“Robocop”), stylized acting and arch dialogue (“Starship Troopers”), for shots of women vomiting, rape scenes and excess all came home to roost here.
People laughed out loud at the ugliest moments when “Showgirls” came out. It was never intended as a comedy, but has been embraced since as “a type of comedy you can’t make on purpose.”
Seattle critic Adam Nayman has turned the film into a cottage industry, writing “It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls” books, doing the voice commentary for anniversary edition DVDs and Q & As with Verhoeven as he rides this wave. He’s the dominant voice in “Nomi.” A few older critics remember panning the picture or thinking more of it than most at the time of release, and a few younger women critics complain about and rationalize the picture’s misuse of African American characters and Verhoeven’s career-long way of abusing women on the set or on camera.
Verhoeven paid for his sins, and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas — all but forgotten in the doc after the first 20 minutes or so — never amounted to much after “Showgirls” either. At least the ageing director got to make “Elle” and “Black Book” in Europe and live long enough to see this reviled bomb find an audience and a place in the culture.
I’ve interviewed him several times over the years, and would heartily agree with the film’s assessment of his prescience about fascism’s return (“Robocop,” “Starship Troopers”), a sort of Decline of the Roman Empire decadence that exposes American sexual/gender hypocrisy (“Showgirls,” “Basic Instinct”). He was always the first to admit the film was supposed to be serious, even as he’s been quick — desperately quick — to embrace its camp reinterpretation.
And it’s gratifying to see Berkley get the tiniest smidgen of — respect isn’t the word — appreciation for what she did in the film’s two hours of near-hysterical “acting.” Verhoeven rightly tries to take the hit for that. It’s the performance he says he wanted, just as Volker Schlöndorff wanted Elisabeth Shue to give us a bad actor’s idea of what “playing a role” looked like in “Palmetto (1998).” Berkely’s career never recovered, and if there’s justice and a lawyer in the the house, a buck from every download and Bluray sale of “Showgirls” should go to her.
“You Don’t Nomi” makes some points, misses the mark attempting to make others, but keeps us entertained as it encourages film buffs to view “Showgirls” within the framework of a filmmaker’s career, to accept that notion that “An artist is someone pounds the same nail, over and over again.” It wasn’t an aberration, but perfectly representative of Verhoeven’s canon. And yes, he did put everything in there “for a reason.” The big argument one can have with these obsessives is that “Not a SMART reason” has to be considered as a possibility.
Otherwise, “Hudson Hawk” rises to the top of the pantheon.
I was reminded of a Verhoeven’s many stomach-turning moments before and after “Showgirls” via a flash of “Black Book” torture here, some “Total Recall” violence there, the queasiness of alien vivisection in “Starship Troopers.” Yes, “Showgirls” was the “unsexiest sex movie” of them all. Kind of gross, to be honest.
But sure, like a lot of critics, I held on to MGM’s companion glossy “book” after the movie released at the time. I mean, one doesn’t toss glossy books, does one? Nude pictures and what not?
If there’s a failing to the documentary, it’s in making light of the “changing tastes” argument for the film’s creation and reception.
But you don’t have to agree with the thesis, with every talking point burnishing the film’s status, to enjoy seeing these obsessives make their case.
“Showgirls” is camp-defined, “failed seriousness.” It is a “sex cartoon.”
And if there’s a pantheon of overwrought, female-centered films of disrespected, disregarded and troubled women, movies rediscovered by and heralded by the gay audience, “Showgirls” and Berkley deserve to be right up there with Patty Duke and “Valley of the Dolls” and Faye Dunaway and “Mommie Dearest.”
MPAA Rating: Unrated, cinematic violence, nudity, simulated sex, profanity
Cast: Paul Verhoeven, Elizabeth Berkley, Gena Gershon, Joe Eszterhas, the voices of Adam Nayman, Haley Mlotek, April Kidwell, many others
Credits: Written and directed by Jeffrey McHale. An RLJE release.
Running time: 1:32