Showgirls gets a critical re-appraisal in this documentary out just in time for Pride month.
I’m not sure it’s possible to find a more controversial film than 1995’s Showgirls. The Paul Verhoeven- directed, Joe Eszterhas-penned tale about a young woman named Nomi (Elizabeth Berkely) who sets off to Las Vegas with hopes of making it big as a dancer was constructed and promoted as a provocative, stylish drama that was hard-hitting in it’s emotion and social commentary. No one could have foreseen the backlash that erupted from the release of Showgirls; at least those who did, sat back quietly as they waited for this sex-heavy camp fest with more breasts than lines of credible dialogue to take the movie world by storm…in the worst ways possible.
More than two decades following its release, one of the most controversial and reviled films is explored in this documentary. Featuring critical commentary as well as plenty of the movie’s footage, You Don’t Nomi examines how Showgirls, a one-time industry punchline, became a film that continues to be discovered, analyzed as it enjoys a long and healthy afterlife among its die-hard followers.
Early on in the documentary vintage footage from the press junket for Showgirls shows Berkely slightly bemoaning the lack of substantial roles for actresses, thereby validating her choice to take on the role of Nomi while simultaneously propping the film up as a vanguard for female representation in Hollywood. Berkeley’s claims weren’t altogether unfounded. Of the 10 actresses up for Oscars that year, three of them were nominated for playing hookers, while another three were up for playing housewives. Still, things weren’t all dire for women in 1995 as the burgeoning actress claimed they were. Annette Bening and Rene Russo enjoyed roles just as dynamic as their male co-stars, while Nicole Kidman, Susan Sarandon and Emma Thompson all starred in films about women challenging one element of society or another. Finally, Michelle Pfeiffer managed to break a new record that year by starring in the highest-grossing film to ever feature a solo female lead at that time. Whether the actress’ comments were purely her feelings or some form of prep from the movie’s publicity team, the intent didn’t help in making Showgirls anything more than what the media and the public believed it to be.
Rather than produce a straight documentary featuring the talking heads of those associated with the film, director Jeffrey McHale has stitched together You Don’t Nomi using 70% of footage from Showgirls, 15% from footage of Verhoeven’s other films, 10% of vintage cast and crew interview clips (I’m guessing no one from the movie was really that interested in participating without a fee) and the remaining 5% from recent screenings featuring the movie’s loyal fanbase. What’s left is a jumble of analysis (all heard through voiceover) as critics who reviewed Showgirls when it was first released and those who discovered it in the years since all give varying critical takes regarding the movie. Had this been any other movie besides this one, the results wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. As it stands, hearing one critic describe Showgirls as: “a documentary about it’s own making,” and another proclaim it to be: “drearily pedestrian and mainstream,” helps keep the doc an entertaining ride.
There’s one critic who thinks Showgirls speaks to the Dutch-born Verhoeven’s view on American society (incorporating many of his past works to help drive this point) and another who finds himself fascinated by the director’s visual choices, including the use of mirrors and a pivotal restaurant scene involving Nomi and Cristal, the character played by Gina Gershon. Things become really interesting when You Don’t Nomi’s female critics are seen differing greatly on the women of Showgirls as one lambasts them for having been created through a misogynist’s idea of who women are and the other praises them for not being the standard sort of fragile on-screen creatures who are unable to take care of themselves. It’s when the impact of Showgirls takes a turn for the personal where the tone changes, however. After hearing one critic after another either defend the film or condemn it even further, we hear a testimonial from a woman who turned Showgirls into an off-Broadway musical after being inspired by the ferocity of the main character, who she credits for helping her deal with the effects of a previous rape experience.
It’s no surprise that Showgirls has always had a strong gay following who have embraced the movie for a variety of reasons, which You Don’t Nomi is happy to acknowledge. In fact, it’s here where the most accurate and true reading of Showgirls can be found. Verhoeven’s movie is loaded with kind of larger than life campy moments that gay audiences love to savor, from loud costumes to elaborate set pieces and one quotable phrase after another. What gay man who has seen Showgirls doesn’t want to yell out “different places” in manner which mixes the dramatic with the vulnerable just the way Nomi does when she’s asked the question? The movie also echoes the homosexual mentality towards sexuality when it presents the act of sex as a characteristic that’s seen to be readily embraced by gay men who rarely find themselves afraid of it.
Yet as a critic from The Advocate points out in the documentary, this movie is ripe with gay ideology that reaches beyond its surface features. Nomi’s overall journey is very much in line with the experience of many a gay youth. The character is eager and hungry to explore the big city, believing that guts and determination is all that’s needed to survive before learning the harsh lesson that the real world requires more than that. Additionally, the desire for a new name and identity as well as the element of the chosen family (or as author Armistad Maupin calls them, the “logical family”) that looks out for each other, all factor into the gay experience at one time or another and are highly visible elements within the movie. But it’s the way in which Showgirls reflects the average gay man’s approach to the outside world through a daringness to be brazen, outrageous and unapologetic in every aspect of life that proves most telling. As the doc alludes, such an attitude won’t always guarantee success or respect, but it does give a sense of claiming one’s own voice that’s undeniably priceless.
You Don’t Nomi does get tiresome after a while when scene after scene from Showgirls is thrust in the audience’s face. With so many diverse critical readings available, a roundtable setting featuring all the commentators presenting their takes to each other in person with clips of the film interspersed would have made things more interesting. Still, the film did succeed in making me want to go back and revisit the infamous bomb to see which analysis I myself walk away with. When the film came out in 1995, Gene Siskel called it “All About Eve in a g-string,” summing up the majority of critical and audience reception at the time. But Showgirls has enjoyed an undeniable lifespan which this documentary celebrates as it drives home the very real notion that no piece of work can be taken at mere surface level. Ultimately, even if You Don’t Nomi fails to convert detractors, it does make Showgirls harder to dismiss…much like Nomi herself.