When “Showgirls” opened in the fall of 1995, it was mocked and damned with more derision than the usual movie debacle (“John Carter,” “Gigli”). That’s because, according to the conventional view, it was not just a bad movie but an unspeakably vulgar bad movie. Directed by the talented Euro sensationalist Paul Verhoeven, from a script by the top-dollar pasha of tabloid high concept Joe Eszterhas, it was “All About Eve” remade as a glitzy Vegas trash opera of live flesh, and it was perceived as having committed a kind of double sin. Yes, it was tacky and pulpy, sleazy and over-the-top. But part of what drove the collective nose-thumbing was a kind of lingering American puritanism that said: A movie that dives into a swamp this sordid, drinking in the voyeuristic shallowness of it all, has to be ridiculed. “Showgirls” was its own category of disaster, a Hollywood bomb that exposed itself with full-frontal shamelessness.
Twenty-five years later, to say that there’s been a critical reassessment of “Showgirls” would be an understatement. In truth, there are now three competing views of the film. The first is the original one, which has never gone away — that “Showgirls” was embarrassing junk, an atrocious movie to its rotten NC-17 core. The second view is based on the resurgence that the film enjoyed, starting in the late ’90s, as a new classic of high camp, a latter-day companion piece to “Mommie Dearest” and “Valley of the Dolls.” In this view, the qualities that the movie had first been damned for — the exhibitionism, the catfight luridness, the wild mood swings of its heroine — now became virtues.
And then there’s the third view — one that may, as of now, be a minority view, but it’s one that I’m not ashamed to say I subscribe to. Namely: that “Showgirls,” if you watch it again with open eyes, is actually kind of a good movie. There, I said it! Is it a film worthy of rediscovery by the Criterion Collection? Maybe not. (On the other hand, I’ve seen Criterion films that aren’t nearly as much fun or as memorable.) Yet there are ways that “Showgirls” was damned for being ahead of its time, and much of the smug judgment about how “sexist” the movie was had an element of sexism itself.
Jeffrey McHale’s “You Don’t Nomi” is an avid and entertaining critical documentary about “Showgirls.” It’s not about the making of the film. It’s more of a mediation, a feature-length appreciation of the phenomenon of “Showgirls” and all the ways the movie is now appraised and experienced. It finds room for all three views: “Showgirls” as disaster, “Showgirls” as kitsch landmark, “Showgirls” as weirdly intense and watchable effusion of ’90s commercial Hollywood. The original filmmakers found room, too. Verhoeven wrote a deadly serious book about the movie but showed up to accept seven trophies for it at the Razzie Awards — the first director ever to do so.
The fascination of “You Don’t Nomi” is that it doesn’t find some fatal contradiction among the three views. “Showgirls,” it says, is a bad movie that also is a tasty slice of kitsch that also is a flawed but honestly bracing drama. “You Don’t Nomi” takes “Showgirls” seriously, obsessively, looking at it from every angle, presenting a chorus of critical voices who analyze the film in ways that are highly enlightening and provocative. David Schmader, who hosted the first camp revivals of “Showgirls” and was ultimately invited to be its Special Edition DVD commentator, calls the film “a poignant comedy” and “a documentary about its making.” Adam Nayman, author of the book “It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls,” calls it “a masterpiece of shit,” saying “the ways they didn’t get it are what combines, or bounces off the stuff that’s good on purpose, and makes the film completely singular. Like nothing else.”
The key to what looks different about “Showgirls” now is that Elizabeth Berkley’s performance as Nomi Malone, the 19-year-old hellion with a tiger gleam in her eye who claws her way up the stripper ladder of Las Vegas, got no respect at the time because it had an unbridled fury that kept bursting out into tantrums that were seen as overreactions to the situations that caused them. In the first five minutes, Nomi pulls a switchblade on the dude who picks her up hitchhiking when she senses he’s making an unwanted advance, and she lashes out at anyone who tries to use her.
But this now plays as a kind of post-#MeToo awareness. She’s been born into a world of predators, and she’s not going to take it anymore. Nomi draws a hard line between showing her body and engaging in sex work, even though the Vegas world keeps saying, “Come on, it’s the same thing!” That’s what a lot of critics in 1995 seemed to say, too, damning the character with a kind of hip puritanical misogyny.
As the documentary shows us, a lot of the early brickbats for “Showgirls” were puffery. The Washington Post said, “Elizabeth Berkley plays Nomi Malone, a tarty blonde with the brains of an appliance bulb.” Gene Siskel said, “She’s not sexy!…I don’t think they have an attractive star, they don’t do anything original in the screenplay at all.” Actually, this graphic-novel gloss on Old Hollywood set in the hierarchy of strip clubs is highly original. Schmader points out the film’s wacked motifs (the dialogue about fingernails, and about brown rice and greens vs. chips and burgers), though in the scene he hails as the film’s “crown jewel” of camp, when Nomi faces off against Gina Gershon’s snarling Cristal during a lunch at Spago, he calls it “brain-dead Harold Pinter,” but their conversation about eating Dog Chow actually has a startling subtext — about the lives of women who exist without safety nets.
The critic Haley Mlotek speaks eloquently of Verhoeven’s films and their acerbic critique of American culture, and how “Showgirls” fits into that. It’s not a whatever-happens-in-Vegas-stays-in-Vegas movie. It’s a let’s-turn-over-the-slimy-rock-of-Vegas-and-watch-the-worms-dance melodrama. In 1995, I panned the film myself (I didn’t come around until I saw it a second time, a decade later), but I did praise Elizabeth Berkley, whose performance as the ravenous, short-fused Nomi bowled me over. We see Berkley near the end of the documentary, as she introduces the 20th-anniversary presentation of “Showgirls” at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, and doing the iconic “Showgirls” hand flutter she’s as vibrant as she was then — an actress of awesome immediacy who should have had her shot. She got it, in a sense. But it was her fate to play a character who was stranded between “Flashdance” and #MeToo, between dancing for her life and raging at the men who thought that made her an object. Too many of them were the film’s critics.