If you’re old enough to remember 1995, you probably remember the fervor surrounding Showgirls, Paul Verhoeven’s debauched look at the life of a Vegas dancer clawing her way to the top. It was critically reviled, publicly scorned, and the subject of an unending parade of controversy as it became the first, and still only, NC-17 rated movie to receive a wide release. Despite the popular drubbing, Showgirls has received something of a critical and popular reevaluation, a process chronicled in Jeffrey McHale’s new documentary You Don’t Nomi.
Starring Elizabeth Berkley, Saved By the Bell’s brainy feminist Jessie Spano, as a confrontational, wildly erratic, oft-naked aspiring dancer named Nomi Malone, Showgirls was savaged upon release. Called exploitative, misogynist, tasteless, and every other insult imaginable, it was held up as one of the worst, most misguided movies ever made.
And maybe it is, but beginning in the late1990s/early-2000s, a funny thing happened, opinion began to sway. The first I remember of this was when David Schmader hosted screenings with live commentary that grew in popularity. Eventually, the studio contacted him, and what he thought was going to be a cease-and-desist order turned out to be an invitation to record a commentary track for a special edition release.
Schmader was far from alone in his affection for Showgirls, as it turns out. All over the place, various communities—especially the gay, drag, and trans communities—embraced the film for its camp, its satire, intended or otherwise, and its general mania. Eventually, all of this congealed and turned the film into a bonafide cult classic and a misunderstood masterpiece in some corners. (I have to admit that watching it as a burgeoning teen cinephile and taking it entirely seriously, and watching it years later with a new perspective and insight, are vastly disparate experiences.)
You Don’t Nomi tracks all of this, from the production to the bashing to the unexpected rise from the ashes. And let me tell you, it is a ride. Showgirls itself is a wild artifact, the behind the scenes stories are even crazier than the finished product, and the tale of its redemption is no slouch on its own. Within the first ten minutes, among other things, people say: “Showgirls is about two men, who maybe did a lot of cocaine, drunk with power in Hollywood,” “You can’t look away from Showgirls or you’ll miss something huge, like a car crash or a vomit,” and “A type of comedy I don’t think you can make on purpose.” Needless to say, Nomi is a damn good time.
McHale’s documentary isn’t just about spectacle and mayhem. Showgirls fandom is nothing if not earnest and heartfelt. Various marginalized communities have claimed this as their own. It’s inspired an underground current or art and creation: plays, poetry, drag shows, cultural criticism, and more. It means so much to so many people, it’s moving to hear people talk about how much this film has impacted their lives.
The filmmakers also take care to place Verhoeven’s movie in a broader cultural framework. Not just the brouhaha surrounding its release, but what was going on in the world at large. You may not have thought of Showgirls when you think of the O.J. Simpson trial, the Clinton impeachment, Anita Hill, or Amy Fisher, but after this, the connective social tissue becomes clear. McHale juxtaposes clips from throughout Verhoeven’s career to contextualize this within his overall body of work, how it fits, how it doesn’t, pointing out themes that run through his entire oeuvre.
You Don’t Nomi is a fascinating, moving watch on any number of levels. Who was in on the joke and who wasn’t? (Gina Gershon said, even at the time, that she played her aging showgirl as a drag queen.) It’s a film that lives and dies by the mantra, “Nothing can be small or boring.” Is Showgirls trash or genius; insightful satire or cheap exploitation; intentional masterpiece or exceptional happy accident? These are the questions You Don’t Nomi seeks to answer. In reality, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, but this is one of the more entertaining documentaries you’re likely to see. [Grade: A]