‘Showgirls’ at 25: why Paul Verhoeven’s erotic flop is an integral part of queer cinema

Ridiculed upon release for its shocking – and often baffling – blend of burlesque and eroticism, this '90s drama has slowly become a cult classic

As Jeff McHale’s impassioned new documentary You Don’t Nomi outlines, Showgirls demands, if not a first time watch, then a revisit. It’s been 25 years since this bombastic, muddled erotic drama first shocked and bewildered audiences. The follow-up to Peter Verhoeven’s wildly successful thriller Basic Instinct eluded to a similarly scintillating experience, only for audience expectations to be swiftly snuffed out when the story of an adult entertainer with fire in her belly delivered about as much sex appeal as Michael Haneke’s Amour – a film about two 80-year-old lovers that ends in murder-suicide. The plot seemed thin and erratic, the performances tepid at best, offensive at worst. It earned a record sweep of seven wins at the Razzies, with Verhoeven making history as the first filmmaker to show up and claim his prize in person.

The director has gone on record to say that he thinks the film is perfect, although his opinions on why – like many key players in the film – have changed somewhat since the film’s release. To say that Showgirls is perfect is a stretch, but it’s also not as inherently bad as we first remember it being, and the joy that it’s brought to countless marginalised audiences since has only made us like it more.

To be clear, there are two things that we still hate about Showgirls. Irrefutably so. The first is the sexual assault of supporting character Molly (Gina Ravera) in a scene so senselessly graphic and radically misaligned from the rest of the film that no matter how you interpret it (is it an examination of the abuse of power in the entertainment industry? Commentary on repressed male violence?) it simply doesn’t justify the exploitation of a woman’s body in this way. In You Don’t Nomi, McHale pointedly leaves the scene largely unanalysed, and even screenwriter Joe Eszterhas has changed his stance, labelling the moment “a god-awful mistake.”

The second isn’t so much a criticism of Showgirls but the industry at large and its ability to punish women for bad movies. Not that the surrounding collaborators on the film emerged unscathed from the experience, but as You Don’t Nomi highlights, co-stars Kyle MacLachlan (Twin Peaks) and Gina Gershon (Red Heat) already had the kind of career that could weather the Showgirls storm. Verhoeven has managed to harness the film’s colourful legacy and now speaks about it with an open fondness. But had a female director helmed the film there’s a strong argument that she would’ve been sent to movie jail.

Showgirls
Kyle MacLachlan and Elizabeth Berkley as Zack Carey and Nomi Malone. Credit: Alamy

Instead, it was the film’s star Elizabeth Berkley who was instantly cancelled when Showgirls was panned upon release (it’s worth noting that the film earned over $100 million in home video sales). Dropped by her agent and with no other agencies willing to take her on, Berkeley’s hopeful post-Saved By The Bell career was damaged considerably, and rare was the case when she’d be comfortable speaking about the film publicly. It’s a tough, deflating chapter to watch in You Don’t Nomi’s story, but it holds a much larger mirror up to the imbalance of power in these situations.

What we do love about Showgirls – that partially forms the basis for You Don’t Nomi – is how the film inspired a whole community of fans who found something magical in the camp, kitsch glory of the world that Verhoeven had intentionally (or unintentionally) created. It’s the queer community that would gather in full drag in New York venues at midnight to reinterpret their favourite scenes to an enraptured, extensive audience. McHale extensively promotes Showgirls – a big budget Hollywood outcast – as a significant queer film.

Paul Verhoeven
Paul Verhoeven directs a scene in 1995’s ‘Showgirls’. Credit: Alamy

It’s the die-hard fans that delight in its hyperbolic filmmaking and choose to see the film as an extension of Verhoeven’s provocative, often satirical oeuvre. They see this flailing freak of a movie, kiss it on the head and welcome it into their lives. They’re the reason that Berkley not only felt comfortable making a rare, surprise cameo at the film’s 20th anniversary screening in Los Angeles, but also delivered Nomi’s signature double flourish to an ecstatic crowd of admirers.

There is obviously a strand within this community who take pleasure in hating the film, and honestly, there’s just cause here based on how you choose to interpret it. Showgirls is a study of female sexuality handled clumsily by two straight men, in which to be bi-curious means engaging in a baffling exchange about eating dog food and a seriously disappointing kiss with your female mentor/crush, and to be a sex worker is instant cause for degradation.

Showgirls
‘You Don’t Nomi’ is available to watch online now. Credit: Bulldog Film Distribution

What McHale’s film highlights is how malleable Showgirls is, and how a seemingly sporadic, almost violently incoherent flop has become such a personal and praised film by those who, like Nomi, see themselves as something of an underdog. Through this self-made celebration, this steadfast community of fans has made an unlovable film lovable, flaws and all.

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