In a way, Showgirls was always destined to become a camp cult classic. When it opened in 1995, director Paul Verhoeven’s grotesque follow-up to Basic Instinct – an All About Eve-like story about a ruthlessly ambitious stripper who’ll do anything to become a top Vegas showgirl – was savaged by critics and performed poorly at the box office. In fairness, a restrictive adult rating made necessary by its plentiful sex, nudity and sexual violence didn’t help its commercial chances. But what Jeffrey McHales’s deeply affectionate new documentary, You Don’t Nomi, does so well is convey how complicated Showgirls’ enduring appeal is. Even 25 years after it came out, it’s impossible to pinpoint why Verhoeven’s bizarre film is quite so compelling.
You Don’t Nomi – a punning reference to Nomi Malone, Showgirls’ lead character played by Elizabeth Berkley – is neither a making-of doc nor a straightforward argument in favour of its artistic greatness. First-time feature director Jeffrey McHale clearly appreciates that it’s reductive just to call Showgirls “so bad it’s good”, so he uses a palette of 10 different contributors to express a variety of competing viewpoints. Most are huge fans one way or another – David Schmader, whose opinions feature prominently, has been hosting tongue-in-cheek screenings since 1999, but there’s at least one more sceptical presence. Veteran film critic Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, who definitely doesn’t regard Verhoeven’s movie as an overlooked masterpiece. McHale’s approach is simple but presumably a result of painstaking editing: he layers audio from his contributors, whom we never see, over footage from Showgirls and Verhoeven’s other films including action blockbusters Total Recall and RoboCop, highlighting common themes and visual motifs along the way.
Initially it feels disappointing that there are no new interviews with Verhoeven, Berkley or screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, only archive footage of them discussing the film, but ultimately their absence makes sense. Showgirls is fascinating because it’s been embraced in ways that its creators could never have imagined. Some critics think Verhoeven intended the film to be a satire, but he and Eszterhas – both straight white men – surely didn’t envisage that Nomi Malone’s personal journey would resonate so strongly with queer people or be hailed by some fans as a flawed feminist story. In an especially moving section, writer-performer April Kidwell says that playing Nomi in a knowing tribute show, Showgirls! The Musical!, helped her to deal with severe PTSD after she was raped.
McHale’s film is filled with unexpected insight, highlighting how Verhoeven’s direction can be technically brilliant even when Eszterhas’s script is inexplicably terrible, and acknowledging that its underwritten Black characters exist solely to tell Nomi how talented she is. Whatever your take on Showgirls going in, McHale’s film will add new layers to it, and make you want to re-watch this fabulously bizarre flop-turned-classic with more questioning eyes.
- Director: Jeffrey McHale
- Starring: Elizabeth Berkley, Joe Eszterhas, Gina Gershon
- Released: June 12 (Digital)