In the canon of cult classics, there isn’t a movie quite like Showgirls.
The 1995 erotic drama of budding dancer Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) clawing her way from a stripper in a seedy bar to a primetime Las Vegas showgirl was meant to be a rhinestoned allegory for the perils of greed, power, and corruption.
But all audiences and critics saw was hammy acting, tacky T&A, and inane writing.
Despite the scintillating marketing behind being the first NC-17 movie with a wide release and the clout of director Paul Verhoeven whose previous films RoboCop, Total Recall, and Basic Instinct were all box-office smashes, Showgirls was an undisputed dud. Even screenwriter Joe Eszterhas admitted two years after its release that Showgirls was “one of the biggest failures of our time.”
Or was it?
Whether it was the allure of watching something so salacious, lambasted, or both, Showgirls found new a life upon its VHS and DVD releases. Suddenly, the film was exalted to the status of midnight showings a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Live theater parodies like Showgirls! The Musical began springing up.
With Showgirls‘ new life as a cult hit came fresh perspective.
To say Showgirls is so bad it’s good doesn’t seem quite right. It’s not like The Room or Troll 2, where the joy comes from watching everything you thought you knew about film unravel before your very eyes. Are there bad things about Showgirls? No doubt. But it’s how those bad things are wrapped in familiar themes and strong visual storytelling that makes untangling the mystery of why Showgirls has endured all these years a little more complex.
But filmmaker Jeffrey McHale may have some answers.
You Don’t Nomi is thoughtfully constructed cine-essay on how Showgirls evolved into the cult classic we know it as today. McHale leans on critics, film professors, and more to dissect exactly what went wrong and how it became so right.
“It started out as a personal quest,” McHale says. “I’ve always been a fan of Showgirls, and I was curious about my own fascination. But I wanted to have an honest conversation about it. I didn’t want to gush over it for 90 minutes or anything.”
Of course, there’s the classic argument of whether Showgirls is a feminist manifesto or just a misogynistic peep show. But there are also compelling prompts that make you rethink what you thought you hated, or point out connections and themes you may have missed. Like why Berkley’s overacting might actually have been a good thing; the problematic positioning of the film’s only two black characters; and why you shouldn’t be listening to the ridiculous conversation between Nomi and Cristal in that infamous Doggy Chow scene but rather watching how Verhoeven chose to frame the actors.
For McHale, working on You Don’t Nomi gave him a new perspective on why the film has found a particular resonance in the gay community.
“It’s part of queer lexicon. But when I dove a little bit deeper, I was surprised to hear the connections between Nomi’s journey and the queer experience,” McHale says. “That was something I never heard before.”
You Don’t Nomi largely takes its cues from author and critic Adam Nayman’s book It Doesn’t Suck, where he argues that Showgirls isn’t a “piece of shit,” nor is it a masterpiece. To him—and to McHale as well—it’s a “masterpiece of shit.”
“There’s this huge gray area that it lives in,” McHale says. “There’s so many good films that you see and there isn’t really much debate over. But there is something unique about Showgirls that has kept everybody talking about it for 25 years and probably will continue. I don’t think I solved it. It’s just pushing the conversation along.”
You Don’t Nomi is is available to rent, stream, or buy digitally June 9.